The clock wasn’t done ticking the final few seconds away, but Derrick Rose was greeted by Russell Westbrook and then Kevin Durant with “congratulations” and “good luck” as the buzzer sounded on the Bulls’ 104-98 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder at the United Center, where Rose turned in his best game of this short season and quieted some doubters.
It’s only a temporary reprieve for a player who weathers one mini-controversy after another, be it derived from bad luck, subpar play or media speculation centered around his past, present and future.
Three straight games without scoring in double figures earned Rose a trip through the spin cycle, especially when it was capped off by a 25-point embarrassing loss two nights prior — along with mixed messages from Rose and his coach that could be more a matter of interpretation than locker-room consternation.
“(Bleep) it,” said his teammate and arguably biggest defender, Joakim Noah. “To me it’s part of our job, and when you play with somebody like Derrick Rose … I know he doesn’t care at all, but for me it bothers me, especially for him. I know people don’t realize how hard it is to go out there and play, especially when you’re going through things he’s gone through, injuries and stuff.
“Sometimes he says crazy (bleep) that gets him in trouble, but I know what type of competitor he is."
Rose being oblivious to all that swirls around him is nearly poetic, considering the man sees double every time he steps on the floor, playing when it would be easier to sit and wait until his vision returns to normal — but since nothing else about Rose’s journey is normal, the vision is a mere microcosm of everything else.
Because unfortunately, every game is a referendum as if he has no sweat equity built with this base — and one can imagine how heavy he would play if he actually paid any mind to such nonsense.
His 29 points, seven assists and five rebounds in 37 tough minutes showed he’s still capable of dominating against the best, on the biggest stage. But he’s taking a prudent approach to all this, not wanting to bask in the success, which given the shots he’s taken, would be well within his rights.
“I know it's a process. It's going to be ups and downs,” Rose said. “Just because it's a high right now, it's not no relief. I still have to get the most out of every day.”
Unfortunately, he’s entered the full “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” stage of his tenure in Chicago, no matter how it turns out. When he started off missing seven of his first eight shots, the knee-jerk fan base was putting the scarlet “R” on his forehead, as if to mark “return to sender”.
“The last couple of games I only shot seven or eight shots. You couldn't tell which way the game was going to go,” Rose said. “But with my eye like this, I don't want to affect the game in a way where I'm messing up the game. I want to do something positive and getting my teammates in the right position, and by that time the game was over. So tonight, I was just trying to be aggressive. I'm still getting my rhythm, and it's slowly coming to me.”
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The missed layups were frustrating early but encouraging the way he was able to get those attempts. Then, like a flash it seemed to click.
Blow-by Westbrook for a layup.
Then another one.
All of a sudden, his fortunes began to turn, the game began to come to him as opposed to allowing him to play facilitator and he embraced the simple fact that as an attacker, he’s far more valuable in this role than any other.
“We're trying to figure everything out,” Rose said. “In the past, I can't say the team wasn't as talented as it is now, but in the past I had to take the shots that I was taking. I think this time around, every game it might be something different.”
But this game the night belonged to him because it had to.
Because Jimmy Butler spent so much energy chasing around the baddest man on the planet this side of LeBron James, and because Rose was getting the better of Westbrook, the player many prop up as the antithesis of everything they believe Rose to be.
“For him to have a game like this I know is a huge confidence booster,” Hoiberg said. “Our guys are very happy for him because they know how hard he worked in the offseason and how much time he has put in to get back after the injuries.”
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When Rose looks at Westbrook’s blinding speed, power and force, he doesn’t see a facsimile of what he used to be. Similarities, maybe, but that’s it. Westbrook’s critics want him to play more under control while Rose’s want him to play as reckless as his counterpart.
Funny how that works, eh?
“Russ is a great player,” Rose said. “The year that he had last year, I'm happy for him. I'm real close with him and his family. We're kind of similar, but Russ is Russ. I love his game.”
The fourth quarter was a vintage performance in Rose’s way, scoring 10 in a row to close things out and reading the defense well enough to set up Pau Gasol for a layup on a switch he shot on four straight times, an indication of basketball IQ.
His bank-shot jumpers? A new wrinkle he seemed to add during last spring’s playoff run, but he was asked if he’d been watching tape of Tim Duncan.
Again, he preached perspective.
“I know I work extremely hard, I know I dedicate my whole life to this sport,” Rose said. “It's going to pay off one day. I can't get all high because of this game. I'm going to have more ups and downs, and I'll find my way around them.”
Rose, the man who can’t see straight, seems to have the most clairvoyant view of all considering the hot takes and long-term views off short samples. But as he noted, it’s only one game.
And come Saturday night, everyone will have hit the reset button, good or bad.