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Bulls' Derrick Rose takes first step again in his return to greatness

NEW YORK -- It's been 914 days, three lost seasons for his team and two grueling rehabs since Derrick Rose tore up his knee on a meaningless late possession.

The Bulls held a 12-point lead with just over a minute remaining in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the 76ers on April 28, 2012. Rose took the inbounds pass, sauntered up the floor and patiently waited for Joakim Noah to set a screen. Once Noah planted, Rose crossed over his defender and exploded to his left like his sneakers were filled with nitrous oxide.

And then he was gone.

Gone from the Bulls. Gone from the NBA. Gone from our lives.

Rose landed awkwardly on his left leg and crumpled to the floor. He grabbed his knee in agony and his head in disbelief. The image of him withering in pain on the United Center hardwood is still seared into our memories, a nightmare no amount of highlights and games can erase.

Since that day, “Derrick Rose” hasn’t meant the same thing. “Derrick Rose” used to refer to a reigning MVP, a dominant point guard and the most fearless player in the game.

Now? “Derrick Rose” is a subject met with sympathy, not awe. The kid gloves are on when discussing Rose. His surgically repaired knees bring out the soft side in us. We can’t help but feel bad for the guy. After all, this is a player robbed of multiple years of his prime, who clawed his way back from a torn ACL only to tear the meniscus in his other knee 10 games into his comeback last season.

Now on comeback No. 2, we all want to see Rose return to being a force of nature. We want to him regain the confidence that made him play with reckless abandon. And we really, really want to turn back the calendar 914 days and remember the time when Rose was pure, unadulterated fun and nothing else.

When Rose touched the ball for the first time in the Bulls’ season-opening 104-80 win over the Knicks on Wednesday, the Madison Square Garden fans were torn on how to greet him. Half of them booed Rose mercilessly (after all, this is New York), the other half politely cheered, appreciative of all that Rose has been through.

And that’s how far Rose has fallen. Knicks fans gently cheered him. Do you know how rare that is?

These are the fans who booed Andrea Bargnanione quarter into his Knicks career. They booed Suns guard Isaiah Thomas just because he has the same name of their infamous ex-GM and coach. And they booed Nick Cannon during halftime last year because … well, because it was funny.

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Rose didn’t give Knicks fans more reasons to boo the rest of the night. In last season's debut he shot 4-of-15 and committed five turnovers in a messy loss to Miami. On Wednesday, though, a reeled-in Rose played with measured explosiveness. He picked his spots, only darting into the lane occasionally. He didn’t make his first field goal until 4:35 remaining in the second quarter and played just 21 minutes, scoring 13 points on 3-of-7 shooting and adding five assists against three turnovers.

“He's got to shake that rust off,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Offensively, he was attacking well. Defensively, he's got to keep working at it.”

Rose was crossed over by Shane Larkin on more than one occasion -- even falling to the floor once. He lagged behind on screens a few times and struggled to stay in front of his man. He was stripped by Carmelo Anthony in the first quarter and committed an offensive foul later. As for his shooting, he badly short-armed two three-pointers but did go 7-of-8 from the line.

Unlike Rose’s first comeback, this one didn’t have the feel of a grand return. Rose had a soft opening over the summer when he played a reserve role on Team USA’s gold-medal run at the FIBA World Cup. Rose was rusty in Spain, shot miserably and looked like a shadow of his former self. But he was also practicing on a daily basis against the best players in the NBA, a better way to round into shape than a handful of exhibition games before the season.

“My emotions were the same,” Rose said of Wednesday’s game compared with his time with USA Basketball. "[Team USA] did a good job of making sure my nerves weren’t too high. It led to me playing the way I normally play.”

Or at least how he’d normally play now, two knee surgeries later. It’s fair to question whether vintage Rose will ever return. How many NBA players have had two season-ending knee surgeries and come back the exact same player they were before? Zero, by my count.

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That isn’t to say Rose won’t be the first. His tireless work ethic combined with his all-world athleticism makes him a tough guy to doubt. If his knees hold up, the confidence will come back. And if the confidence comes back, the Rose of old will soon follow.

And the NBA needs him. The league has LeBron James and his new Big Three in Cleveland. It has Kevin Durant, once he returns from right-foot surgery, in Oklahoma City racking up scoring titles like credit card points. And it has the reigning champion executing with numbing efficiency in San Antonio.

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But someone like Rose? Nada. No player possesses Rose’s rare blend of power, speed, agility and grace. Not LeBron, not Durant, not Russell Westbrook, not Chris Paul. Just Rose.

Rose doesn’t have to regain his MVP form for the Bulls to contend for a championship. With Joakim Noah coming off an All-NBA season, and PauGasol and a slew of shooters added in the offseason, the Bulls are balanced and competitive on both ends. Rose said Chicago is “scary” when firing on all cylinders.

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and the new-look Knicks an embarrassing loss on Wednesday. Chicago held New York to just 36.5 percent shooting and relied on their new arrivals to bludgeon the Knicks on offense.

Garbage time started around the third quarter, which is why Rose came out with 4:58 remaining in the period and sat out the rest of the game.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever played in the league where the first game I only played 20-something minutes,” Rose said. “I thought for sure I was going to have a little time in the fourth quarter in the Garden.”

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Still, Rose appreciated the fact that he’s back to playing at all.  

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“It was real fun,” Rose said. “Being on the bench, being able to laugh. Talk basketball to your teammates whenever they come back to the sideline and tell them little things you see in the game they probably didn’t see.”

Hearing Rose talk about basketball, and not his knees, is a welcome sound. Of all the storylines heading into the season, the one we’re all collectively rooting for is a healthy Derrick Rose.

An actual sign doesn’t exist, but there will be an imaginary one hanging over the Bulls’ heads all season as long as Rose is on the floor.

Games without an injury: 1.

Let the counting begin again.