CHICAGO – In a league built on pivotal individual matchups, this one so far has slipped through the cracks. Or the fractures, tears, sprains, spasms or other injuries:
Derrick Rose vs. Kyrie Irving.
For one reason or another, what ought to be one of the Central Division’s showcase showdowns three or four times each season has yet to occur even once. Rose, the Chicago Bulls’ MVP point guard, and Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ All-Star-and-rising, might wind up sharing point guard duties for the Eastern Conference and Team USA for years to come. And of course, butting heads the rest of the time.
Yet more than two years into Irving’s professional career, they’ve yet to share a court as friends or foes. Finally, in Rose’s 314th game (regular season or playoff) and Irving’s 118th, that should happen Monday night at United Center (8 ET, League Pass).
Unless somebody pulls something at his morning shootaround.
“I’ve never played against him,” Rose said, and he meant never – not in AAU, not in high school, not in international competition.
Their 31-month difference in age – Rose turned 25 last month, Irving will be 22 in March – kept them apart until the Cavaliers’ guard reached the NBA in the post-lockout 2011-12 season. And assorted ailments have come between them since.
What would have been the first meeting in Jan. 2012 was thwarted by Rose’s sprained toe. Irving came away sick from All-Star Saturday and missed the second, and then both point guards missed the April 26 finale, Irving shut down and Rose prepping for the playoffs.
Two days later, Rose’s 2012-13 season effectively ended as well with his torn left ACL injury in the postseason opener against Philadelphia. But Irving only played in two of four games vs. Chicago as it was, missing one in December with a fractured left index finger and another in February with a sore knee.
So the bottom line: Rose has played in just one of seven possible meetings and Irving in three of seven.
Any sense of a rivalry, or a challenge from Irving to Rose, only begins now. Whether they acknowledge it or not.
“He’s a great young player,” Rose said. “Just for me, I try not to get into matchups. Just go out there and just play. If we was winning, I’d probably get into it. But we’re just trying to win games right now.”
The Bulls are 2-3, they’ve had their issues at both ends of the floor, Rose still is trying to sync up with teammates after an absence of 18 months and an easy victory over Utah hasn’t cured all of Chicago’s ills. Rose has been getting choked off by a gauntlet of double teams and traps to get the ball out of his hands, and is averaging 14.0 points, 4.0 assists and 5.0 turnovers in 31.0 minutes while shooting 32 percent.
Said Irving of Monday’s clash: “Another game. Always playing any Bulls team, with D. Rose or without him, they’re a good team. But now that they have him, they’re a threat. Obviously he’s a great point guard, a great player in our league and I have a lot of respect for him.’
Still, the Cavs guard added: “I get up for everybody. So it really doesn’t matter.”
Tell it to the 76ers. Cleveland was on the verge of falling to 2-5 until Irving’s driving layup with 0.6 seconds in the second overtime kept his team unbeaten at home. After missing shots to win in regulation and in the first overtime, Irving finished with 39 points and 12 assists.
It was the sort of performance, and closer’s role, that Rose began stringing together en route to the MVP award in his third season. Irving is averaging 19.9 points, 8.0 assists, 3.0 turnovers on 35.1 minutes.
“That’s the position we want him to be in,” Cavs guard Jarrett Jack told Cleveland reporters. “He’s proven himself as being able to come through in those clutch moments. Even though he missed a couple easy ones, or ones he thought he should have made, everybody was still very much encouraging him and telling him that we’re still here with you and ‘Let’s get out here, if you get another look, take it. Don’t be bashful, don’t be shy.’ “
Who among these guys is? Irving played nearly 82 minutes in Cleveland’s back-to-back set vs. Philadelphia Friday and Saturday, but likely will rise to the occasion in facing Rose. It’s a gunslinger thing with which the Bulls guard is familiar.
“Almost every night,” he said. “Every guy I play, everybody’s doing that.”
Rose is speaking from experience. Only a few years ago, he was the one eager to make his name.
“Hell yeah. I know the concept of how they’re thinking,” Rose said. “But I can’t get caught up into it. When you get caught up into it, that’s when things go the other way.
“Like I say, if we were winning, I’d probably be into it. But we’re losing right now. I can’t get caught up into the matchups. I have to stay focused on the team.”
Fine. The rest of us can focus on the two of them.