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By Sam Smith | 5.11.2015 | 9:10 p.m.
There are a lot of great stories in these NBA playoffs, which are as wide open to produce a champion since perhaps anytime in the late 1970s. Here comes Memphis and the Clippers and even Washington, and few are going to dismiss anyone.
There was the Boffo Buzzer Beater weekend with Derrick Rose, Paul Pierce and LeBron James as the Bulls are in Cleveland preparing for Game 5 and square at 2-2 in their conference semifinal series.
There’s been the disappointing departures of the Raptors, Mavericks and Trail Blazers and explosion of Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin.
But there really has been nothing to compare with the saga of Derrick Rose, which is almost taken for granted now just 15 games back since a return from his third knee surgery.
Rose is averaging 25 points, 6.5 assists and five rebounds while shooting 42 percent on threes against the Cavs. He’s coming off back to back 30-point games while averaging 39 minutes for the series, scoring 14 fourth quarter points including the game winner in Game 3 and then seven fourth quarter points and the tying basket in the last seconds of Game 4 before James’ winner. That’s with Rose attacking the basket despite Cleveland pressuring and doubling. Shooting 17 free throws the last two games, which was almost half the team’s total.
In the six-game round one win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Rose averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists. But he played 48 minutes in the pivotal Game 3 double overtime win with seven points in the second overtime. Rose averaged 36.5 minutes per game in that series.
This from the player who was not supposed to be tough, who supposedly didn’t want to play or was saving himself for other times, who endured even more abuse than LeBron James, and, ridiculously, in his own home town. This player who does so much rehabilitation and conditioning work in order to get back he brings his therapy machines to his post game media sessions, literally vibrating through answers to make sure he’s ready and prepared to play for the next game.
Here’s a player who basically went through a near career death experience with major ACL surgery, a year of rehabilitation, then a serious meniscus tear a month into his return, yet another return and then four months in yet another tear in the meniscus, albeit not as severe. But it still required surgery, and after six weeks Rose returned to play about 20 minutes per game in a limited role averaging 11 points and four assists.
And then the playoffs start, the brightest red light goes on and the intensity heightens with every opponent focusing on Rose, the Bucks basically double teaming and trapping him on every play with young, quick, long armed defenders.
Yet, as the playoffs continue and the minutes and demands add up, Rose only gets better, making big plays down the stretch and in the fourth quarter, leading the Bulls in free throw attempts in the playoffs along with assists and averaging 21.4 points, which is 11th overall in the playoffs. Rose’s backcourt teammate, Jimmy Butler, leads the team in scoring in the playoffs at 22.6 per game, seventh among all players.
They are just barely behind Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in playoff scoring and can easily lay claim to being the top backcourt in the playoffs given Butler’s two-way play on James. James is having perhaps his poorest shooting series in his career, 37.7 percent overall against the Bulls along with 11 percent on threes.
Yes, I heard all the talk about Cavs coach David Blatt and the last play not being for James. I doubt the way he’s shooting I would have given him a jump shot, either. Maybe if they were going for a lob at the basket. But James is the second poorest overall shooter on his team in this series and worst on long shots. Why would anyone assume he should be shooting a jump shot? The Cavs would be the best shooting three-point team in this round if not for James.
Meanwhile, Rose, much maligned all season for shooting too many threes, is making 42.1 percent in this round, second on the team to Mike Dunleavy. In this series, Rose leads the Bulls in scoring, assists, free throw shooting and is third in rebounding.
The point, as often asked, is not if Rose “is back.” That’s mostly irrelevant. No one should be compared only to their greatest and most shining moment to the point where if they don’t achieve that it’s regarded as a failure. What’s truly remarkable is that after so much medical misery and second guessing and time away, Rose can return and play a vital role with a contending team and make big plays when needed.
There are many stories of returns from injuries, though rarely to a top level. Grant Hill came back and was an All-Star; so did Bernard King. But never quite doing what they did previously. Penny Hardaway really didn’t get far back and neither did Tracy McGrady. Rose had injuries to rival or exceed them all. To see him return playing at this level with speed, with explosion, with daring is the amazing story of the playoffs.
And he won’t get too caught up in it all; he’s just returned to play.
“(It’s) going to be a hard game,” Rose said after Game 4 about going to Cleveland. ”I think we should be ready for it. It’s still a season; we’re still learning. We’re going to look at it and make sure we are prepared. It hurts now knowing we had a couple of chances. We learned in Game 2 when they came out and smacked us it’s all about the start; rebounding is huge, too and making sure we run late.”
Just eyes straight ahead on the future; can’t do anything about the past. It’s a testament to a man’s commitment and perseverance.
* * * * * *
There’s the mundane, if you can call it that, of the Bulls tied with Cleveland 2-2 after the excruciating Game 4 loss on James’ fabulous shot. It was business as usual for the Bulls Monday before heading for Cleveland, a brief film session. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Pau Gasol remained day to day with his hamstring injury and was a game time decision. Though no one knows, since it’s not a potential close out game it makes some sense to give Gasol another game off and then try to bring him back for a friendlier Game 6 in the United Center Thursday.
The Bulls got a good game from Joakim Noah back at center with Gasol out, Noah with eight points and 15 rebounds. But Thibodeau was forced to go small a few times without Gasol and the Bulls got hurt on the boards (the rebounding winner has won each game) with Taj Gibson at center. Still, Noah played more than 37 minutes, which is plenty to ask.
The Cavs have “hid” limited Kyrie Irving as much as possible on weak offensive players. So the Bulls have to try to exploit that and make him move and drive on him. Both he and Iman Shumpert have leg issues and James has a sprained ankle, which he said would not bother him for Game 5.
The Bulls will need more from Nikola Mirotic, who shot one of nine with three rebounds and three blocks in 18 minutes. He hustles, but often is out of position.
“We knew this was going to be tough, and last night we played without Pau so you saw how important he is for us,” Mirotic said Monday. “We know that if we do the right things we can beat them again. I think we need to be tougher offensively. We need to share the ball. I think last night we played good defensively, too. They are playing small, they are switching, so we need to take care of the ball. But I think the most important thing in these games is defense. We need to adjust some things on defense, especially me, because I didn’t play a great game last night. I just didn’t feel great shooting. My teammates found me, there were some open shots. But I need to refresh my mind. I need to today work on my shots, and tomorrow I need to just take the shots again because I know that I’m going to make it. It’s about a short memory. I think we’ve shown this year we are a mentally tough team. We never give up. So right now we are 2-2 and we know how important this game will be. We need to give our best for this game.”
Noah is clearly more engaged and better defensively at center. But it was obvious the Bulls missed Gasol’s scoring and especially shooting in two sustained scoring droughts, which proved fatal. Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich also made impressive help defense plays against James, doing the best with the stunting that has helped frustrate James with Butler's excellent defense.
“We had our opportunities,” noted Noah. “LeBron hit a great shot at the end of the game. We're right where we want to be and we're really excited about Game 5. You've just got to move on, can't let it linger. We have to be strong mentally. I think we've gone through a lot this year as a team and we're excited. Nothing has to be said right now. Everybody knows what time it is right now. Everybody's excited. We watched some film. We're going to make our adjustments and go from there.”
Thibodeau cleared up some points as he said Gasol has just done rehab and no practice. Thibodeau confirmed he did ask for the replay at the end of Game 4 before James’ shot. But given James said he’d called the play with his teammates the extra timeout question discussed seemed moot.
“It’s what technology is doing to the league,” said Thibodeau. “The league itself is trying to figure it out as we go. The intent is very good. It’s to get it right. And then you’re trying to figure out, is there an advantage to be gained? Maybe in those situations, particularly when a team doesn’t have a timeout, you don’t let them go to the bench. This is the first time around with it, so we’re figuring it out. I don’t like it in that sense. Obviously, it affected us in a negative way. But for the most part, the technology has been good. I wanted to see if the ball did go out [off us]. It's a hard play to read because when it bounces it could go in bounds. Until it hits something, there could be no time.”
Thibodeau said he liked Mirotic’s shots and that while Noah is having difficulties on offense his rebounding is good and his effect is positive. Thibodeau did emphasize the team needs to push the ball more on offense, especially late in the game
Thibodeau said he noticed the Blatt timeout signal.
“I saw him,” said Thibodeau. “But it's hard for the officials, too. They're following the play. Sometimes you could be screaming at them. They could be right in front of you; they don't hear you. So you have to jump right in front of them sometimes to get the call.
Asked if he tried to point it out, Thibodeau said: “At that point, nah.
“There's not much you can say other than, that game is gone,” said Thibodeau. “Hopefully, you establish that habit throughout the course of the season. You learn from the game, analyze the things you could have done better, and get ready for the next one. There's going to be ups and downs in a series, you're going to be tested in every way imaginable and you have to be able to handle the ups, the downs, get through it. We've got to walk through the fire together. We've got to have a resolve and a toughness that we can respond to anything. We took a tough punch, we delivered one the game before. We took one, we've got to get ready to deliver one again. When the ball goes up be ready to roll.”