CHICAGO—Tucked away in a tunnel, pedaling, pushing, the man almost came back without the fanfare.
Derrick Rose returned to the Chicago bench from his exercise bike in the middle of the fourth quarter and sat down with 23 points to his name, ready to return to the game. The Bulls led the upstart Milwaukee Bucks 91-79, by which point the hype had been stoked and the MVP chants echoed. Rose was back after a third knee surgery, back in the playoffs after a three-year hiatus. He’d been flashing a retro-looking extra gear, searing through the defense, attacking the glass and knocking down threes. For the first time in a long time, he was back.
Jimmy Butler, with a hot hand himself Saturday night, strode to the scorer’s table with 6:48 left in the game and checked in as the ball lay dead under Chicago’s basket, preparing to inbound. Rose followed his backcourt mate onto the floor seconds later, nearly sneaking into the game unnoticed for perhaps the only time that’s ever happened in a city that’s followed his every move since he moved up to the Simeon varsity from the freshman team 11 years ago.
As the PA announcer called his name, Rose jogged past coach Tom Thibodeau and onto the floor with the crowd predictably erupting. The decibel level of most playoff games might be considered high, but this was a Derrick Rose playoff game. “Special,” as Joakim Noah would later call it at his locker.
[daily_cut.NBA]The simple fact Rose was on the floor, that the Bulls were complete and building confidence, made their 103-91 victory. Everything that happened earlier was gravy. His night even began with a brief scare. He’d been slow to get up in the first quarter, moving cautiously, and “tired as hell,” as it turned out. “I just needed to catch my breath,” he told curious reporters at the podium. Noah had walked over, told him to take his time. After the game, Thibodeau said he wasn't worried as Rose headed for his brief locker-room trip. The point guard called the precaution a “veteran move,” a label he’s earned through his tribulations, the self-described hell of his most recent rehab and the effort he’s bringing in light of years of criticism from hometown media.
With more weapons than ever, the Bulls are no longer a team he needs to carry and his simple presence has made the thought of Chicago as a serious threat in the Eastern Conference, at the very least, worth considering. “It’s exciting,” Butler said. “He makes everything easier for everybody.”
The Bulls came out firing offensively with Butler scoring 11 points on perfect shooting in the first quarter and finishing with a game- and career-playoff-high 25. Rose heated up and spearheaded a brief run in the second quarter, punctuated by a two-handed dunk on the break and a blinding reverse layup that were enough to firmly seize momentum. With a rare show of on-court emotion, Rose gestured to the crowd after leaving the game with three fouls, driving the energy into halftime, at which the Bulls led by nine. “When you miss a long period of time, dedicating your life to one craft, it comes out in a weird way. I didn’t mean to do it on purpose,” Rose said when asked about the moment. “It just came out.”
The offense would move the ball all night: not always crisply (19 turnovers), but well enough to grab a lead and hold it for the entire second half. The youthful Bucks came prepared, flashing promise, never backing down and playing right with their opponents, but would eventually run out of gas. In the third, Rose scored 11 points, nine of them coming on 3-of-4 shooting from deep. “That’s better than letting him lay it up,” Bucks coach Jason Kidd said. "We have to live with that." Rose's shooting triggered another run to drop Milwaukee back 12.
His fourth-quarter stint was less eventful, at least for him. He’d finish with the same 23 points. For the constantly banged-up Bulls, there were scares. Taj Gibson exited with a right knee strain with 5:05 left in the fourth. When Noah subbed in and landed hard soon afterward, reaching for his legs, the crowd let go a round of audible “No’s” before he jogged upcourt. Even positives can be nerve-racking. Rose found Mike Dunleavy for two threes to bury the Bucks by 16, the second of which came on a twisting, mid-air, two-handed overhead skip pass to the opposite corner. His bruising flair and feel for finding teammates have grown no less impressive, his penchant for leaping on those legs to throw passes just as nail-biting.
That’s reality for the 2014-15 Bulls, who closed the game with a starting lineup—Rose, Butler, Dunleavy, Pau Gasol and Noah—that spent just 21 games together during the regular season (and went 16-5 in those games). The fleeting moments of health, certainly tied in some form to Thibodeau’s physically grueling coaching and practice style, hang over the team for better or worse, particularly as rumors fly about a front office unhappy with the coach’s methods.
The fourth quarter recalled an eerily similar situation at the United Center three years ago during the first game of the playoffs. That game was comfortable enough, the top-seeded Bulls leading the Sixers 99-87. With 1:34 left, Rose was nearing a triple double and had 23 points. One drive to the rim, floater and awkward landing later and the reigning MVP lay on the baseline writhing in pain, unaware of how long the road back would be.
"I don't work backwards like you guys do," Thibodeau told reporters that night. "The score was going the other way.” As the Bulls began to finish off Milwaukee, and Rose still on the floor, that wasn’t the case. The fun became nail-biting. The notion of the coach pulling the point guard, much less the other starters, in midst of Chicago’s strongest statement of legitimacy all season, nagged away.
Rose hit Butler with an outlet for an acrobatic finish around Giannis Antetokounmpo to make it 101-85, the highest lead of the game and the ensuing Bucks timeout at least begged the question: You wondered just how much Thibodeau would be willing to bend, if he saw the scenario, the strange familiarity? He didn’t.
The starters remained in the game. Just as Chicago’s playoff momentum had begun churning, the possibility remained, the thought of a battered team breaking down once more. Rose and the Bulls have learned things can fade away just like that, and the vague reminiscence was unsettling as they coasted to a win. The unrelenting attitude that has made Thibodeau and his Bulls teams great can drive the paranoid viewer, justifiably, back to the brink.
But the game flowed on, a Rose turnover and missed three, a Gasol jumper falling. Butler barreled down the floor on another fast break. Khris Middleton tied him up with a bear hug at the left block with less than a minute left. Another opportunity for Thibodeau to take his foot off the gas, and finally he did.
Rose headed back for the bench to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd. Back at home and in the spotlight. “It felt good,” he said. “It felt normal.” For the Bulls at this stage, normal feels long-gone. Now good, is something everyone could get used to.