Rose gets back to his winning ways
Bulls star hopes first playoff series victory is only first step
CHICAGO -- It's not a long résumé Derrick Rose has put together, but it's pretty darn impressive: back-to-back state high school championships, a trip to the Final Four in his only year in college.
But Rose, as is his nature, was concerned primarily about what was missing from that résumé, which is to say a playoff series victory. There were two failed closeout chances, one against the Boston Celtics two years ago as a rookie and the second just Saturday in Indianapolis. Patience is no virtue for a kid who wants to win a championship, and Rose was starting to long for the old days when he was 17, 18, 19 years old.
So Rose, scared he might reinjure his ankle when the game began, went out and grabbed a playoff series victory by the throat with a 116-89 win over the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday.
"I'm speechless," he said of his first real professional triumph. "It's unbelievable. It feels great getting back on a winning team. I haven't had that since I was back in college. It just feels great right now."
Humble as Rose is -- and that is the trait that has endeared him to even the crustiest old veterans and old-school basketball alums -- he really does want it all and want it all now. He was willing to take a pain-killing shot before the game, willing to try different ways of taping his gimpy though not too swollen ankle. He was willing to take the hard fouls from the Pacers without retaliating, without getting distracted by their varying and sometimes effective strategies. Two years without even getting a whiff of the winners' circle was enough for Rose.
You can throw a lot of credit around for the Bulls' Game 5 victory over the Pacers. Luol Deng outplayed Danny Granger in just about every important category. Joakim Noah's contribution far exceeded his 14 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots; getting under the skin of Josh McRoberts and Granger was downright Rodmanesque. Taj Gibson was splendid in relief of the rapidly vanishing Carlos Boozer. Keith Bogans scored 15 points on 5-for-7 3-point shooting. They all deserve to take a bow.
But the Bulls are in the second round of the playoffs because everybody revolves around the sun that is Derrick Rose. He played, because of foul trouble and the fourth-quarter margin, a stunningly low 29 minutes and 48 seconds and scored 25 points.
Three teammates (Deng, Noah and Gibson) played more. And that was a good thing because Rose did nothing basketball related on Saturday after spraining his ankle, did nothing basketball related Sunday, did nothing basketball related Monday. On Tuesday he shot free throws, 100 by Rose's count, to be exact. That was it. Maybe the rest helped, rest he would never had gotten if he'd been healthy. His jump shot was never short, as it was in Game 3 and especially after injuring the ankle in Game 4. Rose had a bounce to him, a surplus of energy.
The frustration in Tyler Hansbrough's voice was unmistakable when he said, "It's tough to contain Rose. We did so many things. We changed up. We tried trapping him. We tried regular blitzing. We tried giving him different looks."
I'm speechless. It's unbelievable ... It feels great getting back on a winning team. I haven't had that since I was back in college ... It just feels great right now.” -- Derrick Rose
And none of it worked. Frank Vogel, the interim coach who did enough with the Pacers up through last night to be named the permanent coach, said of Rose, "He puts a lot of pressure on you to come up with something different."
The knuckleheads who aren't really paying attention don't realize the Pacers are a lot better at this moment than either Orlando or Atlanta, one of which the Bulls will make a victim in the second round. The Pacers knocked the hell out of Rose for five games, and he'll be the better for it going forward; it'll be like a little training camp before the Celtics get ahold of him.
Of getting popped around as much as he did, Rose said, "What makes a man is when you continue to go in there."
Rose, as coach Tom Thibodeau pointed out afterward, is a different player now than he was in November, quicker to recognize what opposing defenses are trying to do with him, better at sensing when it's time to milk a teammate, savvier. Rose now fully expects to control a basketball game, even in the playoffs, and only extraordinary opponents can do anything about it.
Sometimes you don't need complex metrics to determine an athlete's value, to his team or to his sport. You simply review the critical segment of the critical game and look for his fingerprints.
With the Pacers having closed within 61-57 midway through the third quarter of Game 5 on Tuesday night, Rose had four personal fouls and a series already chock-full with tight games seemed destined for another one.
Thibodeau had already put Rose back into the game seconds earlier, despite the foul trouble because he knew if the Bulls were going to regain control of the game and finish the first-round playoff series without more drama, Rose was going to be his Mariano Rivera.
Thibs explained afterward, "We felt like it was going the wrong way. Derrick can play with fouls."
Rose said of lobbying to go back into the game even with four fouls, "I told him I wouldn't foul anymore."
Yes, Gibson actually scored the first basket of the Bulls' most important stretch of the season to make it 63-57, but it was Rose's 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 66-57 and set the stage for perhaps the play of the series. Roy Hibbert, the Pacers' rapidly improving 7-foot-2 center, was close enough to the basket to attempt a layup over the 6-11 Noah, except Rose decided, even with his 11-inch height disadvantage and four fouls, to try to block Hibbert's shot.
And Rose did. It came as such a shock, seeing a 6-3 guard block the shot of a 7-2 center, that the reaction was a momentary silence. People needed the replay above on the big screen to believe what they thought they saw.
Moments later, Rose drained a second 3-pointer for a 69-57 lead. Indy called timeout to gather itself, but Rose wrecked whatever Vogel had planned by stripping the ball from Darren Collison for a free throw that pushed it to 70-57. Collison was lucky to bank in a desperation 3 with the shot clock down to nothing, but Gibson answered with a dunk, and Rose, feeling it, fired another 3-pointer for a 75-60 lead. And that was that well, except for Rose force-feeding Bogans -- who was having one of his best games ever -- for a couple of insurance 3-pointers that could help Bogans' confidence down the line.
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Calmly, even expectedly, Rose knew it was time to put a series victory on his résumé, to get back to that winning feeling that he came to know at such a young age. When the Bulls take the court against the Magic or Hawks, Rose will be presented, at the United Center, with his MVP trophy, though he still winces at the suggestion, especially with the playoffs just beginning.
Rose also couldn't help but notice the difference between this season and last, or even this season and two years ago, when the Bulls played that marvelous seven-game series with the Celtics.
"Last year," Rose said, "it was like, 'How are we going to win this? Do we have a chance?' And this year we have a legit chance to win almost every game we play."
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.