Brooklyn, N.Y.—Complaints about the Chicago Bulls’ substitution patterns—or lack thereof—are well-documented. At no point are those practices more scrutinized than when they concern Derrick Rose’s playing time.
The topic of Rose’s minutes is relevant at the moment, because he recently returned from his third knee surgery in four years. But it’s been an ongoing discussion for four years, or since the Bulls star suffered a torn ACL during garbage time of a first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers in 2011.
Perhaps the fact that Chicago deals with injury so often lends itself to what is perceived as a checkered history with injured players. Whatever the case, through these dealings emerged the perception that the Bulls and its head coach, Tom Thibodeau, run players into the ground.
Enter Rose, the face of the Bulls franchise, a man whose own misfortunes no doubt feeds into the negative outlook surrounding the team's ability to keep players healthy. Rose has played in four games thus far in this recent return and showed familiar flashes of his old self on occasion. But while those fleeting moments of vintage Rose can prove tempting for a team playing meaningful games, the Bulls have gradually brought Rose back into the fold.
Rose's minutes increased in each of his first three games after returning from meniscus surgery for his right knee on March 8. Rose started at 19 minutes against Orlando and 20 against Miami in back-to-back games, and, finally, ballooned to 28 against Philadelphia. His production rode along the same trajectory, as his return kicked off at nine points against the Magic, pushed up to 12 against the Heat, and jumped to 22 against the Sixers.
Rose was well on his way to entering into a similar cycle, one in which he returns from injury and jumps right into major minutes. It wasn't by design, but Rose played quality minutes in the Bulls' 113-86 win over the Brooklyn Nets. He spent 23 minutes on the court and sat out of the fourth quarter, finishing the night with 13 points, seven assists and three rebounds.
"I wanted to play, but at the same time there is nothing wrong with resting," Rose says. "Now tomorrow I'm going to shoot a little bit more to make up for the five or six minutes that was supposed to play in he fourth quarter. I know I'm going to work out tomorrow."
The concept of rest is something that Rose—and the Bulls, at large—need to embrace going forward. What could be a long postseason run is on the horizon for the Bulls, and Rose, who is only 26 years old, plays in such a manner that he must take a load off whenever possible.
Playing in short spells allowed Rose to remain aggressive. He pushed the ball forward in transition and lived in the lane, and was especially dynamic in one second-quarter stretch during which he hit a midrange jumper, followed up with two three-pointers and assisted on a Pau Gasol finish. The most distinctively Rose moment, however, came when he tight-roped the baseline and leapt backward to finish a reverse layup.
"I think it's one of his strengths," Thibodeau says of Rose's explosiveness. "There's no one like him. He's got that power, quickness and speed, it's very unusual. I don't know if anyone else is like him in the league.
"So what that does for your offense is get you easy scoring opportunities and it could force the defense to collapse. When he's attacking the rim, it doesn't necessarily have to be to the rim, but the paint, you're going to get good shots. I thought he did that," says Thibodeau. "He had a couple pullups that got him going and when he does that we're going to be good."
Rose has missed so many games over the past few seasons that each game is an odyssey. His style remains unchanged, but the expectations and reactions around him have. When Rose falls to the floor and rises with a slight limp, the crowd stops. If he takes a dive after being fouled on a drive, his teammates are quick to come to his aid.
The same mental state stands for Rose's opponents, who all have different ideas about how to neutralize him during this most recent return. The Nets chose to push Rose toward the big men in an attempt to slow him. In response, Rose made his way into the paint and found Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson. At this point, only the fourth quarter is missing, Rose says.
He's played in 50 games this season, but the pace at which the Bulls have reinserted Rose is the right one. As was predicted to start the season, the Bulls are considered one of the few teams who could emerge from the Eastern Conference. Throughout this process, no matter the circumstances, the focus for Rose's minutes should not shift to quantity.
"You're trying to get him into a rhythm, and it's more the quality of his minutes, too," says Thibodeau. "I think he's playing his minutes with great intensity, and that's what I want him to do. And I felt like he could have gone in. If the game was a different game, he would have gone in. But I think his wind is coming around, his conditioning is improving, his timing is improving, so those are all real good signs. Positive signs."