INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Maybe it didn’t go according to the marketing plan or the most optimistic recovery timetable, but in terms of pure excitement value, the delayed opening act of “The Return” was totally worth it.
Never before has a 20-minute, 26-second outing been so ballyhooed in the NBA, but from the huge ovation he received upon his first touch, after receiving a pass from new starting backcourt partner Jimmy Butler, to his last basket, a two-handed breakaway dunk, all eyes were on Derrick Rose. The 25-year-old point guard finished with 13 points (on 5-for-12 shooting from the field and 3-for-5 on free throws), three assists, four turnovers and two steals in the Bulls’ 82-76 win over Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but he showed enough positive signs in his first game in 526 days that his statistics might be the last thing observers focus upon.
Rose’s trademark explosiveness was on full display in the preseason opener, as he got his first bucket by following up his own missed drive in the paint with a putback at the 8:47 mark of the opening period, showing off a quick second jump to corral the initial shot, even among the behemoths in the paint. He also attempted to take a charge on Pacers guard Lance Stephenson in transition and while he was called for a blocking foul, it showed that he wasn’t tentative about taking contact.
“None at all,” Rose responded when asked if he was nervous. “I knew I was going to play the same way – play aggressive, make them stop me, but get out in the open court like we’ve been playing in practice.”
“A little bit in the beginning, but at the same time I've been preparing myself for this moment for a year-and-a-half now,” he continued, speaking about the adrenaline inside him at the outset of the contest. “Just getting prepared for this and continuing to go out there and know how blessed I am to be stepping back on the court again, especially with these guys that dedicated their whole summer to trying to make this team better. I’m fortunate to be on this team and be in this organization, playing for Thibs and the coaching staff.
“I’m just happy to be back playing, man. But if anything we got the win. I know it’s preseason, but I haven’t played in a competitive game, an NBA game in a long time, and for us to get this win it not only makes me feel good, but the team feel good about the work we put in during practice and training camp.”
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His first quarter was nothing to write home about — two points on 1-for-4 shooting in 7:02 of action — but at least the beginning was out of the way. When Rose re-entered the contest with 8:31 to go in the second period, it started out with a demonstration of his speed, as he streaked downcourt for a fast-break layup, courtesy of Kirk Hinrich.
That was followed by a rough stretch, in which he sandwiched two turnovers, a function of the rust he acquired during his 17-month layoff.
“Oh yeah, that’s going to happen. Not having a rhythm, going too fast. For me, I have to understand that I need to control my speed and just know that my teammates have got to get used to me playing. I’m going to continue to push the ball the same way and hope that they run with me, and it’s vice versa. If they push the ball, I’m going to try filling the lane as best as I can,” he explained. “Going too fast, getting my feet together, and really trying to attack the rim as quick as possible, but I lost the ball along the way.”
But Rose quickly snapped out of his brief funk and put on a show for the remainder of the first half, beginning with a transition layup, plus the foul, with 4:32 left. The next possession was almost a carbon-copy, as he again pushed the ball, motoring past opponents and teammates alike, for another easy bucket, this time too fast for any Pacer to make contact.
“That’s the way I've been playing. I just need to get my feet under me, slow down. Turnovers were big tonight because I was going too fast. I missed two free throws, but in time I will have my feet under me for my jumpshot,” he said. “I was just playing, man. Trying to get to an open spot and I hope I looked good out there when I was playing, but I’m just happy we got the win. We fought back when we were down, the crowd was into it, and it showed we could really compete.”
However, it wasn’t just about going past or around defenders for him: Rose also tried to go through them. With 1:34 left in the first half, Rose drove directly into massive Pacers center Roy Hibbert, with no hesitation, toppled to the floor, got up and calmly made two free throws.
“You know they hit me in practice, my teammates, everyone is trying to win, it’s competitive, but if I go to the hole they’re going to foul me the same way. So I was used to it. I’m used to getting hit now, falling, slipping, all that stuff I got out the way in training camp,” he said. “That’s the way I've been playing. In practice, just attacking. I’m not slowing down, I don’t care who is in the hole or whatever. If they’re going to foul me hard I’m just going to get up and keep going hard at them. That’s what I’m trying to get used to.”
[MORE: Rose shines in Bulls preseason opener]
Rose revealed that he had been through a similar situation during Bulls training camp already, when he crashed into free-agent center Dexter Pittman, who has even more girth than Indiana’s Hibbert.
“Probably two weeks ago, something like that. I’ve been playing with contact. You know how you work out with pads. But, probably two weeks ago when I ran into ‘Dex’ [Pittman] and both of us actually fell on the ground. That’s was probably the first time that I realized that I was going to be good,” he recounted. “I actually didn’t think about it. It’s just the way that I play. When I fall, I know that I don’t want to be on the ground long. I just want to get back up and focus on the free throws that I have to shoot.”
The coup de grace of the night was Rose’s final basket, a two-handed dunk on the break, while being pursued by a Pacers defender. It certainly wasn’t anything spectacular by his previous standards, but again, the lack of being tentative showed that he has no concerns about his rehabilitated ACL.
“At all,” insisted Rose, who did a stretching exercise — he rolled a softball under his left knee on the baseline — between stints, then had knee wrapped with ice after he exited the game for the last time. “That’s in the past. I’m just trying to look forward to the future.”
Rose actually claims he’s more athletic now than in the past.
“I think I jump higher. I think coming into the league I was at a 37 [inches on his vertical leap],” he said. “They tested my vertical at AP [Athlete’s Performance, the California facility where he did his rehab work] and I’m probably at a 42, so I’m jumping a little bit higher.”
[GIF: Rose scores first points in return]
Even more impressive was the fact that he didn’t feel tired, making him temporarily resentful toward Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau for not allowing him to play the minutes that he was promised.
“The third quarter. He told me he was going to give me eight minutes. He only gave me like five, so I was mad about the other three minutes,” he explained. “I knew they were watching me the whole game and I did what I needed to do while I was out there, showed them enough so that I can still be ready for Monday’s game.’’
“It was good,” Rose continued, now talking about his stamina. “I was able to push the ball the way that I wanted to, put pressure on the defense, and it kind of surprised me that I didn’t get winded the whole time I was out there, so I guess I’m steadily building it along the way.”
So maybe he didn’t quite deserve the “M-V-P” chants he received at various junctures of the game, but for a comeback performance, there wasn’t too much to quibble with, though the modest Rose brushed off the attention.
“It makes me feel good, but at the same time you know you’ve got to block it out. You know its preseason. I appreciate all the fans that came out and showed support, and I hope they continue to show support throughout the whole year. Just being on this team we know how dedicated our fans are,” he said. “I can continue going on with my training, knowing that I got one game out of the way. And we’re just trying to take it one game at a time, one practice at a time, knowing the number one goal is a championship.”
And that will make even the most jaded critics fully appreciate “The Return.” For now, though, just seeing No. 1 back on the court, doing what he does best, will have to suffice.