INDIANAPOLIS – This so-called feel-good story permeating the Chicago Bulls through the first eight days of the preseason – Derrick Rose coming back from 17 or 47 months away, off doing surgery rehab or covert operations or whatever – has a flip side, of course.
For the Bulls, their fans and basketball enthusiasts in general, it’s a terrific thing, the return of their star and leader. For rival teams and folks in cities where Rose (gasp!) gets booed, another season or two sitting out – to make really, really sure his left knee was healed – would have been just fine.
“I called him this summer to see if he was interested in coaching when Brian Shaw left,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said, teasing, before Saturday’s preseason opener at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the first for Rose in exactly 75 weeks. “I had a position for him if he wanted to retire early and join the coaching ranks. But he declined.”
Actually, Rose did a fair amount of sitting in the Pacers’ gym Saturday but he did even more damage. In three shifts that totaled 20 minutes 26 seconds, the former NBA MVP scored 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting, rushed his way to four turnovers and attacked the paint and the rim as if he were back in his pre-ACL-tear, pre-dinged-up-2011-12 bionic days.
In his first NBA game action since April 28, 2012, the 25-year-old point guard thrilled a bunch of Chicago rooters who drove down and claimed seats in the Fieldhouse, and thrilled another group who were on the floor and on the visitors’ bench.
After Rose raced to a pair of coast-to-coast layups – you half-expected to see the slats of the floor fly up in his wake and hear a Road Runner-esque “beep-beep!” – several smiles and head shakes broke out where the Bulls coaches and reserves were sitting.
“I was like, ‘I don’t remember him being that fast,’ ” said new Bulls swingman Mike Dunleavy, only a Rose chaser till now. “I’m sure he was but it was a great thing to see – even at times when he was going almost too fast and mishandled the ball a little bit. But you can always slow it down.”
After 525 days on the side, Rose returned and was the fastest player on the floor.
“The speed, the quickness but the power to go along with it,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said, unabashed in this man-crush. “That’s what makes him so special and unique. There’s no one like him.”
In his first three seasons as Chicago’s head coach, Thibodeau coached 264 games, regular season and playoffs. He had Rose for 137 of them, none at all in 2012-13. The Bulls were 104-33 in the games Rose played, just 69-58 in the one he didn’t. So yeah, “with” is better than “without” for Thibodeau.
“You see how he makes the game easier for everybody,” Thibodeau said. “And the speed at which he plays, you’ve got to get accustomed to that too. Some rust, that’s to be expected. But you could see as each minute went by, he got more and more comfortable.”
The baseline ambition for Rose Saturday – and for that matter, Indiana’s Danny Granger, also returning from left knee surgery (just six months ago, in his case) – was a) no re-injury and b) no new injuries. Both the Bull and the Pacer achieved that.
But Rose went beyond that by starting and staying aggressive, by driving into the paint, by attacking Indiana’s bigs Roy Hibbert and David West. He showed a fearlessness that, apparently, only could be restored through a full season’s layoff.
After one breakneck drive to the basket, former NBA big man Antonio Davis – watching from the baseline in his ESPN analyst role – said, “There’s no way he would have come back confident enough to play like that last spring.” That was the elephant in every NBA arena in which the Bulls played over the final months last season, the controversy over Rose’s decision not to test his knee in March or April for a playoff push.
With results like he got against the Pacers, and even a three-steps-forward, one-back progression now, that hubbub might swiftly be forgotten.
“It felt great. It felt normal,” Rose said afterward to a huge media throng by October standards. “I’ve just got to get my feet under me. On certain plays slow down. Turnovers were big tonight because I was going too fast. And my jump shot. I missed two free throws.”
Rose admitted that he was relieved to get this first return game out of the way, allowing him to lock into a pattern now with less apprehension, less anticipation. There will be a series of firsts, sure – first United Center appearance, first regular season game, first clash with the dreaded Miami Heat – but this one was the biggest of the steps remaining in his comeback.
That devastating speed of his, that’s an asset he’ll have working for him, less a liability in timing and turnovers the longer he’s back. “It’s there,” Rose said. “I think I’m more balanced. Just attacking. On defense. Getting around screens. Getting into the ball. Avoiding screens. And trying to get back in front of the man.”
Rose never ran into any hard screens by Indiana, but he did take some rough contact from an open-floor collision with George Hill and a soaring drive smack into Hibbert. Rose landed awkwardly after that one, his legs spread, his right one buckling a little. But he got up to shoot his free throws, no worse for wear. Said after the game his knee was fine, too.
“He’s hard to guard when he’s coming at you like that,” Thibodeau said. “He’s going to get you back on your heels and force the defense to collapse. And it makes the game easy. So it was good to see him as aggressive as he was, but that’s what he’s been doing [in practice].”
It was a hit Rose took on the first day of camp from roster hopeful Dexter Pittman, a former Miami big man, that let him know it was OK to get hit and fall. “I ran into Dex,” Rose said. “He’s a big body and just going up against him, he knocked me. Both of us fell at the same time, actually. I knew then I was ready for a game.”
This time, the contact didn’t come against “friendlies” but against rivals. Rivals with a history, in fact, who want the same thing Rose and the Bulls are chasing. Vogel had said before tipoff the Pacers wouldn’t treat the point guard like a “recovery player.” “The whole summer, from what I hear, he’s been playing at full strength,” the coach said.
But Rose took the knocks without incident. Besides the two full-court dashes, his best moment was a breakout from center court, finishing with a two-handed dunk.
Said Vogel afterward: “Same old Derrick Rose.”
Rose was 5-of-6 in the restricted area but missed the six jumpers or floaters he put up from outside it. Considering how he might have played – tentative, testing from the perimeter, relying on mid- or long-range shots – Rose thriving inside and staying in attack mode was seriously encouraging to Chicago.
“Honestly, the game was so much easier … it’s just an easier game [with him],” Bulls forward Luol Deng said. “We were excited just to be back out there playing with Derrick. I’m so happy for him.”