CHICAGO – It didn’t take long for the joke to start flying around the Chicago Bulls’ locker room, crammed as it was with reporters and camera crews after the 96-86 overtime victory over the Miami Heat Thursday at United Center:
With that victory, the smart alecks said, the Bulls improved to 17-7 without Derrick Rose …
The punchline in that was apparent in the box score: Rose started and played 25 minutes, 28 seconds in only his second appearance in a month. It merely seemed that Rose wasn’t involved, given his poor production when he was on the floor (1-for-13, two points, eight assists, three turnovers, no free-throw attempts) and the long minutes he spent off it. The Bulls’ point guard participated for only 2:41 in the fourth quarter and not at all in the five-minute OT session.
But he was laughing along with anyone else who floated the joke. “I’ve had worse games than this,” Rose said. “It’s been a minute, just being in the game, period. It’s going to take a little time. … If I’d have saw this [coming], I wouldn’t have played. Nah, I thought I was going to come out and do all right.”
Rose had been sidelined from March 12 to April 8 with a severe groin strain. He played at New York Sunday but turned his right ankle, missing the rematch with the Knicks Tuesday.
His return to action, as with his turf toe and back-spasms absences previously this season, was monitored as if the Bulls were facing a Game 7. He got the green light about an hour before tipoff Thursday, then had one of his sorriest performances ever. “[The ankle] felt good,” Rose said. “My mind was thinking of something that my body can’t do. But I’ve never had a problem getting my rhythm back for a long time. I should get it back pretty quick.”
Rose, who became the NBA’s youngest MVP ever in 2010-11, has carved out some more history this season. Only five reigning MVPs missed 20 or more games the following year. Two of them, Bill Walton (injuries) in 1978-79 and Michael Jordan (retirement) in 1999, missed an entire whole season. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out for 20 games in 1977-78, the Lakers went 8-12. In 2001-02, in 22 games without Allen Iverson, Philadelphia went 7-15.
So Rose is the only MVP whose team actually has stayed afloat — nicely afloat — despite his absence. The Bulls are 16-7 without him so far this season.
There are NBA players whose pride might be tweaked by that, whose egos might sag a little to see their value shrugged off that well. But Rose shrugged.
“No. No,” he said. “If anything, it’s given everybody confidence and let everybody know we have a deep team.”
Didn’t bother him a lick that Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau turned back to reserve C.J. Watson to force the OT — it was Watson’s clutch 25-footer from the right wing that earned it — and orchestrate the Bulls’ 12-2 finish in the extra five. Hasn’t troubled him, either, that based on the Bulls’ spot atop the Eastern Conference standings, Rose seems more easily replaceable than he probably is.
“Could I make up excuses? Yeah, but you know me, I’m not going to use no excuse,” he said. “Shots I normally hit I wasn’t hitting. My teammates had my back and I’m happy I have them on my team.”
Veteran guard Kyle Korver heard some of that stuff from his nearby dressing stall and just added it to the locker room legend. “It’s been a hard year for him. Hard year,” Korver said. “You’re 23 years old, you were MVP last year, you come in and get four or five different injuries in a crazy season with all these games. It says a lot about him and his character.
“There’s not a lot of superstars who can take the criticism that he gets and play the minutes that he does and still keep [his] head. He’s a really humble guy, he’s all about winning and he doesn’t care — obviously, he has the ball most the time, he’s the MVP, a great player — but if someone else is open, he’s going to pass the ball.”
Or pass the baton, as he did (and Thibodeau ensured) against Miami.