- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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So the coach pulled Rose early in the third quarter, and that's when Thibodeau knew his star player was really back.
"He got mad at me, so I knew we were good," Thibodeau said. "Now things are back to normal."
In perhaps the most-anticipated preseason opener in Bulls history, Rose scored 13 points in #TheRealReturn after missing the entire 2012-13 season rehabbing his knee from a city-crushing ACL injury.
You might've heard about it.
Rose and the Bulls beat the rival Indiana Pacers 82-76 on Saturday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in a rare raucous preseason game. The result is less than a footnote considering it's, you know, the preseason. But Rose brought up the victory several times in the postgame locker room.
That's how I knew the old Rose was really back.
"I know it's preseason, but I haven't played in a competitive NBA game in a long time," he said. "So for us to get a win, it not only makes me feel good, but the team feel good about the work we've put in, in practice and training camp."
Rose said he was "relieved" that the first game is over. No, he didn't have any knee problems. No, he wasn't anxious. He never felt winded, which is why he wanted to keep going.
"I was just playing, man, trying to get to an open spot," he said. "I hope I looked good out there playing, but I'm just happy we got the win."
Rose was rusty in many parts of his game, as expected, but his speed is there. So is his power. He said he thinks his vertical is five inches better than when he came in the league.
"I'm jumping a little bit higher," he said.
After so many people wrongly, yes wrongly, questioned his desire last season, Rose is about to embark on a take-no-prisoners tour of the NBA to prove that the former MVP is back. And it started in a preseason game that Rose said he really wanted to win.
So when Thibodeau took him out 4:53 into the second half, Rose wasn't having it.
"He told me was going to give me eight minutes," Rose said. "He only gave me five. I was mad about the other three minutes."
I have a feeling he'll get those minutes back in the regular season.
Thibodeau refers to Rose as a poker player because of his implacable demeanor, and it's a fitting description. He goes from patient to aggressive, like a poker player bluffing before taking a big pot.
In this game, Rose waited five possessions before taking a shot.
Three minutes into the game, Rose drove the paint right at mammoth Pacers center Roy Hibbert, missed a layup and then put back his own rebound. His first basket, predictably, was a blur.
It wasn't a dramatic dunk or a wicked crossover. Just a basketball player following his shot.
Sure, "The Return" outlasted the adidas marketing campaign, but on a warm evening in the Indiana heartland, Rose finally had his Jimmy Chitwood moment. Bulls fans got closure.
Everyone could breathe a sigh of relief when Rose was subbed out, healthy, after 7 minutes, 2 seconds. They could exhale when he threw down his first dunk in the third quarter. And when Rose had both knees wrapped as he sat on the baseline in the third quarter, they could turn the channel.
Now, there's no more speculation. No more arguing. And no more pregame questions about Rose's health status.
Before the game, Thibodeau was asked for one more Rose update for old time's sake. The famously intense coach got the joke.
"Game time, day-to-day, you guys will check your sources," Thibodeau said. "I'm sure you'll get what you need."
Feels good to laugh again, doesn't it?
Rose is just a basketball player. Not a symbol. Not a myth. Just an extraordinarily fast basketball player who carries the weight of a city on his well-sculpted shoulders.
But Rose didn't try to show anything extra in his first game back, and his teammates didn't especially look for him as they worked through their offensive sets.
So what did Thibodeau expect from Rose in this game?
"Run the team, get us organized, organize us at both ends, lead us, unite us, inspire us," Thibodeau said before the game. "All the things that he normally does."
Man, that's a lot of things. No wonder they missed him so much.
Rose was a little quick for his own good at times, turning the ball over four times, and he missed two free throws.
The first real "he's back" moment came in the second quarter, when Rose caught a pass from Kirk Hinrich while running on the wing and finished with a double-pump layup.
Then, he went all DRose on us, wowing the crowd with two transition layups that showed unequivocally his speed, creativity and power -- those extra tweaks that make Rose who he is -- are back.
"That's his game, the speed, the quickness, but the power to go along with it," Thibodeau said. "That's what makes him special and unique. There's no one like him."
Rose threw down his first dunk early in the third quarter when he picked up a loose ball near midcourt and flushed a two-handed dunk with ease.
Less than three minutes later, he was done for the night, watching his teammates close it out.
Before the game, a smart aleck with a media pass asked Thibodeau if the Bulls finally had "more than enough to win" -- mocking the stoic coach's favorite saying.
"I hope we don't get to that point," Thibodeau said with a smile. "We feel good about our team. We really do. We got good guys. They're hard working, they're tough, they'll fight. And this is the beginning. There's a long way to go."
Hashtag this one #TheBeginning.
7dEthan Sherwood Strauss