CHICAGO – They witnessed soreness reported to the Chicago Bulls’ training staff in late February, teammates sauntering the practice facility and Derrick Rose in consultation about the strength in his knees. Everyone’s course of the season changes here with Rose – smiling when he does and frowning when he doesn’t, aspiring for a championship with him and succumbing to playoff defeat without him – so they all waited on his examination that evening and into the morning. The next day, Rose delivered a message to them all.
“I’ll be all right, nothing major,” Rose told them, and off he went into surgery, into a five-week rehabilitation.
The message stayed with Rose’s locker room. He’s at your disposal. That’s the beauty of a once transcendent talent. Three years since his last postseason game, three knees surgeries later, and no one within these Bulls came away startled with Rose in a 103-91 Game 1 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday: 23 points and seven assists, 27 minutes of action and an array of twisting, dazzling rim attacks. He’d once been destined for NBA title runs, more MVP candidacy seasons, but those knee tears damaged his body and made him rediscover his confidence each time.
Rose is trying to be the best player in the NBA?
Try still chasing it all – a pursuit to be one of the sport’s best ever that seemed inevitable as a 22-year-old.
“Derrick never limits himself and says, ‘This is my game, this is my peak,’” his older brother and manager, Reggie Rose, told RealGM. “He’s going to keep going and going until he’s the best.”
Reggie paused in a hallway of the United Center. “Yeah, until he’s there, because he knows that his surgery was nothing major. It was just getting rid of the excess of meniscus. He’s confident and comfortable. Just to see him smile and have fun, it means a great amount for us. For me, the organization is doing a great job of monitoring his minutes and watching him to keep him healthy down the stretch in these playoffs.”
For all of their depth, all of Tom Thibodeau’s brilliance, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol needed Rose back to fulfill this core’s potential. They wince sometimes when he tumbles inelegantly onto the ground, when he rides the exercise bike to stay active during games, but never on his errant three-pointers or drives. Keep shooting, they tell him. These Bulls need his presence and unwavering belief in any cast of players surrounding him.
Rose played with Butler and Noah before, had seen an ease to Gasol’s integration, but their offensive structure had issues early this season. Privately, there had been a level of tension between Rose and others about how touches would be distributed, about who handled the ball and when. Butler had emerged as a scorer on the wing and post, Gasol had consistency inside too, and yet Rose still wanted to show his old mastery with the ball in his hands.
It was short of a power struggle, but it reached a measure of challenge from each player. Sure enough, they found a balance, and it has permeated throughout the team.
In the corner of a locker room, Tony Snell sits, calm and quiet. Snell isn’t animated, nor does he pour his life stories into a camera. And now, Snell couldn’t help but talk about the memories of viewing Rose’s knee rehabs for two years now.
“A lot of people don’t know that I witnessed him behind closed doors putting in work, doing treatment and getting his leg right,” Snell said. “He makes you want to put the work in every day with him. It is no surprise to us the way he’s playing.”
Snell has become a vital part of Thibodeau’s rotation, but he joined Gasol, Mirotic and Gibson in missing a combined 23 shots out of 34 attempts. Nevertheless, Gasol is a mismatch against anyone on the Bucks, and the Bulls can take solace in assisting on 30 of their 38 baskets. Milwaukee could steal a game at home in this series, and already the Bulls have Rose not on a minutes restriction but a cautious, play-to-play watch and Gibson hobbled.
Rose has a long way to go in this postseason, but all of the turbulence appears past him: The third knee tear, the tug and pull with players on offense structure, the need to assure everyone he’s recovered. Once Rose was diagnosed with a torn meniscus again, the decision was simple. “OK, this is what we’ll do: Remove it and see what happens,” Reggie said. Finally, Derrick Rose played on.