CHICAGO – Maybe when all the firsts become seconds in Derrick Rose‘s much-anticipated, heavily-scrutinized comeback from 17 months lost to knee surgery, the attention will wane, the media crush will recede and everyone involved will exhale.
For now though, the firsts still are dictating the terms. First game back. First dunk. First time facing defensive double-teams. First regular-season game. First bounce back from the floor. First test of his surgically repaired left knee through back-to-back games. First drive through the paint with Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut, DeAndre Jordan or some other big planted down there.
Turn all those into seconds, and maybe the clamor around Rose will ease. Maybe other people will start to relax about his physical condition, his resiliency, his confidence and even his need for occasional “precautionary” DNPs when the knee barks at him and his bosses dare not tempt fate.
When will Rose, himself, know for certain that he’s back? His answer Wednesday night, after the Chicago Bulls went to 4-0 in the preseason with a victory over Detroit at United Center, came out a little sideways. And he buried the lead.
“I don’t really know,” the Bulls point guard said. “We’re winning games, so as long as I’m playing the way that I’m playing and we’re still winning games, I could care less about getting back to my regular self. Even though I think I’m already there.”
As firsts go, this one was pretty good. Rose took the court for real – not as a pregame tease, the way he warmed up before most Bulls home games over the second half of 2012-13, only to disappear or don street clothes by tipoff. Rose took the court for real at United Center for the first time since April 28, 2012 and, though the game itself meant nothing, the moment meant a lot.
The sellout crowd cheered his name in the introductions, cheered again when he got the ball on Chicago’s first possession, cheered once more when he cut, took a pass and scored the Bulls’ first points.
Rose scored 18 points in 14 minutes in the first half, 22 in 22 overall. He got knocked into the photographers by Pistons center Andre Drummond and popped up, scurrying to the foul line like it never happened. Just before intermission, he went airborne and sideways while taking a foul from rookie Peyton Siva for a 3-point play that ranks as his top highlight in three October appearances.
There was a time or two, too, when Rose hit the nitrous oxide, his afterburners kicking in on sprints up the floor that lasted only a few strides and fewer seconds.
“He looked like the old Rose,” Detroit coach Maurice Cheeks said. “He was as fast as he ever was.”
Pistons guard Will Bynum had worked out some with Rose in L.A. in the summer, and wasn’t surprised at all. “Oh yeah,” he said of Rose’s speed. “Even quicker [than before].”
After sitting out the Bulls’ Global Game in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday with some soreness, Rose looked fine physically. And played without hesitation, nary a flinch. A basketball player’s knees are at risk a hundred different ways on any given night, but Rose isn’t about to start pondering the whatifs.
“No, no no. When you think about that, that’s when things happen,” he said afterward. “For me, just try to have a clear mind and try to focus on the game. … I feel normal right now. I don’t have any aches or nagging injuries right now. I’ve really taken care of my body.”
The long, mostly joyless rehab earned Rose the sense of security now — he talked of feeling “safe” on the floor — that enabled him to go horizontal on the play involving Siva. He made the basket from an improbable angle and looked no worse for wear.
“I think worrying was the biggest thing,” he said. “After you have an ACL or any injury, it’s the mental part. For me, not to think about it and actually go out there and be reacting to the offense and the defense, it feels great knowing that … I’m safe.
“I don’t have to worry about anything, even if I go to the hole and get contact and fall any type of way, that I can easily get up and bounce right back and play the way I normally play.”
There apparently is no need to baby the guy his teammates call “Pooh.”
Nor any inclination from the guys on the other team. Each of the teams Chicago has faced — Indiana, Memphis and Detroit — has gone at Rose hard. No one has tried to put him in harm’s way; Josh Smith eased up near the rim when Rose got a step ahead on a breakout, but otherwise, the respect of rugged opposition has been plain to see.
“Every player I play against is coming for me,” Rose said. “Who don’t want to make a name off me right now? I always think about that and take that into consideration when I’m going out playing. I know that, and if I was them, I wouldn’t either.”
This isn’t Wayne Gretzky, getting treated like an entire league’s meal ticket. This is a 6-foot-3 point guard daring to attack the rim and angling for the same championship everyone else wants. This is a gold-standard guy, too, for rivals seeking notches. Siva pestered Rose as if he had two eyes on the Bulls star and one more on the Detroit coaches watching his efforts.
Rose said he factored the aggressiveness of opponents into his decision to delay his return to this fall. “I really had to think about it,” he said. “In this league, you have guys that smell blood, and they can easily come at you whenever they want, or at least try you. And you always got to make sure you’re ready for it.
“You have great young players who have come into the league who are going well now and I really had to make sure I was all right.”
Opponents are eager to measure themselves against Rose and poke a little at his confidence and durability. Folks at United Center were thrilled to hear his name booming through the building’s P.A. system and, at times, watch the nine other guys on the court play catch-up.
But someone’s got them all beat in the eager-and-thrilled department.
“He’s extremely happy to be back, especially tonight – he felt good,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “He looked great. It’s a long season. You’re going to see a lot more highlights of Derrick Rose.”