CHICAGO—After painting a beautiful, ugly masterpiece, sending 22,000 fans into hysterics, Derrick Rose stepped back from his easel, cocked his head and took stock of his handiwork.
His shot hadn't gone exactly according to plan, the final product didn't look like what he expected, but that didn't matter in the slightest. A player who has become accustomed to ceding control of his career to external forces looked serene in an out-of-body kind of way, more concerned with absorbing the scene than serving as its central character.
It had taken more than three years, but Rose arrived where everyone thought he would on Friday night, completing a trip that started when the 2011 MVP first blew his knee out during the 2012 playoffs. That injury preempted a rematch with LeBron James and the Heat, and it began a series of injuries and rehabilitation that kept him out of the next two postseasons. The slog churned on this season, as Rose returned to the court less than two weeks before the start of the playoffs after yet another surgery.
[daily_cut.NBA]The absences provided plenty of time for reflection, and Rose's default countenance now borders on meditative, even as ongoing stimulation treatment causes his legs to bounce rapidly during his post-game press conference. Just a few days ago, Rose went so far as to tell reporters that he no longer views basketball as a sport anymore, that he instead "looks at it like art." His plan for coping with the heartache of his past injuries and the knowledge that he is always one play away from another season-ending injury has apparently been to tour the gallery, to appreciate the moments, whenever possible.
Rose is sharing a court with James again in the playoffs, finally, and on Friday he produced a buzzer-beating game-winner that was all those years in the making. With three seconds left and the score tied, Rose received an inbounds pass from Mike Dunleavy Jr., took two hard dribbles going right, pulled up, and drained a deep three-pointer to lift Chicago to a 99–96 victory over Cleveland, giving the Bulls a 2–1 series lead.
Very little about the final play went as designed. Rose first came toward Dunleavy, stationed on the left sideline, but Iman Shumpert trailed him closely and Dunleavy opted not to pass the ball. Jimmy Butler, the play's other "primary" option, was shadowed by James and unable to free himself for a look. Rose responded by cutting back toward Dunleavy and away from the hoop, ensuring a straightforward inbounds pass before the five-second count. "It was a broken play," Rose remembered. "When I ran to the corner, I wasn't open, so I ran to the ball."
That instinctive reaction revealed Rose's desire to play hero, even on a night where he shot just 10 for 26 and hadn't hit a three-pointer until the final seconds. That mentality, which he summed up once by declaring, "I'm built for this s---" produces more swings than a seismograph. He helped shoot the Bulls to a Game 1 win, he clanked his way through a Game 2 loss, and a tight Game 3 was in his hands on the final play. "There's not many like him," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said afterward, making it clear that he was willing to ride out these ups and downs. "In fact, there's not any like him. You combine his speed, his quickness and his power, and he is shaking the rust off. The more he plays, the more comfortable he is getting and the more rhythm he has."
Rose's shooting numbers with just one day of rest have been meaningfully worse than when he has more recovery time this season, and he made it through the first 2 1/2 games of this series without attempting a free throw, a red flag that might be explained by his new physical limitations. But on the deciding play, he looked plenty spry, creating enough separation to get a clean look and then stopping on a dime to ensure he could launch before Tristan Thompson could close out far enough to tip or block his shot. "That was his greatness to get the shot off," Thibodeau said.
The shot arched high and banked in cleanly, and it wouldn't be easy to replicate in an empty gym. The crowd seemed to hesitate for a split-second, processing the improbable carom and recognizing that Cleveland wouldn't get a chance to match on the other end because the buzzer had sounded. It dawned on everyone: Rose had just ended the game by going glass. Rose had just won the game with an electrifying faux pas, going to the bank from 26 feet on accident.
"Them the shots you want to take as a player in my position," Rose said, before admitting what most suspected. "No, I did not call glass."
His teammates raised their arms, pumped their fists, and ran down the court, and the United Center collectively went nuts. Inside the building mob, Rose barely reacted, betraying no particular emotion as people slapped his chest and shook his head. He rotated slowly at one point, getting the full panorama look. Bulls fans, waiting in basketball purgatory since 2012 for a shot like this, surrounded him in every direction. Down the court were James and the Cavaliers, eyeing the Jumbotron replay and hoping for some fraction of a second with which to work. No reprieve came. "Derrick took a tough shot," James said afterward. "Tip your hat to him. ... They make a shot, you live with it."
Game 3 had seen both coaches go extra small, with Thibodeau turning to the frontcourt combination of Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic down the stretch after Pau Gasol was lost to a hamstring injury. Cleveland rolled with a frontcourt combination of James and Thompson while employing Kyrie Irving, who was battling a foot injury, J.R. Smith and Shumpert to achieve maximum versatility and spacing.
During long stretches of the fourth quarter, all 10 players on the court were 6'9" or shorter, a fact that had helped open things up for Rose, who finished with 30 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, and got to the free-throw line 10 times in the second half. Mirotic's entry into Chicago's rotation also stood out as a key adjustment: He finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, and helped the Bulls maintain a steadier offensive rhythm. Butler's hounding defense on James, who finished with 27 points on 8–for–25 shooting while committing seven turnovers, was pivotal too. James left the arena frustrated with his self-described "terrible" three-point shooting (he was 1 for 7 from outside on the night) and the words that were used by Joakim Noah during a trash-talking back-and-forth.
Rose understood that all of those factors, which are bound to be forgotten soon, helped set the stage for a shot that is sure to be remembered. He might have taken the hero's approach to the final play, but he wasn't basking in it. Rose was as eager to tout Mirotic's emergence in the series as he was to discuss his shot, and he seemed to make a point to discuss Gibson's strong play inside at great length. He downplayed any particular rivalry with James, and he turned off the lights on the party by stating that Game 3 was "already over with [and] erased" during his podium interview.
Look to Rose, and he was looking right back, this anti-celebration serving as an exact counterweight to his preposterous shot. He made the storm, and he was the calm after it. Painter and aficionado, all at once, and at peace.