The worst nightmare and greatest feeling of optimism for the Bulls was on full display in Game 2 against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Consider the imagery.
Those long, drawn-out scoring droughts that can be deadly against the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers in Round 2 juxtaposed with Jimmy Butler catching fire in the fourth quarter and Derrick Rose recognizing it, making sure to be aggressive enough to have his presence felt but not domineering enough to take Butler out of his rhythm.
The delicate dance the backcourt will walk in this postseason will likely play the biggest part in their fortunes, as no matter how Rose looked in Game 1, Game 2 was a reminder he’s in his seventh game back from knee surgery — it just so happens to be in the high-pressure, no-excuses environment of the playoffs.
“When you’re missing shots, you have to do other things to help the team,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Whether it’s playing defense or making plays, I thought Derrick did that. He got lost in the game and started doing other things then found his offensive rhythm.”
The duo combined for 36 of the Bulls’ 52 second-half points after a near-disastrous start — the kind they can’t afford to have from this point forward. Rose went scoreless in the first half, missing all seven of his shot attempts while Butler missed his first six 3-point attempts.
“First half, I was missing shots,” Rose said. “I was just trying to get everybody into the game. We went up one at halftime. The second half, it’s a different game. It’s kind of like the restart button where you forget about the first half and just go out and play.”
No one would ever accuse Rose of hesitating, so it was no surprise when he unexpectedly received a kickout pass from Mike Dunleavy, he looked down before stepping back to launch a triple — where finally he and the ball were on the same accord.
A few possessions later, the crevices of a ridiculously tough Bucks defense provided just enough sunlight for Rose to slide through and get a lefty layup to fall, right before he tossed a crosscourt lob pass to Butler for a layup that signaled the Bulls finally finding their offensive rhythm.
For Butler, it didn’t take much for him to catch the feeling Rose had in the third quarter of Game 1 — having the ball on a string, the game in your hands and knowing no one can truly stop you on a given night.
“I think I took a lot of bad shots that happened to go in,” said Butler, who shot 10 for 19 from the field for a game-high 31 points and nine rebounds.
But Butler’s emergence is the strongest reminder that Rose doesn’t have to do it all by himself anymore, which he certainly has appeared to recognize given his strong floor game. Rose’s nine assists were his 11th playoff game with nine or more, and he didn’t turn the ball over at all in the second half.
“He definitely makes it a lot easier,” Butler said. “When he’s on the floor, people pay attention to him a lot more than they do me. So all I have to do is step up and make my shots.”
Rose’s jumper with less than a minute remaining complemented Butler’s fourth-quarter explosion where Butler scored 14, and quietly, is averaging 28 points on 55 percent shooting in the first two games this series.
“Huge. Huge. It’s always a plus when you got a guy that talented and confident in his game,” said Rose of Butler. “We’ve seen him put the work in. And he’s actually out there showing that it’s paying off. If anything, it pushes us as a team to work on our game individually and with everyone doing that, it gives us a good chance to win.”
The Bulls still shot just 37 percent in the second half, but Rose and Butler combined to go 11-for-18 — meaning their teammates hit just five of their 25 attempts after halftime.
“We’re playing the game the right way, and that will get guys their shots,” Butler said. “Any night someone can score 30. All I have to do is step up and make my shots.”
It’s a reminder they need to play more to develop more continuity, because they’ll need it sooner rather than later.