By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) – After all the questions, the three agonizing years of wonder and the growing list of doubters, Derrick Rose took to the hardwood Saturday evening at the United Center and expressed himself in the manner, in a moment, that so many had been longing for.
On the big stage once again, he just played basketball freely.
“I only had three goals tonight, and that was to have fun, have no expectations and to compete,” Rose said.
Participating in the playoffs for the first time since he tore his left ACL late in Game 1 of a first-round series in 2012, Rose played without inhibition, simply letting his instincts take over in Chicago’s 103-91 victory against Milwaukee in the series opener. This manifested itself in a more-demonstrative-than-usual Rose, as he gave a staredown to the crowd after a transition dunk, exhorted the fans into a frenzy entering a timeout and on at least one occasion screamed at an official when he thought he was fouled.
It was the fuel for Rose’s 23-point, seven-assist night that included 9-fo-16 shooting, 3-of-7 from downtown, in 27-plus minutes.
“When you miss a long period of time playing a sport that you love playing, dedicating your life to one craft or your art, it comes out in a weird way,” Rose said. “I didn’t mean to do it on purpose. It just came out. It’s grind mode. This entire time I’ve been grinding. I felt like I prepared myself for this game tonight.”
It didn’t take long to realize this playoff return was deeply meaningful for Rose, as he nearly played himself into exhaustion in the first quarter. Early on, he went chest-to-chest defensively against Michael Carter-Williams, pushed the pace offensively and dove for a loose ball. Upon getting knocked down on a drive, Rose stayed down a few extra seconds and left a short time thereafter, having played the game’s first 5:49.
There was no injury trouble, just a need for oxygen.
“I was tired as hell,” Rose said.
Flashing before our eyes again was the brilliant form Rose exhibited periodically during the regular season, the type that makes the Bulls’ championship aspirations a realistic goal as opposed to merely empty words. After shooting 1-for-3 in the opening quarter, Rose returned with about eight minutes left in the second frame.
Over an ensuing six-minute stretch, Rose went 5-for-5 and scored 10 points. The five buckets: a driving layup, a seven-foot jumper, a reverse layup, a dunk and another reverse layup.
This was the same Rose who relentlessly attacked the Cavaliers in the final game before the All-Star break, the one who can speed to the hoop on his own terms and no one else’s if a double team isn’t sent his way.
So yeah, it only took one day for the 2015 NBA playoffs to get a lot more fun.
“It was good to have him out there again,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Rose, who returned for the final five regular season games after missing the previous 20 following a right knee injury. “It’s been a long process for him.
“He’s had setbacks throughout the course of the season. He’s bounced back every time. It usually takes him a few games, then he takes off.”
When it was over, Rose and backcourt mate Jimmy Butler (game-high 25 points) took to the postgame dais for an interview session. In the regular season, postgame interviews are done in a less formal locker room scrum, but the hordes of reporters dictate different logistics for the playoffs.
At one point as they spoke praise for each other separated by just a few feet and in the camera’s glow, Rose turned to Butler and said, “So awkward.” Butler responded, “Yeah it is.”
Derrick Rose was back in the spotlight, this time for the best of reasons way after two separate knee injury cost him most of the past two seasons and the last three playoff runs. An awkward moment? Yes, but also a reason to be “grateful,” in having taken the floor with and come through for teammates, Rose added.
“He just told me, ‘Tonight is for the love of the game,’” Joakim Noah said of a pregame conversation with Rose. “That means a lot because I know he’s gone through so much. It’s hard to play basketball when you’re not feeling well, you know. And I think sometimes people and fans take that for granted. Just to see him out there competing the way that he competed during the most important time of the year, this is fun.
“Competing like that is what it’s all about.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.