Bulls

Derrick Rose's return to Chicago a wistful one as Knicks beat Bulls

Derrick Rose's return to Chicago a wistful one as Knicks beat Bulls

Walking off the court seconds before handing the Bulls their first home loss of the season, the extrovert grabbed the introvert, prodding and poking, tapping him on the head, trying to elicit emotion or some form of release.

Instead, as the cheers came from the fans remaining in the United Center who waited for the moment Derrick Rose was pulled from the game with his “big brother” Joakim Noah, Rose allowed himself a smile.

The Return—in a different form.

Speaking to the same attendants he passed every day, shaking every hand, acknowledging everyone who acknowledged him, Rose’s homecoming felt as it was supposed to—like the kid who went away to college and came back home for Thanksgiving.

The response from the United Center crowd was mostly positive, although Noah’s reaction was overwhelmingly so. Rose heard the boos when he touched the ball, although it was a bit weird considering Noah was the one who departed via free agency and Rose was traded by the Bulls’ volition.

“I’m different. I always felt I was different. When I played that revenge game or tried to pay someone back, that’s when I failed,” Rose said. “My type of game is playing the way I naturally play, and that’s to win. I’m just trying to win the game.”

Yet, Rose—like fellow Chicagoans Isiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade—was jeered by the hometown faithful, treated like someone who betrayed them when his biggest basketball sin was his body betraying him.

And like Thomas and Wade, though, Rose turned those negative feelings into controlled fuel as opposed to reckless abandon, producing some breathtaking sequences that had to leave even the biggest detractors speechless. His halfcourt catch and dart to the basket before the half where he split Wade and Rajon Rondo before meeting Jimmy Butler at the rim, contorting his body for a twisting but surprisingly easy layup to keep the Knicks afloat before halftime looked like the Rose of old, not an old Rose.

Producing his best game as a Knick with 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds, he looked more comfortable in his own skin than he probably has felt in ages—so much so, that if the boos would’ve bothered him before, they became little more than background noise Friday.

“I’m used to it. I’ve been getting booed since I was in the sixth grade,” Rose said. “Being a south sider and playing (rivals) Patrick Beverley or Sherron Collins on the west side.”

He tried his best to keep his emotions in check, and he was likely successful in suppressing that while letting his skills shine through. Almost getting caught in the emotion of the Bulls’ tribute video to he and Noah—well done and classy, it should be said—reminded so many of a simpler time.

[MORE: Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose's return to Chicago a successful one as Bulls fall to Knicks]

When Noah was the kid with the goofy suit and bowtie on draft night, when Rose was the clean-cut kid who did everything he was asked by anyone who asked it and could do things on the floor no one could dream of requesting.

“It was a lot of love in the building today,” Noah said. “It feels good because even though we didn’t win a championship here, I know how hard and how bad Derrick wanted to win one (a title) and how bad I wanted to win one here. There’s no regrets because we gave it all we had for this city.”

“When I think about it, there’s things that were tough because we were really close. I look and I see Taj and I see Jimmy, and I competed with these guys for a long time. Even though we’re competing and talking s**t, they’re still my brothers.”

A break here, or a break there, the Bulls could’ve had a celebration in Grant Park like the Chicago Cubs did after 108 years of futility, bad luck and bad breaks. On the day Rose was awarded the MVP trophy before Game 2 of the Bulls’ second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, the Cubs were a 14-16 bunch, completing a three-game set with the Los Angeles Dodgers with a 5-1 win but in the big picture, headed nowhere with a 71-91 finish.

Months later, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein, the break that went in their favor, and the rest became history—while Rose was still chasing some of his own.

For the Bulls, it likely came down to one break—when Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs, an event that won’t haunt Bulls fans as much as it will Rose, who’s not chasing that athletic marvel as much as he is a simple return to greatness no one is completely sure he can achieve.

“This is a new chapter,” Rose said. “I’m trying to become great, still chasing something and I have a great group to chase it with.”

From that point of the injury, he had starts and stops, fits and fistfuls of confusing thoughts and words as he struggled to deal with the unknown, a strategy that admittedly made him less of a fan favorite and more of a mystery.

Details about his private life came out in an embarrassing civil suit where he was accused of rape, and although he was cleared of the charges, the stain will likely follow for some time—causing even more confusion.

“Not a villain but people didn’t understand me. I didn’t let them,” Rose said. “We were losing. I held everything in. I didn’t voice my opinion the way I wanted to and the way I expressed it was being quiet. I’m an introvert. So I’m just quiet and thinking about things.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

There was no blueprint for him to follow, as he was groomed to be a basketball player and the instincts he developed courtesy of Chicago’s South Side were ones of survival, not public diplomacy.

He retreated further into himself as time went on, leading to more confusion. And when he publicly stumbled over his words and sentiments, he became harder to defend—even if there was never malicious intent.

“You know, sometimes with fans, they want to see results right away,” Rose said. “Especially when you play with a franchise like this, six championships. They want results, they want playoffs they want rings. I understand that. That’s how they felt. That’s how I felt. It wasn’t no patience on both sides.”

And thus a divorce was necessary, perhaps it should’ve occurred last season when it was obvious the mix of players were no longer compatible, the air too poisoned with confusion and ambiguity on all sides, where plenty of mistakes have been made.

Noah, always being Rose’s biggest advocate and most vocal defender, likely conveyed his teammate’s true feelings about how bad they both wanted the win when he said, “I’m not gonna lie, this one felt really good.”

And we don’t have to lie, either. Just because one is cheered, it doesn’t make him a hero. And because someone is booed, doesn’t make him a villain.

It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

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It might not be so easy for the Bulls to tank down the stretch

And here you thought the Bulls wouldn't be competing for anything down the stretch. Yes, the Bulls will miss the postseason for a second consecutive season, and the post-Jimmy Butler rebuild is off and running with a Lottery selection (and potentially two) on the horizon.

And now the race for the top spot in the NBA Draft Lottery is on, with 23 to 27 games left in the regular season and a whopping seven teams within 1.5 games of each other for the worst record in the league. The Bulls are currently sitting 8th in the reverse standings at 20-37, 3.0 games behind the league-worst Suns and Hawks. And in what's largely considered a seven-man draft, Fred Hoiberg and the boys have some work to do to improve their chances of moving into the top-5 or top-3 of the draft.

Yes, the Bulls were sellers at the deadline, dealing leading scorer Nikola Mirotic to the Pelicans. And they lost eight of their last 10 games before the All-Star Break while promising extended minutes for players like Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio and even Cameron Payne. All those signs point to a franchise with a full and clear understanding that losses right now mean much bigger wins in June. But it's not as easy as it sounds. The Bulls aren't the only team looking to secure losses, and those other teams may have easier paths of doing so. Here's why.

For starters, not all these clumped-together records were built equally. Yes, the wins and losses all count the same at the end of the day, but if we're projecting how each team may finish the Bulls are certainly poised to play better than the teams around them. In fact, the Bulls are still playing .500 basketball (17-17) since their infamous 3-20 start. Unsurprisingly all seven teams ahead of the Bulls have worse records, as do the New York Knicks (11-24 since Dec. 8), who are just two games behind the Bulls, have lost eight straight and are without All-Star Kristaps Porzingis (torn ACL). Remember, there are teams chasing the Bulls, too.

The Bulls have a seven-game win streak to their name and won 10 games in December; of the teams with worse records than the Bulls, only the Mavericks have a seven-win month this season.

And let's remember, too, the Bulls have gone 17-17 while missing Zach LaVine in 20 of those, Kris Dunn in 11 others and Lauri Markkanen in three. Those three are all healthy now (LaVine likely won't play in back-to-backs, but the Bulls have just three of those sets left) and while they have an ugly -18.8 net rating in four games, the Bulls are 2-2 with all three on the floor and have losses against the top-seeded Raptors and defending champion Warriors. It's safe to assume Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen will all benefit and improve from playing with one another. And while Nikola Mirotic was a large part of the Bulls' success (they went 14-11 with him in the lineup), the trade has opened up more minutes for Bobby Portis, who's quietly averaging 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds since the Mirotic trade. No, Portis isn't Mirotic, but the dropoff isn't all that significant, especially when considering the defensive end.

What's this all mean? That the Bulls have the best top-end talent of any team in these tank standings, and arguably the most talented overall roster. It sounds laughable, but we're not comparing them to the Rockets and Celtics. Perhaps Orlando's core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic (when healthy) comes close, but the Magic also just sold their starting point guard Elfrid Payton for pennies on the dollar. They're clearly in tank mode, and the rest of that roster is a nightmare. Dallas has some nice pieces, but also plenty of shutdown candidates as the season nears its end.

And that's another angle to this. The Bulls really don't have any players who may rest late in the season. Then again, phantom injuries could arise and LaVine might sit down the stretch for precautionary purposes. But Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, the team's elder statesmen at 29 and 28, respectively, aren't exactly tipping the scale between wins and losses. As long as LaVine, Dunn, Markkanen, Portis and Denzel Valentine are seeing 28+ minutes, the Bulls are going to be in good position. Teams like Atlanta and Sacramento are already resting veterans, and Memphis could do the same with Marc Gasol if the Lottery balls depend on it. It's a good thing the Bulls don't have this luxury, as they're leaning on their young talent, but it also means the team isn't going to get much worse.

The biggest hurdle for the Bulls, however, is going to be their remaining schedule. Marvin Bagley fans might want to stop reading. Only four teams in the NBA will face an easier remaining schedule than the Bulls, and none are ahead of them in the race for the top pick. The 76ers, Hornets, Warriors and Heat have easier schedules, and then it's the Bulls, with a remaining SOS of .474. Here's how that compares to the seven teams the Bulls are looking up at in the tank standings:

So the Bulls have an easier schedule than any team in front of them, and the Knicks. And looking at the Bulls' remaining schedule (far right column), it's clear that the three games against the Nets (which includes what should be a fun home-and-home in the season's final week) and two games against the Grizzlies will loom large. It also wouldn't surprise anyone if the Bulls picked up random victories over teams like Boston (March 5), Cleveland (March 17), Milwaukee (March 23) or Houston (March 27). They have a way of playing up to their opponents (see: Minnesota).

When it comes to discussing the league's worst teams, the Bulls might simply be too good. And their schedule might simply be too bad. That's certainly a good problem to have when considering the franchise's rebuild has gone quicker than most expected, even if it means fewer chances to secure a top-3 pick. Then again, the Bulls did fine selecting 7th overall last season in grabbing Markkanen, so perhaps a top-5 pick isn't necessary. It might not even be an option.

Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

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Reflective Jimmy Butler looks back on time in Chicago during All-Star weekend

LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler was absent from the scoresheet of the All-Star Game, unless you count a “DNP-Coaches’ Decision” as activity. Whether due to the All-Star festivities of the weekend or even the grinding minutes he plays under Tom Thibodeau, it wasn’t truly surprising to see him want to have a night off of sorts.

But what was mildly surprising was the reflection he displayed on Saturday at All-Star Media Day in reference to his time with the Chicago Bulls. Usually, Butler’s armor is up because of his feelings surrounding his draft-night departure.

“I learned a lot in Chicago,” Butler said. “Just all through the season and life in general. What to do, what not to do and how to adapt to any situation that you’ve been in. I’ve done that to the best of my abilities. I have a ways to go in that.”

It’s clear he’s still grasping the weight of his words as the best player on a team, or at least, the player whose words impact everything around him.

“A people pleaser? No, I just didn’t say much,” Butler said. “Now I just don’t care. I never talked whenever I was in the league at an early age. It really didn’t matter, nothing I did was gonna make or break us when it comes to losing a game. Now it does and I have a lot to say. Half the time it’s not the right time or right way to say it but it’s okay.”

Whether it was the battles with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg or the internal struggles in the Bulls’ locker room through his ascension from bench warmer to rotation player to impact player to now, a legitimate star, he’s modifying his approach—just a tad.

“I’ve never been the best player on my own team. I was in Tomball,” he joked, in reference to his beginnings in small town Texas. “I wasn’t in junior college. At Marquette I wasn’t. I’m probably not now. In Chicago I wasn’t. You just pick up on it, watch others and learn.”

He admitted to writing in a journal and reading self-help books now that he’s in Minnesota. The novel he’s reading now, “Faith, Forward, Future” is authored by Chad Veach, a Los Angeles pastor and the subtitle of the book says “Moving past your disappointments, delays and destructive thinking.”

Whether he started the book following a slow start with the Timberwolves in November, where his nightly numbers looked like one of a high-level role player, he took some self-evaluation before leading the charge since, playing like an MVP candidate with 25.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 49 percent shooting since the start of December.

“It’s relatively new. Yeah, basketball is still basketball but it’s hard when somebody else is coming in and roles change overnight,” Butler said. “You gotta see where you fit in with the group. At the end of the day you gotta win. I didn’t feel the way I was playing was our best opportunity to win games.”

Bringing along the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, with Towns being a fellow All-Star for the first time, has been a process.

“I’ve never actually had to be a leader,” Butler said. “I just always done what I was supposed to do, didn’t say much and played hard. Now you know, everybody wants to call someone a leader.”

He disputes taking a softer hand, especially as Towns and Wiggins seem to struggle with sustaining concentration at critical moments. The Timberwolves won’t be able to make those mistakes during the playoffs, but he’s being more selective with his words.

“I’m not soft,” he said. “If I see something wrong, I speak on it. If you don’t like it, oh well. You’ll get over it.”

One thing he could take a bird’s eye view of was the aftermath of LeBron James and Kevin Durant’s comments to the “Uninterrupted”, where they were criticized by cable news hosts for speaking out against President Donald Trump.

No stranger to criticism, Butler would likely have the same approach if he dipped his toes into that arena.

“I like it. You got the right to say what you want and you speak on what you think is right,” Butler said. “Good for them. And they are magnified in a very big way. They embrace it and they’re doing the right thing, I’m all for it.”

And if the day comes where he doesn’t stick to sports, Butler’s directness and lack of diplomacy would certainly cause an interesting reaction.

“I don’t care. Whatever I believe in, I believe in,” Butler said. “Everybody else does it. You see everybody on Twitter and the Internet doing it and saying what they want to say. We just have a different job than the person to our left and right.”

Well, not quite a warm and fuzzy Jimmy Butler.