“We all feel he is going to be back to the guy he was,” said coach Tom Thibodeau. “He is going step by step. He has to keep building, keep attacking. When he is aggressive like that, there is no one like him.”
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

Rose blazing a trail with win over Portland

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By Sam Smith | 12.12.2014 | 1:09 a.m. CT

Chicago looms below him seemingly awaiting an answer as Derrick Rose sits there into the night in his downtown high rise apartment seeking his own answers, about his future, his game, the next great moment.

“I prepare myself for the game the night before,” Rose was saying late Friday night in the Bulls locker room after his best scoring game in more than two years, 31 points in the Bulls terrific 115-106 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers. “I don’t know if everyone does it. I prep myself for every game the night before as far as taking care of my body, hydrating, making sure I’m eating all the right things so I can come out here and perform.”

And he thinks. Perhaps about all he’s gone through since that last game of at least 30 points, March 12, 2012 in a home victory over the Knicks. It got the Bulls to 35-9 in what seemed to be great things ahead instead of the depression and melancholy that would replace it. Though now it’s only ahead, a day at a time, as he and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau like to say. So Rose thought about Portland and maybe their seven straight wins over the Bulls and the Trail Blazers 10-0 record against Eastern Conference teams this season and maybe his own little breakout play for a time in Wednesday’s victory over the Nets and Deron Williams.

“My mindset was already made up in the beginning of the game,” said Rose. “Last night actually, just coming out and attacking and see what’s going to happen.”

It was a sight for once sad eyes as Rose was as brilliant and spectacular as we remembered, dashing to the basket, into the lane for pullups and floaters, hard left for a layup, hard right, crossover, jumper, jumper; over LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 35 points and 21 in the first quarter, over Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman, the Portland big men sliding around like the United Center ice was on the basketball court, and then 20 straight points in a Rose pairing with Aaron Brooks in the fourth quarter and the clincher, isolated on the Trail Blazers’ best defender, Nicholas Batum with just under a minute left and Portland fighting back to within four points. And Rose jab step, step, step, dribble, dribble and swish, a 22 footer for a 110-104 Bulls lead and effectively the game.

“We all feel he is going to be back to the guy he was,” said Thibodeau. “He is going step by step. He has to keep building, keep attacking. When he is aggressive like that, there is no one like him.”

It was maybe the Bulls best and most sustained effort of excellence this season to go to 14-8 against a Portland team now 17-6. They’d dominated the Bulls for years—even when Rose wasn’t hurt—and not only got that big production from Aldridge, but 35 points with 18 in the fourth quarter from Damian Lillard.

It wasn’t the Bulls greatest defensive stand, though it was perhaps more important because it showed they could match scores and succeed against one of the league’s better offensive teams. So the Bulls sacrificed some defense this time with Brooks playing with Rose in the fourth quarter as they combined for 22 of the team’s 32 fourth quarter points. Brooks made shots, as he often does, that you can barely describe. Though the smaller backcourt with Brooks on Lillard enabled Lillard some extra looks he wasn’t getting against Rose. Still, Brooks’ shot making was amazing and crucial as the Bulls beat Portland in all aspects of the game, 47-37 on the boards, 60-34 scoring in the paint while shooting 50 percent overall and 19-5 in fast break points.

There were several good efforts from Bulls players. Of course, there was the diminutive Brooks scoring 17 points and Nikola Mirotic also off the bench and with 15 points. Mirotic’s surge of scoring running the floor to open the second quarter after Aldridge’s first quarter assault turned the game toward the Bulls with a 16-2 run to start the second quarter.

Mirotic repeatedly beat every Portland big man down court for scores or was fouled, prompting one courtside scout who often follows the Bulls to say he’s never seen a big man with that kind of speed.

“Niko, he don’t know how good he is,” said Rose. “He’s a great player; he understands the game. A lot of people want him to do one thing or a couple of things, but he is a versatile player. He can rebound, cut, pass. I don’t know what he can’t do when he’s on the floor. He’s a good, good player, a young player. He just tries too hard on the defensive end and that tends to put fouls on him because he wants to steal the ball so much. I love the way he’s playing now.”

The Bulls also got double/doubles from both Taj Gibson, starting again for the sore ankled Joakim Noah, and Pau Gasol with his eighth consecutive.

There was some bad news with word that Doug McDermott’s knee situation will require arthroscopic surgery, which will be performed Saturday by Bulls head physician Dr. Brian Cole. There is no timetable for a return, though with recovery and getting back into basketball condition it seems apparent McDermott will be out for a considerable time. It may open time for Tony Snell, though perhaps Mirotic, who also had nine rebounds and was 6-6 from the free throw line.

Jimmy Butler added 11 points and eight tough rebounds while Mike Dunleavy took an early hard shot to the face and returned quickly to hit a pair of threes.

But the story, as it generally is no matter the result or circumstances, was Rose. Though this time there were no demands of what else to do or what not to do. It was a time to sit back and enjoy the greatness that Rose has produced so often before his major knee surgeries. His 31 points was a season high as he also led the team with five assists.

Rose was careful not to make any declarations or even say this would continue. He was smart, as he’s been throughout this ordeal. He’s looking ahead, though not squinting too far forward, accepting what will come, making the best of it and confident the baby steps will lead to the right place.

“He (Thibodeau) tells me that (to attack and be aggressive),” said Rose in answer to a question. “But at the same time, I have to listen to my body and listen to myself and learn how to play with my teammates. It’s something I’ve got to figure out. Every game I’m getting more and more comfortable with it. Who knows? All I can do is learn from my mistakes, learn from every game, and the next game try to do better.

“I put more pressure on myself than anybody else,” said Rose about the demands and expectations from outside that pale in comparison to his inner rage and fire. “I’m my hardest critic. Just going down and being in that situation (big fourth quarter moments)….as a kid those are the shots you think about and as a player you want to get to the highest potential you possibly can; you want those shots. You want those on your resume.

“Thibs always tells us to push the ball up a little more so tonight we tried and it was working,” said Rose of the Bulls abandoning their slower interior game to start. “Who knows? Next game may be something different. We’re just trying to scratch ‘em off, try to win by any means and find our way through this. Even with this performance I can’t be (too high). I know the next time I play it can be something different. My confidence level is very high. Like it’s always been and my goals are still the same: Stay healthy, keep stringing ‘em out and win games.”

It’s a start as the Bulls won two this week at home to push up to 4-5 after the tough start and now 14-8 overall with a tough week ahead starting in Miami Sunday, in Atlanta Monday and in Memphis Friday after New York at home Thursday.

Sunday’s game means a reunion with former teammate Luol Deng, and Rose playfully revealed a Deng health secret.

“Becoming a pro, taking care of my body, little things you don’t think about,” Rose said when asked what he’d learned from his two-time All-Star teammate. “He’d come in here at halftime, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For real. You don’t think about it, but as far as health wise, that’s great. The peanut butter you’re not burning calories; you’re burning the peanut butter. You’re able to run around more. Your endurance picks up. Lu, his professional side, coming in and making sure he’s taking care of his body. I wish I had looked at him more when I was a rookie.”

Those were the carefree days; no more. Rose is a seasoned pro who has been through ordeals few professional athletes ever face. But he’s faced them with grace and the force of his personality. And it was yet another forward step with Friday’s national TV win.

“This is another good game for him,” Thibodeau said of Rose. “So he is stringing games together, good games. He’s aggressive. The thrust we play with when he’s pushing the ball gets us easy baskets. We get deep post ups and get to the penalty early, some free throws; a lot of good things happen. Then the bench guys came in. Aaron, Kirk (Hinrich) and Niko were terrific in the second quarter. That got us where we felt we could get something going.”

That was after an amazing first quarter when it didn’t look like Aldridge would ever miss. It hurt not having Noah for defense as the Bulls started with Gibson, who was too small as Aldridge backed in and shot over. Aldridge probably is the best big man shooter in the league. Thibodeau then tried Mirotic, who was too weak, and then Gasol, who wasn’t quick enough. Eventually, the Bulls brought some late double teams, but in a sense the inability to contain Aldridge hurt Portland.

Eventually, he shot himself out after the Portland players spent the first half watching Aldridge post up and shoot or drive. It took most of them out of the offense, and it was only a late shooting spree from Lillard that kept the Bulls from ending the game early.

The Bulls, actually, never would trail again after that Mirotic-inspired second quarter run in which not only was he beating Portland big men down court, but cleverly taking advantage of mismatches on switches and drawing fouls.

“Niko’s energy tonight was a key factor, the way he came out in the second quarter, made plays one after another really helped turn around the game,” said Gasol. “I told him to be patient at the beginning (of the season) when he was frustrated and didn’t get but five minutes per game. Injuries happen all the time; we don’t want them to happen but they happen (so you get a chance).”

Mirotic had 13 points in the Bulls 35-23 second quarter that gave them a 59-51 halftime lead. Rose broke fast after halftime again, but this time Portland responded with 10 straight as they finally began to use all their offensive options. But Dunleavy broke the run with a base line 20 footer as Portland began to chase Rose with two and three defenders and then added a three in transition from Gasol. Then Gasol made a terrific drop step for a score after a Butler acrobatic tip in on a lob as the Bulls stayed ahead 82-78 after three quarters.

It actually looked like the game was there to steal for Portland, which even had won five of the last seven from the Bulls in Chicago. And then as good as Lillard was—and Rose praised him as a better shooter and great player—Rose and Brooks put on an offensive tag team run with 20 straight points in less than eight fourth quarter minutes with enough radical offensive moves to start a new dance craze.

Brooks contributed a reverse drive, fading runner, floater and a couple of scoops while Rose offered a crossover teardrop going right, left handed driving bank when Portland in desperation mode tried a zone and getting deep into the lane and between 14 feet of guys. Lillard was banging in threes, but Portland could only get within three before Rose closed it out.

It also raises an intriguing addition of whether to see the offensive backcourt of Rose and Brooks. Thibodeau for defensive purposes prefers Hinrich with Rose, though Brooks is an amazing shot maker. He’s also got a playful insouciance about him that perhaps explains his intrepid shot selection.

“If it’s Derrick or Kirk your role doesn’t change,” said Brooks with his subtle humor. “Derrick is just a little but more explosive than Kirk. You just see what you can do to make yourself useful out there. I just told Derrick to give me the ball and go watch. It’s like two double running backs they use in the NFL.”

Which suited Rose fine.

“It was fun,” said Rose. “I didn’t have to worry about dribbling the ball, handling the ball the way he creates and people have respect. It was fun, fun.”

“I just like playing,” added Brooks. “When I’m doing well he (Thibodeau) leaves me in there a little bit longer. I just want to do my job. When you watch (some of my shots) on tape you wonder, ‘How the hell did I get that off.’ But in the game it seems little easier to me. It just feels comfortable.”

It did for the Bulls and Rose Friday. They hope for many more as a city stares back.