What if this is it, at least for a while?
What if Derrick Rose’s nightly outings, with the obvious exception of his outside-marksmanship clinic in last Saturday’s win over Indiana, resemble performances more like his 12-point, 4-for-13 night in Monday’s victory over Charlotte for another 10-20 games or even longer? What if there are only glimpses of his previous elite-level form, just stretches of games where he takes over, a quarter here and there, maybe a couple individual plays where the point guard looks like one of the best players in the league?
According to Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, that’s just fine.
“It was a tough, hard-fought game and I like that he showed a lot of perseverance and he had the timely bucket late, and he made a lot of great plays for us. That was huge,” the coach explained. “The game is going to tell you what shots are there, and I want him to be aggressive and I want him to play to his strengths, and I think each game he’s gotten better and better.
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“I’m good with where he is. I just want him to continue to make the right plays. I think he’s competing very hard defensively. He’s reading how the defenses are playing our team,” he continued. “We know the offense, there’s going to be some nights where you’re going to shoot it better than others. But you’ve got to find ways to win, different ways to win each night.
“I think right now the game is starting to slow down for him. He’s got a good pace to him and he missed some shots tonight that I thought were good rhythm shots that he just missed and that’s fine. But we want him aggressive, we want him getting the defense back on their heels, force the defense to collapse and then make plays. Sometimes it’s him scoring, other times it’s his playmaking. The big bonus is no matter what, he’s always going to command two people being on him, so the better we move the ball, the more opportunities we’ll have. The faster we play, the better it’ll be for him and he’s got to continue to move without the ball.”
That might sound like a lot of coach-speak and rationalizing, but Thibodeau, aside from having faith in the Bulls’ superstar and the player the team’s title chances hinge on, is simply being pragmatic. Taking the small victories, such as Rose’s mere presence garnering significant defensive attention because of the Bulls’ style of play, compared to last season, when opponents could guard them straight up and every evening, there was a concern about where the offense would come from is indeed something to be pleased about.
It also helps that Rose himself continues to downplay his shooting woes. Despite shooting just a minuscule 34.4 percent from the field and being the Bulls’ third-leading scorer at a pedestrian (for him) 15 points per game, Rose is less worried with his personal numbers and true to his history, more obsessed with the team’s success, as the squad has won five consecutive games.
“Man, I could care less. I really could care less. We’re winning. Winning takes care of everything, every category, every area. So as long as we’re winning, I’m fine,” he said. “I think that we’re starting to find an identity. With the starters, looking inside, playing inside-out. They’re double-teaming Booz sometimes, so kicking the ball back out, we have shots. We’re walking into our shots and I think the rest of our team, the guards really, are shooting the ball great.”
When he says “guards,” let’s assume he means fellow perimeter players Jimmy Butler and Kirk Hinrich, as well as All-Star small forward Luol Deng, but when seeking out positives in Rose’s game, his defense, ball security and playmaking are markedly improved from earlier in the regular season, whether borne out by the numbers or just simple observation. One troubling aspect to keep an eye on, however, is his finishing ability, as his trademark acrobatic layups haven’t dropped with much regularity, nor has his off-the-dribble mid-range game, whether floaters or pull-up jumpers, been all that effective, perhaps making him less eager to drive, especially because he hasn’t gotten to the free-throw line as much as expected when taking contact.
“I’m not trying to get caught up into that,” Rose said, when asked about his perceived willingness to settle for jumpers. “I’m just going to try to play my game. Of course I can try to come down and do that almost every play, but me not going to the line or not getting the calls, I’ve really got to take that into consideration when I’m driving and play smart.”
When Thibodeau was posed with a similar line of questioning, the coach offered an even more optimistic response.
“Actually, it’s funny. We watch all his shots after every game, all his plays and then we analyze, and we make some adjustments about how we can do better to get him free, but his shots are very good and in practice, he’s shooting great in practice and so, I know at some point, that’ll transfer over to the game. Now, the game intensity’s different, so he’s still adjusting to that, but each game, I can see a better and better rhythm for him, and so I think he’s real close right now to being back to exactly where he was,” Thibodeau explained. “He had the two timely drives that were great plays, just incredible plays, and to have the ability to do that, and to be mentally tough to get that done when that’s what was needed at that particular time to win the game and that’s what makes him so special.”
Indeed, Rose’s clutch play at the end of the Bobcats game, his three-point shooting display against Indiana and even his game-winning teardrop to beat New York in the Bulls’ Halloween home opener are all positive signs. But until the Chicago native is back to his dominant ways, the Bulls’ by-committee approach that they adopted last season will again be the order of the day, with the likes of Deng and Carlos Boozer shouldering the offensive load some nights, with less defensive attention paid to them because of Rose simply being on the court.
“I think some nights it will be your night and some night it’s not. It’s just finding a rhythm and do what you have to do with your minutes,” explained Deng, the team’s leading scorer this season, who had a game-high 21 points, including the triple to seal the win Tuesday. “We will get comfortable with each other, with different lineups out there and guys will be familiar with what other guys can do and what they can do.”
That’s not a negative thing at all, as a familiar lament about the Bulls prior to Rose’s ACL injury was that there wasn’t enough offensive balance and his teammates had a tendency to stand and watch, which is understandable, given his brilliance. The upside to all of this is that Rose claims he’s healthy and that the right-hamstring scare that briefly sent the Bulls’ fan base into panic mode seems to be behind him.
“Great, man. Great,” he said of the injury. “This is the most I’ve ever taken care of my body in my life, in my career and just try to continue to do that.”
Now, the Bulls, with the momentum of their current winning streak and the defense approaching the previous high level, must take their show on the road through the end of the month, as the annual “Circus Trip” begins Thursday in Denver.
“Yeah, I love it. It gives us some time to bond as a team, go eat dinner and lunch with each other, go through wins and losses with each other—hopefully more wins than losses—and really come together as a team,” Rose said. “I think it’s going to help us out a lot and take us one game at a time.”
Deng chimed in: “I think it’s really good for us that we’re going on the road. We took care of home. Now we’re going to have to focus. The biggest thing is finding a way to win. Get it rolling and get it rolling offensively. We need it now. Defensively we’re there and offensively we’ve been here and there, so we have to get it together. “
If their formula of smothering defense and balanced offense as Rose continues to work out the kinks in his game continues, the Bulls might already have found the necessary approach, whether they know it or not. Expecting Rose to immediately duplicate his past exploits might take a while to come to fruition, but considering the fuss put up during the Bulls’ rough start or when the superstar has a poor shooting performance, it’s not a bad alternative at all, particularly when the team’s ultimate goal is taken into account.