It was feeling a lot like 2011. The Syrian civil war was in the news along with the Oscars having hosting problems, a Kardashian and an NBA player, a royal wedding and Derrick Rose in the United Center making opposing guards reach for air in a series of gravity defying crossover moves, spins and easy baskets and then being serenaded at the free throw line by chants of, “MVP, MVP, MVP.”
“I had to crack a smile a little bit,” Rose admitted to reporters Wednesday after getting 24 points and eight assists to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to a dominating 119-94 victory over the Bulls. “It made me reminisce about some of the old days and how grateful I was to be in that position at such a young age. Just trying to take all of it in. With the year that I am having, it’s very special to come here and play. It was great. I didn’t expect it to be like this, overwhelming at some point. You can tell the support is still there.”
Perhaps support, certainly appreciation and maybe a form of an apology for the “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” farewell Rose mostly received when he was traded to the Knicks in 2016. Rose played a season in New York and part of one in Cleveland amid injury and personal absences, his extraordinary career highlighted by being the youngest Most Valuable Player in NBA history seemingly over, one of the brightest lights in the game darkened and believed extinguished.
But amidst the turmoil in Minnesota with the trade of Jimmy Butler, Rose has returned to what his coach, Tom Thibodeau, says is an All-Star level of play.
Rose made that apparent to an enthusiastic and grateful post-Christmas audience with 10 points and five assists in the first quarter as the Timberwolves never trailed. Rose had the first of at least a half dozen highlight moments early with a flying floater shot from the left side basically from behind the basket. He featured bursts that left defenders Kris Dunn and Shaquille Harrison racing for where he was a few moments before and stopped every Bulls threat with a simple jump shot.
Karl-Anthony Towns was dominant inside with 20 points and 20 rebounds and Taj Gibson added 16 points bullying Lauri Markkanen in the post. Markkanen had 16 points and seven rebounds and Dunn had nine points, eight rebounds and seven assists, once again flirting with a triple double while also fouling out. LaVine in his return from an ankle injury and coming off the bench was brilliant with 28 points on 10 of 17 shooting.
The threesome who are the franchise’s foundation players from the Butler trade had played just a few minutes together this season amidst injuries to all three and just parts of 11 games together last season. So they are a work in progress that is only just beginning.
“I think we’re all trying to figure it out,” said LaVine, who is expected to start Friday in Washington with Dunn and Markkanen. “It’s getting to the point where it’s almost you can’t be trying to figure it out (all the time). We have to get that down. We got put in a predicament, new system. So we have to buckle down and put it on ourselves to perform. We had two good stretches when I was out; the offense looked really good. Cleveland was short handed, so you can’t take it for fool’s gold. We have to go out and execute every game.
“It’s a different style of play,” said LaVine about the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg’s open game to Jim Boylen’s more conservative offense. “I think we can (adjust). We are going to go through some tough patches. You can see already how the season has gone. We can’t break apart. Me personally, I have been trying to talk to everybody, keep everybody together. We’re going to be OK. We’re a tough group and we’re going show why we’re good coming soon.”
But for this night the Bulls were overmatched, the Timberwolves leading 29-18 after one quarter and then 60-37 at halftime. The Bulls had a bit of a surge in the third quarter as they trapped and blitzed Rose and got some good two-man action between Dunn and Wendell Carter Jr., the latter with 10 of his 12 points in the third quarter. But with the Bulls trailing 83-65 after three, Boylen said he elected not to go back to Carter with the game getting away.
“He’s got a couple nagging things,” said Boylen. “With the game out of reach, I think it was good to keep him out. I think his and Dunn’s chemistry is starting to come, starting to have a little bit of a feel for each other. Wendell was able to get behind the defense, and Kris was throwing it up to him. We’re working on our lob plays, and I thought we had a couple tonight, so that was good.”
But most of those good things were by the Timberwolves, who are 16-18. The Bulls fell to 9-26.
Gibson and Towns bullied the Bulls inside while Rose smoothly shot jump shots like Klay Thompson and drifted past defenders like Kyrie Irving. Rose wasn’t power dunking like he once did, but seemed to play without fear and with purpose, upsetting the Bulls for a pair of steals and fast breaks and collecting regular crowd gasps once again.
“You expect D-Rose to play great,” said LaVine, who was playing against his former team as well. “He hasn’t played here in a couple of years, right? So you know he’s going to come out and play. They hit us in the mouth. We responded a little bit; they had an overall better game than us.
“He’s a former MVP, one of the top players in the NBA,” LaVine added about Rose. “He always has been. I never understood the criticism he had. I remember my third year when he was with the Knicks, he was averaging like 19, seven and five. That’s All-Star numbers; it might not be MVP numbers. But for all the stuff he came from it’s ridiculous. He’s back at that form now. His burst and his speed is all the way back; he’s still a top player in the NBA.”
And Chicago was showing its appreciation.
“It’s all about adapting, being resilient,” said Rose, who had tickets for about 50 friends and family. “I’m happy I didn’t change throughout this whole process. I remained myself, I stayed true to my family. There were a lot of people who jumped off the boat when I was going through things and I saw who they were and I know what’s fake love and what is real love. I am learning every day. When I was here, I was learning who I was as a man, how to prepare for games, how to be a professional, how to deal with injuries, with the media. It was a learning process and I learned and grew from it; the biggest thing I got from all this was growth as a person and man.
“I’m playing at a high level right now,” Rose acknowledged with pride. “When I’m out there, I’m reacting. My body feels good and I’m not forcing anything. If anything, I am playing Chicago basketball where it’s gritty, it’s grimy, it’s one on one, doing whatever to get the win, not backing down and I think that’s what people love.
“If anything, taking it all in, it feels like my rookie year,” said Rose. “I’m reading everything with the knowledge I have, all the games I’ve played. It feels like a breath of fresh air not having any expectations on you and just going out and playing. I’m at peace.”