- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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It's time to think of Derrick Rose as the best in the league, not just the Most Valuable Player.
There's a difference, you know. The MVP is an award for what's been done. As I define it, it's the player who's the most responsible for making his team elite during the regular season. That's a title bestowed upon someone based on what he's accomplished, rather than what you believe he can do. The best player is about what's next. The simplest way to define best player is to ask yourself whom you'd pick first if you needed to win a playoff game. And at the moment, nobody has won more games in these playoffs than Rose and the Chicago Bulls.
Now his latest victory wasn't a case of him deserving a "W" next to his name like a starting pitcher. He wasn't as singularly responsible for this victory as he was in the first playoff game against the Pacers, when Rose scored seven points and set up Kyle Korver's go-ahead 3 in the final two minutes, or his 44-point outburst in the third game of the Hawks series.
The 103-82 victory in Game 1 was about the Bulls' superior effort and deeper bench, a testament to Tom Thibodeau's defensive-oriented coaching style. But someone needs to get buckets for you, and Rose had 10 of his team's 38 field goals and assisted on six more.
Rose's name did not need to be included in the headline of this one. Nor did he need to lead the highlights. He didn't produce a singular defining moment. For that you could go with Taj Gibson's dunk over Dwyane Wade, which wasn't just in Wade's face it was on Wade's entire body. Or you could choose the symbolism of Gibson's put-back slam in the final minute, the 19th offensive rebound and the 31st second-chance point, the capper to two critical statistical categories in which the Bulls dominated.
If there was a Derrick Rose moment, it didn't consist of one of his acrobatic layups. He was trying for one, but he was rudely interrupted by Miami's Jamaal Magloire, who hit Rose with what I'd call a modified Andrew Bynum. It was a hard shot, but on the side of "playoff hard foul" instead of "dirty play." As Rose waited to shoot his free throws, he smiled, as if he enjoyed the contact.
"That's my whole life, people have been doing that," Rose said.
It's the price he's willing to pay to get to the hoop. It's representative of the toughness his Bulls displayed, something the Heat will have to find a way to match if they want to avoid falling behind 2-0 in the Eastern Conference finals.
Rose is similarly undaunted by the challenge before him, which happens to be the most important role of any Bull. He has to be better than either Wade or LeBron James. The Bulls can't afford to have those two be the best players on the court. When the two best players are wearing the same jersey, that team tends to win (see Kevin Durant's and Russell Westbrook's performances in the Thunder's Game 7 win over the Grizzlies).
On Sunday, Rose was better than both James and Wade. Rose scored 28 points, James and Wade combined for 33. For Rose to essentially negate Miami's top two players is a huge victory for the Bulls. And yet still we hesitate to proclaim him the best.
Even Rod Strickland, who has a vested interest in having Rose be No. 1 after coaching him for a year at Memphis, hesitates to use that label.
"Umm, he's close, if he's not," said Strickland, who watched the game from Row 3 at the United Center. "Obviously you had three of the, probably, top five out there. I mean, he's up there. I don't know if I want to crown anybody the best player in the league, but he's definitely an MVP and he's definitely one of the best."
Strickland deserves some credit for Rose getting so good so fast. As an assistant on John Calipari's point-guard-factory staff, Strickland did his best to pass along the knowledge he accumulated during 17 seasons of playing the position in the NBA.
"The whole thing with him is just be aggressive," Strickland said. "He was such a cool, laid-back kid and just wanted to win. He could have numbers like eight points and eight assists and be fine. I just wanted him to be aggressive and just be that killer and just go at guys. As the season progressed, that's what he did."
Game 1 was about the next phase of Rose's evolution, the development of his jump shot. He made only 16 3-point shots in each of his first two NBA seasons, then made 128 of them this year. Getting to the basket simply wasn't an option for him in Game 1. The Heat had their big men jump on him off screens while their guards went underneath and another help defender came over if necessary. As a result, only one of Rose's 10 baskets came in the lane. He made jumper after jumper, including three 3-pointers, with a stroke that looked smooth and confident from the outset.
Rose said this began in Atlanta, when he made a jumper in the third quarter of the closeout Game 6 and it felt like his rhythm was back. It carried into this series opener at the United Center.
"This is my building," Rose said.
At first it sounded like the boldest proclamation he's made yet, as if he were saying he'd assumed the title and deed from Michael Jordan. Then he went on to explain how he was familiar with the lighting in the arena and the dead spots on the court and it was clear he merely meant this is a place where he feels comfortable.
Rose spoke up in the locker room at halftime, getting on the team for its nine first-half turnovers, including four from him. Then he led by example in the second half by playing 19 minutes without a turnover.
Like the aggressiveness Strickland kept seeking from him and like his jump shot, being vocal is something else Rose has had to learn in order to become the star he wants to be.
"Just by nature I'm quiet, but being in this position, being the point guard, being one of the leaders on this team, you have to talk a bit more," Rose said.
His teammates buy whatever he's saying because he is "the most humble superstar in the NBA," according to Joakim Noah.
"Our leader is a humble guy who doesn't go into a game with any mindset of 'I'm going to score this many points,'" Noah said. "Just making the right play at the right time. It's all about winning. I feel very lucky to play with somebody like that."
It is all about winning, which is why the numbers never do Rose justice. Rose ranked ninth in John Hollinger's player efficiency rating this season. There's a ranking on 82games.com that has him 17th. Do you really think the Bulls would rather have any of the players ranked ahead of him for the rest of these playoffs?
Would you? That's the question that has to be asked. It's one that Rose is making easier and easier to answer.
Derrick Rose is more than just the MVP. He's also the best player in the league.