There may have been too many of Tom Thibodeau's guys at the United Center on Monday night.
Former Houston Rockets center Yao Ming was a surprise guest, joining a contingent from China in a luxury suite. Thibodeau was a Houston assistant for several years and worked closely with Yao. The 7-foot-5 former center turned plenty of heads but didn't have any effect on this game.
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On the opposing bench were a couple of Thibodeau coaching disciples -- Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford and assistant Patrick Ewing. Clifford broke into the NBA with New York in 2000 and learned plenty from Thibodeau about how to muck up a game by playing determined, physical defense.
So it's no wonder the Bulls got locked into a low-scoring, poor-shooting battle. They pulled out an 86-81 victory with a few clutch baskets late but mostly by hitting 26 of 31 free throws.
"Yeah, they were icing the sides and on tops, trying to send us a certain way," Derrick Rose said when asked if he recognized any of Thibodeau's defense. "I really didn't think deep into it."
The Bulls (6-3) won their fifth straight game as they now head out on the annual circus road trip, beginning Thursday in Denver.
Rose didn't realize Clifford had a long history with Thibodeau. But he understood how to handle the defensive pressure with the game on the line. The Bulls never trailed in the fourth quarter, but a Jeff Taylor 3-pointer brought the scrappy Bobcats within 78-76 with 2:05 left.
Rose drove the left side of the lane, saw three defenders slide in front of him, and quickly stopped for a one-handed bank shot from about 8 feet. Gerald Henderson drained another 3-pointer to make it a 1-point game, and Rose responded by cutting right at the top of the key and going all the way down the lane for a lay-in to make it 82-79 with 1:07 left.
After his 3-point barrage against Indiana on Saturday, there were questions about whether Rose is reluctant to drive to the basket, whether it's the sore hamstring or surgically repaired knee or anything else holding him back.
"I'm not trying to get caught up in that," Rose said. "I'm just going to try to play my game. Of course I could try to come down and do that almost every play. Me not going to the line or not getting the calls, I really have to take that into consideration when I'm driving and play smart."
True, Rose went to the foul line just four times Monday, and 2 of those were after a late-game intentional foul.
Anyway, Charlotte pulled within 82-81 when Henderson hit a pair of free throws with 51.7 seconds left. Rose went to work again and found his path to the rim blocked. So he jumped and fired a cross-court pass to Luol Deng.
With a pump fake and dribble, Deng (21 points) gave himself room to knock down a clinching 3-pointer with 21.7 seconds on the clock. All five Bulls starters scored in double figures.
When the Bulls went nearly 11 minutes without a field goal in the second half, did Thibodeau wish he hadn't taught Clifford so well?
"They're great defensively, and Steve's a heck of a coach. He's doing an unbelievable job," Thibodeau said with a smile. "I thought we showed a lot of toughness down the stretch."
Jimmy Butler left the game in the second half with a toe injury. He returned briefly in the fourth quarter but said after the game it still was bothering him. He expects to play Thursday against the Nuggets.