INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.—In the definition of a game where statistics don’t measure impact, Derrick Rose’s teammates tried and failed to convey exactly how much the former league MVP means to the Bulls.
Rose’s unique explosiveness is obvious, as is his instinctive scoring ability, inherent unselfishness and fierce competitiveness. But just his mere presence changes the complexion of a squad that while feisty last season, was a plodding offensive bunch that had to almost execute to perfection to manufacture points. Saturday night’s preseason opener was the opposite, as the point guard’s affect on the Bulls’ 82-76 victory over the Central Division rival Pacers went far beyond his 13 points and three assists.
“You see it. The way that we play, we play a faster game. We get [the opposing team] into foul trouble early, the runs to the basket, open jump shots,” All-Star small forward Luol Deng, who scored 15 points and snatched eight rebounds, explained to CSNChicago.com. “Today was fun. I think last year was a lot different, obviously, without him, so we’re looking forward to this year, just him getting back to it and everyone getting used to playing with him again.”
Jimmy Butler, who scored 11 points and grabbed six boards in his first game alongside Rose in the starting backcourt, chimed in: “It’s great for him, it’s great for us. He’s our leader. He does so much on the floor besides just scoring. He gets other guys open without even trying.
“[Butler’s job is] a lot easier [with Rose], knowing that we’ve got three guys [himself, Rose and Deng] who can bring the ball up the floor. We can switch on the defensive end, guys that can get to the paint, draw fouls, kick out, make shots. It’s big for us and I feel like when we get into a rhythm and we get used to everybody playing with each other once again, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
[MORE: Rose shines in Bulls preseason opener]
Even Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau had to acknowledge how Rose immediately transformed his team, in terms of offensive firepower.
“Well, it was good to have him back, for sure. I think you see how he makes the game easier for everybody and the speed at which he plays, you’ve got to get accustomed to that, too. So his teammates have to get used to that again,” the coach said. “He has to get used to it, but overall, I thought he played very, very well. Some rust, but that’s to be expected. You could see as he each minute went by, he got more and more comfortable, and he ran the team great.”
Some of that was also due to Thibodeau tweaking some of the Bulls’ offense, which sidelined All-Star center referred to as a “read-and-react” system after a training-camp practice back at the Berto Center. Featuring some playmaking out of the high post by the Bulls’ big men, cutters like Deng seeking out easy opportunities at the rim and Rose off the ball for jumpers, it seems as if Thibodeau’s initial stint as a USA Basketball assistant coach this past summer has opened up the coach’s horizons.
“The core of the offense is the same, but we did change a few things, just to try to take advantage of what our strengths are going to be,” he said. “Obviously we’re a different team with Derrick. Last year we had to change in another way. This year we have to change to fit the strengths of this team and we want to play to our strengths and cover up our weaknesses.”
Not that everything went perfectly—Rose struggled with his outside jumper and experienced some ball-security issues, turning the ball over four times, while the team shot just 37.8 percent from the field and turned the ball on 23 separate occasions—but with Butler more confident, Deng receiving less defensive attention, the often-overlooked Boozer’s presence and the currently-sidelined Noah’s uncanny skill set, not to mention a beefed-up bench, the Bulls suddenly look like a very formidable, balanced offensive unit.
“It’s kind of the offense when you look at a team like the Spurs, where it’s kind of reading what the person does. For us, it’s kind of new for some guys, but for the guys that have been here, the nucleus for this team, we’re getting used to it. We’re just knocking the rust off right now,” Rose said. “I love it. We’re moving the ball. We did have some stagnant moments, but this is preseason.”
[GIF: Rose scores first points in return]
That’s the thing to remember, as marvelous as an occasion as Rose’s first game in over 17 months was, coupled with a Bulls win over a fierce rival to begin the campaign. But as Deng cautioned, it’s still extremely early and a lot has to get better before people start jumping the gun.
“It looks great right now, but it’s a work-in-progress,” he warned. “We do have a lot of great players, but we’ve all got to be on one page. It’s going to be a long season, but it’s all about staying tight until the end.”
But if it does all come together—a recovered Rose and a clearly-improved supporting cast running a more potent offense, along with Thibodeau’s trademark defense—it could be a sight to behold.