It’s no surprise, as even-keeled as he usually is, that Derrick Rose made the least fuss about his return to the United Center.
“It felt good, playing out there, being in front of my home crowd again. Almost every one of these games at home is going to feel like a pro-am game, where every time I touch the ball, it’s going to be some excitement,” Rose, who could barely get to his locker with the throng of media blocking his path in the Bulls’ locker room. “I’ve just got to get used to it and just try to keep the game plan on my mind, and play the way I normally know how to play.”
Easier said than done for most players, but at 25 years old, with almost a decade of being in the public eye in his hometown, it also shouldn’t shock anyone that Rose had his best outing of the Bulls’ exhibition schedule in the team’s preseason home opener, going for 22 points in 22 minutes of play in the Bulls’ 96-81 win over Detroit.
Scoring on a driving layup on the Bulls’ first possession of the contest, Rose didn’t look back from there, going for 18 first-half points—including 9-for-10 from the foul line—all in aggressive fashion. The coup de grace might have been his final play of the first half, a drive and acrobatic finish, where he was knocked to the floor by Pistons center Andre Drummond, plus the foul with 1.3 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
“I was just trying to really be aggressive and at that time, I just did a move and that’s the way I normally know how to play. For what’s to come, I hope so. But for me, I was just trying to do anything to get to the basket,” he explained later. “We got the win. That’s the only thing I care about. Us winning games and us getting better as a team. I think some of the other guys had great games, too.”
That may be the case, but what mattered most to observers was that the former league MVP continued to show progress, especially after his absence in the Bulls’ last outing—soreness in his surgically-repaired left knee caused him to miss Saturday’s victory in Brazil—but after seeing him come as close to matching his previous form as we’ve seen thus far, it’s safe to say that any nerves Rose might have had when the preseason began have faded away, even with the overhyped return to his home court, the place where he tore his ACL.
“Not at all. I think I’m past that. The jitters and everything should be out. Me, it’s going out there and just trying to compete, and try to get better as a team, as a leader,” he said. “That’s all gone now. I’m used to just playing. For me, I think this right here is kind of something new for me. I haven’t had all these reporters in the media, but for me being on the court, I’m used to that.
“It feels good, but at the same time, I’ve got to know that it’s a game to be played and I can’t get caught up into that. But don’t get me wrong, I love it,” Rose continued, referring to the supportive crowd on hand, a packed house for a preseason game. “It’s been the same. Just being professional, taking care of my job, being prepared and just putting in the work. And tonight, it felt like I was in a little bit more rhythm and just getting into the lane, and getting my feet under me.”
Of course, Rose also has the perfect coach to temper expectations. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, regardless of how well his point guard played, as always, kept the performance in perspective.
“That pertains to everybody. You have to get your entire team ready for the regular season. Derrick has to get used to playing at his game speed. And his teammates have to get used to him playing at that speed. You’re concerned about that and to find that balance of him being ready for the regular season and to continue to go step by step and not skip any steps. He has to continue to build,” Thibodeau explained. “He’s very difficult when he gets a head of steam. We were concerned about the rebounding entering the game. But we made them miss and got out quickly so he could attack. He was aggressive throughout. Basically, we’ve been seeing that in practice all along. That’s the good part. You’re starting to see him find some rhythm too, which is good. The moves, the power, the explosion, the change of direction, that’s been there all along. Now he’s got better balance to what he’s doing. So I think he’s finding a rhythm.”
[HIGHLIGHTS: Rose returns to the United Center in Bulls' victory]
It almost felt like déjà vu, the coach breaking down his superstar’s elite-level performance. And just like old times, with a healthy Rose back in the Bulls’ lineup, the team’s long-term expectations are also elevated.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever played on a team where guys are focused in and keyed in on what we need to do to win. Everybody’s professional, I’m professional and I’m just fortunate to be on a team like this,” Rose said about the Bulls’ potential. “For us, we’ve got a huge opportunity ahead of us. We could really contend for a title, but we’ve got to take every practice, every shootaround, every day serious, so we can get there.”
Just don’t expect him to be overly conscious of all the chaos surrounding him. In fact, that’s the only time Rose is surprised.
“Yeah, I’m surprised. But it comes along with the process, me being out for a year, so I can understand why,” he said. “It’s not difficult at all. I’d see if I was caught up into the media or something like that. For me, this is the only time where it’s kind of weird.”
Weird, indeed. But everything else is back to normal.