Joakim Noah had a playful hand clap when emerging from the showers and seeing the throng of media in front of Derrick Rose’s locker, while Pau Gasol could only smirk in appreciation.
It had been a while since Rose’s words came after a vintage performance, especially one that has birthed so much positivity. It wasn’t about when Rose was coming back, or how was his body feeling—at least not in the context of some inactivity and doubt surrounding a return.
Twenty-two thousand eyes witnessed Rose do what he’d done so many times on call as he became the league’s youngest MVP—and chanted that name in the fourth quarter after a quicksilver drive to the hoop.
When Noah was asked which part of Rose’s game he liked the most, be it his passing or driving, he answered simply.
“I just liked him on the court,” Noah said. “When you see Derrick moving like that, it’s a plus for this team. He’s gone through so much, injuries, and to see him come back and play at that level, it’s big.”
There was a hint of melancholy from Rose after his best game in “The Return, Part III”, in which he reminded everyone why he’s so dangerous if he’s right.
And although his often-monotone emotions didn’t display it, the words were of an appreciative man.
A man just as appreciative of his mates in the locker room as they are happy that he’s back. They believe Saturday’s performance was just the start.
“It’s still gonna take time,” Rose said. “I’m just happy I have the teammates that I have. A guy misses so many games and come back, trying to find my way through, they’re staying with me, sticking with me. I’m grateful, excited and just filled with joy that I’m back playing.”
Rose knew this was different from the moment he left the hospital after his meniscus surgery six weeks ago.
“I didn’t have a brace, wasn’t sleeping in a brace for four months,” Rose said. “Walked out of the hospital. All of those little things, I think are pluses for me. Just knowing how hard I work and how I work on my craft, I’m gonna be in a good position once the playoffs come.”
He seemed just as proud of his 22 points in the Bulls’ 114-107 win over the 76ers as his eight assists—chief reason for his plus-25 in the box score in his 28 minutes.
An underrated facet of Rose’s game was on display, as he found teammates for easy opportunities in the open floor. Two such instances didn’t yield assists, but it illustrates the effort made by the other players on the floor when he has the ball.
Once was a lead pass to Pau Gasol that resulted in free throws, another was a bullet pass on a two-on-one fast break to Jimmy Butler, where Butler missed the layup but it was followed up by Gasol for a tip-in.
Rose possesses that Isiah Thomas-like ability to throw pinpoint passes ahead to teammates instead of insisting on running it up the floor himself for early offense.
And his teammates know it, getting out on the break with quickness, readying themselves for easy opportunities
Rose acknowledges the obvious, that he’s been out of the game for a long time and the process is ongoing, possessing a self-awareness many didn’t believe existed.
“When you miss three years damn near you see everything,” Rose said. “I’m just being patient a little bit more. There’s no point in me forcing anything, the way they’re playing me, they’re not double-teaming me. They’re letting me do what I wanna do, it’s just all about me catching a rhythm.”
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And he looked like himself late in the evening, getting to the basket when the floor was spread, for layups and three-point play opportunities. So now when he says he feels good, perhaps Rose should be taken at his word.
“Every game I play is a stride,” he said. “Every day I go in and work out, do my training. It’s a step forward. Every day is a positive day, even if I have a bad game or bad day. I try to erase it the next day.”
Presumably, that comes with remembering what makes him great, and getting closer to having the ability to produce these performances on call when they matter most.
“That’s my goal,” he said. “Every time I step on the floor, I try to give my best. I try to win the game, put my all out there. I’m trying to figure this thing out. Not playing for so long, coming back here and there, it’s all right. I think I’m built for it.”