Now in the midst of his third comeback in three years, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose looks poised to lead his team deep into the postseason. Chicago slowly worked the former MVP back into the lineup in the final four games of the regular season, monitoring his minutes and never letting the total exceed more than 28.
That patient approach allowed Rose to work off some of the rust he attained while recovering from his third knee surgery in as many years. Now the Bulls hold a 2-0 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in their first-round series, and appear slated to face LeBron James and Co. in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Averaging 19 points, 8.5 assists and 1.5 steals over the first two games of the series, Rose appears to have found the stride that made him one of the most lethal scorers and floor leaders of his generation.
In Game 1, Rose lit up the Bucks for 23 points while he dashed toward the basket for his patented twisting and winding layups, and knocked down three of his seven three-point attempts.
"He had a great Game 1," Bucks head coach and former All-Star point guard Jason Kidd told ESPN of Rose. "He came out very aggressive, getting the ball in the paint and finishing. Then in the second half, he knocked down some jump shots. He had a heck of a game.
"You can't give a star player like that easy layups and [let him] get going confidence-wise, and we did that last night."
Even though he went 4-for-14 from the field, Rose largely provided more of the same in Game 2 and his presence alone allowed Bulls leading-scorer and shooting guard Jimmy Butler to take over and net 31 points and nine rebounds. Rose poured in 15 points and nine assists while snatching seven rebounds in the hard-fought 91-82 victory.
The performance was one a savvy and tested veteran would put on. Rose found different ways to impact the game rather than force the offense to flow through him when his shot wasn't falling. It was also an early test of adversity for Rose as Chicago aims to use this series as a catapult to the second round and maybe the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2011. At the moment, there is little reason to doubt that Rose can be a major catalyst for Chicago's title aspirations.
On the first possession of Game 2, Rose put the Bucks on notice, by driving to his left and shooting a bank shot over Michael Carter-Williams and Zaza Pachulia from about 15 feet. The shot would rim out, and so would others in the first half. Rose missed all five of his first-quarter shots, and even dribbled off his foot at one point.
The shots would start to fall in the second half for the 26-year-old. In the third quarter, Rose showed off his impressive penetration abilities by flying past Carter-Williams with dribble drives. In the fourth quarter, Rose would provide the dagger against the Bucks with a 19-footer that put the Bulls comfortably ahead by nine points with under a minute remaining. Rose got plenty of lift on his jumper to shoot over the taller Carter-Williams, showing almost no lingering effects from his knee injury.
"When you're missing shots, I think you've got to do other things to help your team, whether it's the defense, the rebounding, making plays," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said to reporters after the game. "And I thought Derrick did that. I thought once he got lost in the game, he started doing other things then he found his offensive rhythm."
If there’s a drawback to Rose’s return it’s the slight issue with turnovers. He’s coughed up seven giveaways in the first two games of the series, which is 0.5 more than his career average of 3.0 per game, and as a team the Bulls are allowing Milwaukee to stay in these games longer than they should. In Game 1, Chicago committed 19 turnovers which the Bucks converted into 25 points. In Game 2, 15 Bulls turnovers led to 15 Bucks points.
But as the series turns to Milwaukee for Games 3 and 4, Rose figures to have more opportunities to score and clean up the Bulls turnover woes. Chicago has already ruled versatile reserve forward Nikola Mirotic out for Game 3 with a left knee strain. The rookie, whose averaged 10.2 points and 4.9 rebounds, could also sit for Game 4.
Mirotic’s minutes will go to forward Taj Gibson, but he’s struggled with injuries this season, leaving Rose and Butler to pick up more of the scoring slack on the perimeter.