Posted Apr 28 2012 11:11PM
CHICAGO -- The air got sucked out of United Center with 1 minutes 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Derrick Rose, back and bouncing, was still in the game, neither the score (12-point lead) nor the clock requiring it. But this was the playoffs, Philadelphia had trailed a few minutes earlier by 20, Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau wanted to seal the deal.
Besides, it all felt so good for the Bulls and their fans -- Rose seemingly healthy and as dangerous as ever, the NBA's second season officially here, the reasons for which the Bulls had played (and endured so much) finally, sharply, in focus and within reach -- who really could blame them if they indulged a little?
So Rose, with 23 points, nine rebounds and nine assists to that point, saw a chance for a double-double at least when he veered around Philly center Spencer Hawes in the lane. Carlos Boozer was flared along the right baseline. The Bulls point guard had cinched up three defenders as he penetrated. So Rose planted, leaped, torqued as he did ... and grimaced on the way up an instant after his left knee buckled. He shoveled the ball to Boozer, then put his hands out as he fell to the floor. He limped toward the baseline and sort of crumpled there, grabbing at his knee as he lay.
All at once, 21,943 smiles turned upside down. A dark curtain of gloom dropped at the United Center in synch with so many jaws, the best of times instantly turning into the worst. The 103-91 victory over the Sixers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series meant next-to-nothing. Had you air-dropped into the Bulls' dressing room afterward, scoreboard unseen, you'd have sworn they had lost.
A family member. To, uh, something worse than injury.
"You hope it's not as serious as it looked," Luol Deng said.
Except that it was: A torn anterior cruciate ligament, ending Rose's postseason in its tracks. Nobody in the house knew in the moment it happened. As in knew-knew. But they knew. Y'know?
"You pray that he's going to be all right," Joakim Noah said.
And of course he will be, after the requisite surgery, rehab and recovery time. We'll leave it to others to ponder the implications for Team USA this summer, because Team Chicago is hurting right now.
"My heart kind of dropped," Richard Hamilton said.
Like the Bulls' chances to seriously chase an NBA championship? Like eventual Nielsen ratings of The Finals in the Windy City? Like the proverbial other shoe, perhaps, except that it was Shaquille-sized and shaped like a jackboot.
The uncertainty in the hour or so after the game was nearly as bleak as the reality that hit in late afternoon, after Rose and Bulls personnel got the verdict of the MRI exam at Rush University Hospital just south of the UC on the city's West Side.
In a way, this was worse than a death in the family -- hey, at least compared to great-grandpa, when he went in his sleep at age 96 surrounded by loved ones, after a good meal and a life well-lived. There were hopes and dreams that were dashed Saturday. So many of those who believe in perseverance and happy endings were helped off the court along with Rose after his knee buckled and that ligament snapped.
Should he have been on the court? No one on either side publicly questioned Thibodeau's decision. Hamilton said it's important not to let a playoff opponent get confidence, even in what might seem like garbage time, that might spill over to the next game. Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala said that in the playoffs, you don't let up even with a lead that looks big.
Sixers coach Doug Collins said: "He knows what he's doing coaching his team. Thibs is my buddy. ... He wanted to finish that game the way he did." And Thibodeau bristled when his decision was questioned.
"I do not work backwards like you guys," the Bulls coach told reporters. "The score was going the other way. he's got to play. We sat him to about the 7-minute mark of the fourth quarter. Derrick has to work on finishing, on closing. Our team did not handle that part great. That's what I was thinking."
Consider things finished, consider things closed. What was supposed to be a reset button on the Bulls' season -- never mind all the injuries, the false starts, the individual hardware headed elsewhere this spring -- instead became a replay button. Of a lowlight reel from a spoiled season.
"I was like, 'Aw, here we go again.,' " Taj Gibson said, who had subbed out a minute earlier. "He's been up and down all year long. It sucks because he was just getting back. He was looking good in practice yesterday. ... He was looking great. A lot of assists. Especially on the defensive end, knowing the challenge he had going against Jrue Holiday. And he was real vocal -- he looked like he was having fun. He was back to the old Derrick."
By old Derrick, Gibson meant last season's Derrick, the youngest MVP in NBA history, a force of nature who got Chicago to the conference finals and had more help (i.e., Hamilton) at his disposal this time. That guy wasn't there from tipoff -- Rose missed five of his first six shots and was flaking off rust into the second half -- but he was giving glimpses. And the Bulls would have just one game in the next five days. With more rest, more practice ...
"That was the best that I'd seen him play[ this season], for sure," Kyle Korver said. "He was playing aggressive basketball. Still running the team. I thought he was moving strong."
They were gone by the time the MRI results came in. But Rose's teammates had gone through this before -- 27 games without him due to toe, back, groin, ankle and foot injuries -- and even before medical science weighed in, fate and the basketball gods seemed to have done so.
The Bulls sorta, kinda knew, too, before they knew.
"It hurts, man," Korver said. "We want him on the floor for a lot of reasons. Not just so we can win championships. We really love the kid. He's such a good guy, he's such a good teammate, he's such a hard worker. It's been such a tough year for him with injuries ...
"Obviously we want to win a championship and he gives us the best chance of doing that. But as a teammate, as a friend, as a brother, your heart goes out to him."
The Bulls won 50 games in the regular season. They have homecourt advantage through the playoffs. They were 18-9 in the games Rose missed, the sort of stat they'd hoped they were done tracking.
One of these days -- maybe not this round, maybe not the next but someday soon -- they will lose for the fourth time in a series without him. And they can't, they won't, possibly feel worse than they felt with 1 minutes 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter Saturday.
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