CHICAGO (AP) — Between the nasty crossovers and fearless drives, Derrick Rose’s back problems appear to be in the past — a very good thing for the Chicago Bulls.
As deep as their roster is, they need their superstar.
Rose scored 23 points in his return from a five-game absence due to back pain, and Chicago hung on to beat the struggling Atlanta Hawks 90-79 on Monday.
Rose looked sharp and helped the Bulls play more like championship contenders after a brutal loss to New Jersey two days earlier. They led by 18 through the first quarter and were up 55-37 at halftime, but found themselves hanging on in the end after a big push by Atlanta.
The Bulls were clinging to an 85-79 lead after a late 3-pointer by Jannero Pargo before Luol Deng nailed a 3 of his own to make it a nine-point game. Rose then buried a turnaround jumper on Pargo to make it 90-79 with 2:10 remaining and Chicago prevailed, sending Atlanta to its seventh loss in 10 games.
Rose also had six assists and five rebounds. Carlos Boozer added 16 points, Ronnie Brewer had 13, and Deng and John Lucas 10 apiece. Joakim Noah chipped in with 16 rebounds.
“Having (Rose) back just opens up everything,” Noah said. “He was very aggressive tonight. When he’s aggressive like that, it opens up everything for everybody, and it gives us a lot of confidence.”
Rose did not make himself available for comment afterward. Coach Tom Thibodeau said his conditioning is “not where it usually is,” but the explosiveness was there.
“Overall, I was very pleased,” he said. “Derrick said he felt really good out there.”
Pargo, a Chicago native who previously played for the Bulls, provided a big spark off the bench for Atlanta with a season-high 19 points, including five 3-pointers. Josh Smith added 17 points and 12 rebounds, but Joe Johnson (12 points) sat out the fourth quarter because of recurring tendinitis in his left knee.
The Hawks showed little life in the early going after being blown out by Portland on Sunday and paid for it in the end.
“We as a team, sometimes, we come out and play with a sense of urgency; sometimes we don’t,” coach Larry Drew said. “That’s something we’ve done this year. You can’t play like that.
“Nobody is to blame, but everybody is to blame,” he added. “We all have to put ourselves in one foxhole and figure it out together.”
The Hawks were without Marvin Williams, who missed the game because of a death in the family, but it’s hard to believe he would have made that big a difference with the way the Bulls played early on.
Coming off one of their ugliest performances in two seasons under Thibodeau, they quickly rediscovered their form.
Rose was his usual explosive self, whether he was freezing Jeff Teague with a wicked crossover or burying jumpers. He scored nine in the first quarter as the Bulls grabbed a 35-17 lead, and he had plenty of help with Deng and Brewer each adding seven points. It was a big difference from Saturday, when Chicago fell behind 22-3 and never recovered.
Of course, this time, the Bulls had their best player. That the Bulls are 7-3 without Rose is a testament to their depth, but the players realize they need him if they’re going to achieve their ultimate goal.
Chicago is eyeing a championship after winning 62 games on the way to the Eastern Conference finals last season, and they’re dominating again even though Rose and veteran guard Richard Hamilton have missed significant time because of injuries.
The Bulls insisted they wouldn’t rush Rose back. He had increased his activity in practice but still was a game-time decision on Monday.
“Who we’re playing had nothing to do with it,” Thibodeau said. “He felt he was 100 percent and he could go. He was cleared medically to do it. We’ll just go from there. He said he felt well out there.”