by Ryne Nelson

Rajon Rondo tried everything he could to deny Derrick Rose the ball on the Bulls’ final possession in regulation. He was on him like a band-aid, getting in the way of every possible passing lane. Twelve seconds remaining. Rondo knew he couldn’t allow the quicker Rose to get the ball in his hands because Rose was… what did they used to call it when they were kids? Zoning. Eleven seconds. This afternoon, fans in Boston witnessed the best performance in League history from a player in his first ever playoff game.

Rondo took his eye of Rose for a nanosecond and the Bulls’ point guard was free. Ten. Rondo’s hand jabbed to get in the way, to make up for the smallest of mistakes—a mistake that he would have been inconsequential if he was guarding anyone else, even Chris Paul. But his hand hit Rose in the face with 9.4 seconds remaining, a foul was called, and Rose was sent to the free throw line. Rose nailed the shots from the charity stripe, as he had on all his previous attempts. Nylon was what the Bulls rookie dialed up all afternoon, as he pushed the Bulls to overtime.

This 20-year-old rookie, not even two years removed from his high school graduation, proved once again why he’ll remain the best point guard in the Eastern Conference for over a decade. Young Rose is already a veteran after what he did to the Celtics in Boston this afternoon.

Rose took the Bulls on his back through the first four quarters and D’d-down Paul Pierce the majority of the overtime period, despite five fouls clinging to his name. When the final bell rang, it was dead quiet in the Boston Garden. The Red & White are not the same as they were in ’91 or ’96, but this team has a core of young players who can bring back the pride to the Windy City.

The reality had to hurt hard for the packed Boston crowd, but deep down inside there was a feeling. Something of nostalgia. A feeling of hate roiling in their blood that they knew before. As the fans in Beantown gritted their teeth and stomped with heavy feet out of the stadium and into the parking lot, something felt extremely right. Doesn’t it feel right to take the Chicago Bulls seriously again?

Oh yes it does.

Say all you want about Chicago, but the facts are plain: This young team has a chance to dethrone the reigning NBA champions. Derrick Rose is the L’s next superstar, and his teammates are getting better and better because of him. Rose is the best player in this series, and the Celtics have absolutely no answer. In a way, the ’09 Playoffs will officially mark a changing of the elite talent. The veterans of Boston will be brushed to the side (if not this series, then the next), and the young aces of the Conference—Rose, Howard, James, Wade—will say a big, collective “See ya! We’re declaring war on each other now.”

Many will not want to hear this, not yet, but Derrick Rose was not only the better point guard on the court, he’s the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. Don’t believe it? Talk to Kareem about how difficult it must’ve been to out-perform him as a 20-year-old rookie in one of the NBA’s most hostile of territories. Talk to Rajon Rondo (a deadly penetrator and defender) about how Rose completely neutralized and deactivated all of Rondo’s assets. Ask Rose why (and how!) he choose today to unveil a new part of his game—an incredibly effective mid-range shot. There’s no place within the three-point line that opponents can feel comfortable when Rose has the ball.

Even if teams give Rose room on the perimeter, it will allow him to drive and gain momentum. And once Rose is going, there’s not a single player who can stop him. I talked to Rose’s college coach at Memphis, John Calipari, about how Rose picked-up his play in the Elite 8 a year ago, a story in Issue 128. Clearly, the guy doesn’t take losing well. He doesn’t get flustered. Rose explains that his team will not lose, and he backs up his words. He says he’s going to take it to the opponent, and he demolishes him. He does it, and he never wants to hear about his performance again. It’s on to the next game. He doesn’t care how many eyes are on him. He doesn’t care how many All-Star selections his opponents have. He doesn’t care how many cameras are in his face. He cares about getting the win.

Last season, the Playoffs didn’t really birth a superstar (unless you count Rodney Stuckey). One game into the ‘09 Playoffs, and the next NBA superstar has already been born. How to do you like them apples?

Although John Salmons had a more-or-less terrible game, and the Bulls’ second-best player, Luol Deng, has been in street clothes for over a month, and although the Celtics got plenty of questionable home-court calls, and even though the Celtics still have one of the best defenses in the L, the Bulls pulled it out. Game 1 down, three more to go.

Chicago took a great step forward by getting an ever-important win on the road. The Bulls have a clear advantage on the boards with Miller, Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas doing their thing. A big part of the young Bulls’ success on the interior was their familiarity with the Celtics. Thomas knows every secret to exploiting Big Baby Davis. Thomas killed Davis all afternoon—it was more like a LSU practice for him, as he hit jumper after jumper over the shorter and slower Davis. Mikki Moore has nothing against former teammate Miller. Miller’s a banger who never backs down and is as consistent a big man shooter as they get. Noah’s athleticism makes the lumbering Kendrick Perkins seem like an Alaskan Snow Turtle.

And then there’s the Bulls’ backcourt. It’s beautiful watching Rose take Rondo off the dribble because he’s the only player in the L who’s faster than Rondo. A healthy Kirk Hinrich is a huge asset too. He beats any guard the Celtics can masquerade as a backup facilitator. Marbury practically was a ghost, getting caught by the younger Hinrich’s lock-down defense. Hinrich’s been to the big stage in college and played in the Playoffs for the Bulls. He’s the perfect player to fill-in for Rose and give him a rest. He’s overpaid, but at least he can still play (cough, cough…).

I even like the matchup of Ben Gordon on Ray Allen. Gordon’s a good four inches shorter, but as a fellow Huskie, he feels comfortable guarding Allen. Playing defense is all in the head. He thinks of Allen as a fellow alumnus, not the best shooter in the game. And, boy, Allen didn’t play like it in Game 1.

The Bulls will struggle to find answers for Paul Pierce and the obvious coaching advantage the Celtics have. Still, strategy only works perfectly on paper. And, on paper, the Celtics were supposed to win this game. Easily, might I add. Even if Game 1 is an aberration (which I sincerely doubt); even if Ray Allen decides he wants to play basketball in the first round; even if Celtics find a way to rebound the basketball, they’re not going to be able to barely advance like they did last year. They cannot endure more seven-game wars.

One thing’s for certain: The Celtics are definitely not repeating in 2009.