LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Derrick Rose drove the lane and lofted home a smooth floating shot for the winning points in the Chicago Bulls' opener, just in case anybody doubted the youngest MVP in NBA history can shoulder the expectations that come bundled with that shiny new trophy and a huge contract extension.
Yet Rose realized the Bulls' dramatic comeback and his beautiful winner were only possible because Luol Deng did a whole mess of dirty work against Kobe Bryant.
Rose scored 22 points and hit a short go-ahead shot with 4.8 seconds to play, and the Bulls rallied from an 11-point deficit in the final 3:44 for an 88-87 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday.
"If it weren't for my teammates, making the steal and getting the ball to me at the end, there's no way I could have gotten that shot off to help us win that game," Rose said.
That credit went straight to Deng, who scored 21 points and stole Bryant's pass with 16.9 seconds left to set up Rose's winner before finally blocking Bryant's short shot right before the buzzer. Rose was grateful the Bulls hung on to win the clubs' first Christmas meeting, but even happier about their poise in an early test.
"We definitely don't want to be in a situation like that, but we fought our way back," said Rose, who went 9 for 13. "We just played harder. We stepped up our intensity on the defensive end. Throughout the whole game, our defence wasn't there. I mean, we showed spots of it, but we didn't keep it consistent. Then, at the end, we played defence."
Carlos Boozer had 15 points for the Bulls, who have designs on a championship run after leading the NBA with 62 regular-season victories last season. But Chicago appeared headed for a mildly surprising loss in the first game of a season filled with high expectations until Rose and Deng bailed out the Bulls, who finished with a 17-5 rally.
The Bulls had to score the final seven points to earn their first road win over the Lakers in six tries.
Deng scored nine points in the fourth quarter, including a three-point play and two free throws in the final 45 seconds. One possession before he stretched to block Bryant's final shot, Deng alertly intercepted Bryant's pass to Pau Gasol out of a trap, setting up Rose's winner.
"He threw a lob pass, and I was able to get to it," Deng said. "As soon as we got the ball, I knew we were going to score."
Until the final minutes, the Bulls were thoroughly disappointed with their effort, while the Lakers were pleased by their passion and execution after a tumultuous preseason. Chicago struggled mightily against coach Mike Brown's new defensive schemes for the Lakers in the second half, managing just 25 per cent shooting (12 for 48).
Bryant scored 28 points and committed eight turnovers while playing with a torn wrist ligament for the Lakers, but couldn't finish strong in his NBA-record 14th Christmas Day appearance. Los Angeles still led 87-81 on Bryant's jumper with 54 seconds left, but Deng and Rose took the game away from him.
"I saw a lot of positive things," Bryant said. "Defensively, we were terrific. We did a good job, and we're just going to get better. We're going to be very good defensively."
Bryant wore a compression sleeve on his right arm while playing without a brace on his right wrist after getting hurt last week. He appeared to have trouble handling the ball, but displayed a fairly smooth jump shot and his usual superb footwork.
Gasol added 14 points for the Lakers, but was held scoreless in the fourth quarter while committing four fouls. Los Angeles also played without suspended centre Andrew Bynum and departed sixth man Lamar Odom in the debut of Brown, who replaced 11-time champion Phil Jackson.
"We played pretty good basketball until right down the stretch," Brown said. "There were a lot of things that went wrong down the stretch where we didn't quite finish the game."
Los Angeles began the second half with an 18-7 run, clicking on both ends while claiming a one-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Chicago finally awoke after Los Angeles pushed its fourth-quarter lead to 82-71 with 3:45 to play, and the Bulls' game-ending run was abetted by four straight missed free throws by the Lakers.
The Lakers' 13th straight Christmas appearance was the second straight for the Bulls, who returned to the holiday slate last season for the first time since the last of Michael Jordan's six championship campaigns in 1997.
NOTES: Bryant's 14th Christmas game in his 16 NBA seasons surpassed the record jointly held by Earl Monroe, Dolph Schayes and Shaquille O'Neal. ... Richard Hamilton scored six points in his first start for the Bulls, who signed the veteran shooter 11 days earlier. ... Veterans Matt Barnes, Luke Walton and Jason Kapono didn't get into the game for the Lakers, while rookie G Andrew Goudelock hit two 3-pointers and played 12 1/2 minutes. ... Fans near courtside included Kanye West, Adam Levine, Terrell Owens, Frank Robinson and Maria Shriver.