- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- The last time Derrick Rose played a game at the United Center, he drove the lane, went into the air and never came back.
OK, "never" is a little strong. But April 2012 was a long time ago.
Chicago's favorite son returned to the United Center in a big way Wednesday in his preseason home debut.
You knew it was a big deal during introductions when every fan in the 100 level had their cellphones out, taking bad videos and pictures they'll never look at again.
Of course, Rose gave the fans something to remember, scoring a very efficient 22 points in 22 minutes in the Bulls' 96-81 victory over the Detroit Pistons.
The Bulls are now 4-0 in the preseason. Isn't it time for coach Tom Thibodeau to start resting Rose for the preseason postseason? I'll hang up and listen for your answer.
In all seriousness, Rose has been hungering for this moment, and while he builds up his minutes, he's not missing an opportunity to attack the basket. He's building his mental muscle memory.
"I think the biggest thing after you have an ACL injury is the mental part," Rose said. "For me not to think about anything and then actually go out there and react to the defense and the offense, it feels great to know that I'm safe. I don't have to worry about anything else. Even if I go to the hole and get contact and fall in any way, I could easily get up and bounce back and play the way I know how to play."
Rose took several falls, as he has done in two other preseason games. The knee soreness that sidelined him in Brazil was nowhere to be found. Nor were the free-throw jitters. Rose made 9-of-10 from the line, after going 9-for-15 in his two previous games. He also made 6-of-9 from the field, including a 3-pointer.
The most Rose moment of the night came on an athletic drive to the hoop that saw him end up on the ground.
With the clock winding down on the first half, Rose had guard Peyton Siva one-on-one outside the arc. He crossed over several times and drove past Siva going right. As the double team came, Rose went left, created slight contact with Siva and starting falling horizontally toward the free-throw line. As he was going down, he lofted a shot off the glass and in. He got the foul call and made the ensuing free throw.
"I'm not thinking about it, I'm just playing," Rose said of that play. "For me, half the things I do, I do it, and afterward or during the game, my teammates come up and tell me how crazy it looked. But for me, I'm just trying to play my game normally."
Pistons high-usage guard Brandon Jennings was out because of a dental injury, and Rose said he's more than aware that every player is going to be gunning for him. His friend Will Bynum, a Chicago summer pro-am legend, wasn't much of a test. But once the regular season starts in Miami, Rose will have a true bull's-eye on him every night.
"I think every team, every player I play against is coming for me," he said. "Who don't want to make a name off me right now? I always think about that and take that into consideration when I'm going out there and playing."
In fact, Rose said that status was part of the reason why he didn't feel ready to come back last season. It makes sense.
"Oh yeah, for sure," he said. "I really had to think about it. In this league you have guys that smell blood. So it makes it easy for them to come at you whenever they want, or at least try you and make sure you're ready for it. There's a lot of young players in this league doing well now, so I really had to make sure I was all right."
One thing about Rose is he never backs down from another player. He comes alive on the court. And whenever you bring up the elemental one-on-one battles of the NBA, he always becomes animated. Well, animated for Rose.
"It's great, it's competing," he said. "I love competing. I love it every night. For me that's the way I grew up playing basketball, competing and really going against guys every night. That's the Chicago way of playing."
A classic "Chicago Way" moment came in the first quarter when he drove the lane on Pistons giant center Andre Drummond. As Drummond shifted right to block the rim, Rose made an acrobatic adjustment in midair going left and laid it in.
It wasn't something you could think about. It was just Rose attacking. He was the one smelling blood.
"You have to, you have to," Rose said of that play. "If not, guys will test you every night."
They will. Rose will be ready.
As Derrick Rose continues to build his mental muscle memory after 18 months away, he realizes the rest of the league is coming for him.