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Rose makes triumphant playoff return for Bulls

Injury-riddled guard nets 23 in first postseason game since 2012

POSTED: Apr 19, 2015 12:41 AM ET
UPDATED: Apr 19, 2015 9:54 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose showed flashes of his 2011 MVP form in his first playoff game since 2012.

— When Derrick Rose tried to split a pair of Milwaukee defenders in the open court Saturday and seemed almost to eject out the other side -- taking contact and landing like a dervish with his legs and knees at improbable angles -- an entire fan base held its collective breath.

It was that way, too, for most in the grizzled media who have chronicled Rose's sad cycle of injury, rehabilitation and re-injury dating back to April 28, 2012. That one was a playoff opener, too -- Game 1 of the first round, leaving Saturday just 10 days shy of a gloomy three-year anniversary -- when the Chicago Bulls' point guard first tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Rose's explosiveness and torque, so vital to his game, set them all on an alternate path from which they've yet to stray.

"Man, I'm like y'all," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "When he get hit, I be like, 'Awww, man...' I was like, 'Lord, please, not again.' When he bounces up, I'm happy. But we've been through so many, like, scares, you never want to see anybody go through that kind of pain.

"So whenever he gets a little hit, a little bump, of course you're gonna cringe. But I'm just happy he was able to get up and keep attacking."

Gibson is one of the neglected victims of the Rose ordeal. As with center Joakim Noah, wing Jimmy Butler, coach Tom Thibodeau and a few others, they are collateral damage, colleagues and peers who had their own plans and hopes and dreams deferred or maybe derailed by Rose's knee surgeries.

People focus most frequently on the micro or the macro.

It is either what Rose's chronic injuries and extended layoffs have meant to him and his MVP-certified career, or how they blunted Chicago's championship ambitions through most of Miami's Big Three era and perhaps beyond.

Falling in between, though, are teammates who have had to soldier on, facing and failing against the Heat or, last year, the Wizards. Gibson, Noah and the rest knew how undermanned they were in those postseasons, yet there was nothing to be gained from saying so.

So they did their best, took their lumps and wondered along with the rest of us whether Rose (and his doctors) ever were going to put it all together again.

That's why Rose's performance in beating Milwaukee in the East's Nos. 3-6 opener was special not just to those on the outside but especially to those on the Bulls' inner rings of recent hell.

"I've been on this roller-coaster for a while now. Ups and downs," Gibson said. "We went to the Eastern Conference finals that one year [2011]... to the heartbreak of the first knee injury. I was there."

Gibson played in 22 playoff games from the day Rose got hurt through last spring. With few exceptions, they were a grind, best-of-seven showdowns in which the Bulls' limitations were unspoken, perhaps, yet undeniable. That's how it would be for any team that lost its leader and best player -- or didn't you pay attention to Oklahoma City without Kevin Durant this season?

"So for [Rose] to come out here and play the way he played ... I told him I was proud of him," Gibson said. "He did a great job. Didn't hold back anything. I know people have given him criticism for taking a lot of three's, taking a lot of long-range shots, being timid, not attacking the basket. He was doing it all. He was attacking the basket, taking his open looks. All those shots he took out there were great looks."

Rose gave the Bulls a great look, too.

His 23 points and seven assists included flashes to the basket, twisting reverse lay-ups and almost casual, drive-by buckets which had the crowd at United Center stoked. The three 3-pointers he drained midway through the third quarter, not long after Milwaukee had closed to within three points, felt almost as if Rose had scatter shot from distance all season specifically to lull the Bucks on this one day.

Even the other players, Rose's presumably hardened-professional teammates, got caught up in it. They crossed their fingers when he fell. They tried not to jinx anything after, too -- Noah refused to share his thoughts on those moments when Rose got hit or fell.

But the Bulls center did say: "It was great to see him moving like that. We know that he's gone through so much. When he's down, we're down. But when he's up ... you see what he does to this team. It's a great feeling to have him on the court. Always.

"I just know he looked like he was having fun," Noah added. "To me, that's special. ... You can't take this game for granted."

For three years, Noah has wanted nothing more than to keep himself and these Bulls intact for what he never doubted would be Rose's triumphant return. Gibson signed a contract extension to stay but, like Noah, has had to deal with his own injuries while waiting for Rose.

A guy like Mike Dunleavy, meanwhile, signed a below market contract to be a part of a championship contender last season, only to see that notion unravel after just 10 games of Rose's first return. There was an inevitability of elimination when Chicago began its brief playoff push last spring (it lost in five games to Washington). This time, there is legitimate excitement.

For the micro, the macro and even the guys in-between.

"Derrick's a pretty even-keel guy," Dunleavy said, "but you could tell once he was on the court tonight, he was just happy to be back. Changing the story out there. It was fitting that he was out this long, and then to play so well and freely. He just seemed happy."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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