CHICAGO | Playing the Bulls is the acid test for any team with NBA title hopes. Pretender or contender? They'll let you know, quickly.
And with league MVP candidate Derrick Rose leading the way, naturally.
Rose hit a career-high 42 points Thursday night as the Bulls cooled off San Antonio, 109-99, before another sellout crowd of 21,543 at the United Center.
The Bulls are now 25-4 at home.
Rose was in one of those Jordan-esque zones, shooting 18-for-28 to go with eight assists.
"What do you want me to say?" Spurs coach Gregg Popovich asked. "Good-looking kid. Great demeanor. Doesn't beat his chest. Class act, on top of his phenomenal play.
"Wow! He just played a great game."
Is Rose a true MVP candidate?
"He's in the discussion, without a doubt," said Popovich, a Merrillville grad.
Tony Parker's 26 points led the Spurs, playing their ninth-straight road game and a step slow all night. They were outrebounded 41-29, and had only five second-chance points to 20 for the Bulls (38-16).
"We're playing ball right now. We're playing defense, we're stopping people, and we're playing together," Rose said. "We have a lot of confidence right now, we're relaxed and we're trying to win a championship."
Asked about Popovich's "Wow!" comment, Rose smiled.
"I don't know how to react to that. But for anyone to say that, especially him, that means a lot," Rose said.
Chicago avenged a 103-94 loss in San Antonio on Nov. 17 in which it blew a 17-point halftime lead.
Rose had 33 points in that first meeting and 29 after just three quarters on Thursday.
The 46-9 Spurs had won 17 of their last 20 but the Bulls weren't just sitting around, reading their own newspaper clippings.
"It's not only their individual talent. It's their collective team; the way they play as a team and that's what keeps pressure on you," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau had said before the game.
"It's their ability to push the ball and share the ball and move the ball quickly and their bodies are in motion, so you have to play five-man defense against them."
Thibodeau's message was loud and clear.
"We have to be ready from the start," he said.
The Spurs trailed most of the game and already had been outrebounded 32-20 after three quarters.
"Tom's doing exactly what any of us would have anticipated," Popovich said. "He instilled that defensive philosophy and discipline in Dallas, he did it in Boston and he's done it here.
"If he's not the best, he's one of the best as far as being able to teach defense, get people to understand it, and then making them accountable."