Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in. The Bulls have been treading water for the most of the second half of the season, waiting on injury returns from Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Derrick Rose. And now, with the team mostly healthy, I had expected that they wouldn’t have enough time to start putting things together. Rose had looked really mediocre all season, with only short spurts of brilliance and a handful of stretches of competence.
But after two pretty forgetful games after returning from missing 20 straight, Rose has put together back-to-back good basketball games, and back-to-back wins for the Bulls. Sure, beating the 76ers doesn’t exactly prompt a medal ceremony. Beating the Nets isn’t anything to write home about either, even if it’s on the road and by 27 points. The Bulls came out like they viewed the game as a playoff game, but whether or not the Nets matched that intensity is debatable.
Combined over his last two games, Rose’s stats are decent on paper. He’s played 51 total minutes, scored 35 points on 40.6 percent shooting and 33.3 percent three-point shooting, dished out 15 assists and only committed two turnovers. Most importantly, Rose has physically looked like the Derrick Rose of old (not MVP Rose, but All-Star Rose).
On the defensive end, he was able to stay in front of Deron Williams with no problem. At times, it looks like he was hounding him. Not that it can all be attributed to Rose, but Williams had a less-than-inspiring game, shooting 3-13 from the field with five assists in 33 minutes. While you cannot call Rose a great defensive player, he’s certainly the best they have at the position. In his first 49 games (not including the game against the Nets), Rose has 1.2 defensive win shares on this season.
For comparison, Kirk Hinrich also has 1.2 defensive win shares in 66 games played and over 100 more minutes on the court than Rose. Aaron Brooks has played 80 games (also prior to the Nets game) and over 300 more minutes than Rose, and his defensive win shares is 1.4. The Bulls are a better team on both ends of the court with Rose out there even when he’s not at his best, which he hasn’t been most of the season.
On the offensive side of the ball, Rose had a few moments where he it looked like he was abusing Williams as well. Against both the Nets and the 76ers, Rose had several drives at the basket like fans haven’t seen from him in years. In a particularly eyebrow raising moment of court vision, Rose went away from a Pau Gasol screen and drove from the left-hand wing at the three-point line down into the lane while dragging Williams along his side. Once at the basket, he got Williams to commit and dished the ball around him to an open Taj Gibson for a dunk. On a similar play earlier in the season, the best you would’ve expected in this situation would have been a Rose drive and wild layup attempt.
Is it possible that Rose has been duping us all year long? It seems like a silly notion, but I could make a case for it. We know that management has been upset with Tom Thibodeau because of player usage and how hard he pushes his guys, resulting in a worn down team in the playoffs. If you found out that someone inside the organization on the management side told Rose to dial it back on attacking the rim until the playoffs, would it be all that shocking?
Would it be all that shocking if Rose agreed with this strategy? Despite the narrative that is spun by the local Chicago media, Rose actually does like to be on the court and playing basketball. I can only imagine how much missing the last two full seasons, not to mention the last three playoffs, killed him on the inside. He knows his body better than anyone else, including Doctor Dan Bernstein, local-radio M.D. If he feels like pushing himself so hard in the regular season is to blame for his body breakdowns, I don’t think it’s a stretch to think he’d be open to calming down his aggressiveness until late April.
It’s also entirely possible that he comes out looking lost on defense Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks, while jacking up bad, contested threes on the offensive end and making poor decisions with the ball. It could certainly happen in the playoffs, too. We don’t have enough information yet to be able to make a decision on whether Derrick Rose is truly back, or whether he’s merely playing on the court.
While a few weeks ago I was extremely skeptical that we’d see Rose look like an impact player at all this year, I now believe that he already looks like an impact player just four games into his return from meniscus surgery. This is extremely important for the Bulls, considering what the team looks like when Rose sits out. In his 50 games played the Bulls are 32-18, which is a 52.5 win pace over a whole season. In the 31 games he’s sat out with injury the Bulls are just 17-14, or a 45 win pace.
The Bulls were built to be a title contender this season, having added Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol and a healthy Derrick Rose to a team of several really good basketball players with one of the best in-game coaches in the NBA. The Bulls haven’t looked like a contender for the majority of the year and just about everyone bailed off the bandwagon at some point. But the hope that was flickering and at risk of going out completely just a few weeks ago is burning as bright as it has at any point this season.
Are the Bulls going to win a championship this season? Probably not. Are they going to win the Eastern Conference? Probably not. But for the first time since last November, it’s not impossible to imagine it happening.