The Miami Heat was in town for a showdown that would help decide home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference. The game was on the line, the United Center crowd was on its feet, and a healthy Derrick Rose was in the last place anybody expected him to be in the biggest game of the regular season:
He was on the bench.
The reigning league MVP was missing in action during a thrilling 96-86 overtime victory that clinched the Bulls’ second straight Central Division title and gave them a commanding four-game lead on the Heat for the best record in the East with eight games to play.
It was C.J. Watson, not Rose, who took the big shot, nailing a three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left to send the game into overtime, where the Bulls outscored the Heat 12-2.
Rose was just 1-for-13 for a career-low two points to go with eight assists. Watson had 16 points and nine assists.
‘‘I’m fine,” Rose said after watching Watson from the bench in the extra period. ‘‘You know me. Anything for a win. He felt that lineup was going to win the game. It won the game. I don’t feel bad about anything.”
Rose didn’t score a point in the first half for the first time in his career. He didn’t make his first – and only – field goal until he sank an 18-foot jumper with 7:01 left in the third quarter. He remained on the bench deep into the fourth, when coach Tom Thibodeau typically wants his best player on the floor. He didn’t appear to be hampered by the twisted ankle he suffered in Sunday’s loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden but looked more out of sync against the Heat than he did in that game, his first after missing 12 straight with a strained groin.
Worse yet, the Bulls were outscored 53-36 when Rose was on the floor.
Kyle Korver scored 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting from the bench, including 5-for-6 from behind the three-point line. His 27-footer in overtime sent the crowd into a frenzy.
‘‘I was channeling my inner John Lucas,” he cracked.
Carlos Boozer scored more points in the first half (13) than he did in the Bulls’ first two games against the Heat combined (12) and finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Luol Deng scored 16 points while Taj Gibson added 11 points and five rebounds.
LeBron James scored a team-high 30 for the Heat while Dwyane Wade added 21 and Chris Bosh 20.
Rose remained on the bench until there was 4:14 left in the game and the Bulls were leading 76-74. His first shot was a three-point attempt, which missed the rim by two feet. He penetrated with 1:05 left, but his runner hit the side of the backboard and bounced out of bounds. Not long afterward, with 49.3 seconds left, Thibodeau benched Rose and put Watson back in the game.
‘‘I tweaked my ankle a little bit, too,” Watson said. ‘‘I didn’t think I’d go back in the game. I’m just glad Coach had confidence in me.”
The Bulls’ bench outscored the Heat’s reserves 56-15 on March 14, when the Bulls won without Rose. The Bench Mob was dominant again Thursday, outproducing Miami’s bench 47-7.
‘‘We know if there’s a Game 7, it’s going to be played here,” said Korver, assuming the Bulls lock up home-court advantage with a four-game lead and eight games to play. ‘‘That’s a good thing.”