INDIANAPOLIS – Derrick Rose turned 25 on Friday, having played precisely as many NBA games as he had on his previous birthday – and, for that matter, for the five months prior to that.
We’ll assume he wished and blew the candles a little more pointedly this time. Rose’s lost, or “gap,” year is set to end Saturday night when the Chicago Bulls’ star point guard plays in an official game – regular season, preseason, postseason, you name it – for the first time since April 28, 2012. That’s the date Rose’s left knee shredded under him in the final minutes of his team’s playoff opener against Philadelphia. That’s the day since Rose, the Bulls, the team’s fans and a lot of non-partisan NBA followers have been holding their collective breath.
When Rose takes his first dribble against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse – an October tune-up anticipated eagerly enough to be carried live on NBA TV – they all can exhale, however briefly. What initially had been termed a rehab process requiring eight to 10 months has stretched 17, dialing up the curiosity and suspense.
His physical condition and mental outlook started getting questioned in February, when Rose hinted that he was considering sitting out the entire 2012-13 season. And that’s exactly what he did, despite reports that he was the Bulls’ “best player” in practices and his seemingly healthy presence on game nights, warming up 90 minutes before tipoff, right through Chicago’s elimination in the conference semifinals.
If nothing else, some suggested, playing limited minutes in April or May could flake off rust and reacquaint him with teammates, timing and other teams’ tendencies. But no. Rose said last week he didn’t have the needed confidence in his repaired knee or his game, and coach Tom Thibodeau and others said the 2011 NBA MVP said he wanted to return with his full skills and powers, not as some limited version of himself.
That is the Derrick Rose who is good to go now. Good to try, anyway. Based on Thibodeau’s pattern of using starters in shifts of six-to-eight minutes, Rose’s 12 to 24 minutes won’t be played in a low gear.
“I’m just going to play the same way that I normally do,” Rose told reporters after practice Friday at the Bulls’ facility. “There’s no point in holding back. I think that we go as I go, and me being aggressive gets people open and that’s how I’m going to play.”
Rose began practicing that way last Saturday, the first of the team’s two-a-day sessions. He went to the rim hard, got hit hard and fell to the court hard. Rose’s attack mode freed teammates to practice aggressively, too, when he was on the floor.
“If I’m falling, they’re right there, two or three guys, just making sure they pick me up,” Rose said. “That little stuff right there makes me feel good, just going back out there because for my teammates, you want to make sure they always have your back and for me, they know I always have their back.”
Chicago – which split its season series with the Heat, beat the two-time champions in Miami and snapped their 27-game winning streak without Rose – feels it can challenge the Heat and everyone else in the East for a title. To do that, Rose is going to face nearly nine months of rough contact and tough double-teams.
Might as well start now. The knee is said to be good as new, the rest of his body stronger than ever.
“He’s prepared himself for this,” Thibodeau said. “Nobody is going to take it easy on Derrick because he’s coming back. I don’t know how long he’ll be able to play. … If he doesn’t play the way he normally does, now you can get into trouble. I want him to go out there and if he needs to come out, we’ll get him out.”
Rose isn’t the only Bulls player whose health will get attention at the Fieldhouse, nor is he the only notable returning from knee surgery. Chicago center Joakim Noah likely will be held out after suffering a mild groin strain slipping on a wet spot on the practice court this week.
Meanwhile, veteran Pacers forward Danny Granger is expected to play off the bench in his latest comeback from his own left knee issues. Granger suffered from patellar tendinosis last October and tried to mend with rest and conservative treatment. He had a setback, however, when he played in five games in February. Shut down in March, Granger had surgery in April and missed Indiana’s postseason trek to the Eastern Conference finals .
In Granger’s absence, shooting guard Lance Stephenson showed promise in the starting lineup while Paul George, shifting to small forward, blossomed into an All-Star and the league’s Most Improved Player. The rotation and Granger’s spot in it still are in flux, though he’ll sub in against Chicago after straining his back during a camp scrimmage.