Return still a work in progress
Uneven start shows Rose -- and his teammates -- need time to adjust to each other
CHICAGO -- More than anything else, superstars obscure the mistakes. They cover for the deficiencies in the half-court offense. They nullify the gaffes and goofs that allow the opponent to turn a 13-point lead into a two-point fourth-quarter deficit. The superstar delivers even though to that point he's missed 16 of 22 shots himself.
He does something unlikely, if not completely impossible, to overcome the 18 turnovers. The superstar hits a half-hook, half-runner over a man nine inches taller to win the game then frets about the shots he didn't hit. If you have one there's hope of playing into June and if you don't, in the NBA, contending is just a fantasy.
Every night isn't going to be as dreamy as Derrick Rose made it Thursday night with that floater to beat the Knicks 82-81. The only thing to conclude two games into the new season is that the Bulls have a whole lot of work to do, particularly on offense. You just don't stick a dominant player back in a lineup after a serious knee injury and 18 months away and have the whole thing run like clockwork.
Here's the best thing about Rose's shot other than that it won the game: Rose didn't give a damn, in the larger context. He didn't see it as symbolic of his return or some sign from the heavens that the Bulls are destined to get past Miami. At the end of halftime, as Rose ran on to the court to warm up for the third quarter, he said, "We'll be all right if I can make a layup." And immediately afterward he said, "If we'd lost this game, it would have been because I missed a lot of shots. ... I still love being in that position ... having the ball in my hands late in the fourth quarter and having to make a decision on what to do. But I missed some nice, easy layups ... And I'm mad at myself," for passing up an open jump shot late.
See, the really dumb thing about trying to make the case last spring that Rose should have played, should have thrown himself into the lineup during the playoffs in a show of fake hustle to presumably ride to the rescue of his teammates, is that we're seeing absolute proof right now that you can't walk in off the street and be effective playing professional basketball (probably any sport). Hell, even after exhaustive rehabilitation, prolonged summer practice sessions, a full training camp and seven preseason games, Rose is struggling to be the player we've known him to be. So, how exactly was he going to, without any of that, walk onto the floor, with little confidence the knee would hold up, and help the Bulls against the Brooklyn Nets or Miami Heat in May? The very notion of it ignores how great these players are when physically whole.
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Luol Deng sounded a note of caution even after the joyous game-winning shot when he said, quite thoughtfully, "He's missing a lot of chip shots he normally hits, routine shots. Hey, it takes time. And there are going to be times this season he feels that ACL. He's human. It almost certainly will happen. The pounding, the minutes, the traveling; it simply all adds up. There's going to come a time -- who knows, maybe it'll be 50 games in -- where he feels it. The way he cuts and explodes?"
And this is why you watch and hold your breath, thinking it so wise now that despite his improved vertical leap, Rose jumps about half as high as he can, and used to, and simply lays the ball in instead of throwing it down so violently. The Bulls have several terrific basketball players, but only one who can make that shot in that situation a half-dozen times this season.
The point from here on should be to not put him in that position repeatedly, which means the Bulls are going to have to play a whole lot better than they have through two games. OK, two games is nothing in the NBA. The Bulls' last of six championship teams, in 1998 and featuring Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, started off 8-7. Still, through these two games, the Bulls have been a whole lot better in transition than in the half court. Tom Thibodeau says whenever asked that the team needs all the principal parties in practice before the half-court offense begins to look like something that befits a contending team. And Deng said, "The effort is there, but the rhythm is not. So much of it is based on setting good screens for each other ... for Derrick."
Carlos Boozer said he believes opponents are better prepared for what the Bulls do offensively, requiring greater attention to detail which you only do by, "getting back in the lab and working on our offense ... getting our rhythm back offensively."
It should be said that at least there's no gaping hole in the offensive capabilities of the starting unit now that Jimmy Butler is established as the 2-guard. Deng, Boozer and Rose are fully formed offensive players. And Joakim Noah, while reluctant, is perhaps the best passing center in the game today.
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Now, Mike Dunleavy has struggled mightily these first two games, but the history of Thibs and shooters is that they take months to warm up, very likely because they've never been told they have to earn their playing time by being better defensively than they've ever been in their lives. Kyle Korver was spotty with his shooting before finding a way to expend so much energy on defense and still hit shots. Marco Belinelli was even slower to find his way last season. (Speaking of Belinelli, it seems to me the Bulls would be so much better if they'd kept Belinelli or Nate Robinson, men who can get their own shots anywhere on the floor) AND signed Dunleavy.
I still look at the Bulls struggling to score in the half court, especially with big athletic teams trapping Rose, and think part of what ails the Bulls offensively is that they need another scorer/shooter, which likely would reduce the long stretches of time the Bulls go without baskets (like the nearly eight-minute stretch against the Knicks on Thursday night). That would diversify the offense and by definition requires fewer heroics late in games from Rose.
But that ship has sailed, and what the Bulls have, which they didn't have last season, is a returning dominant player who still has to be reintegrated with his teammates. As he struggles to find his game, Rose's shooting percentage is almost meaningless. As Thibs said, "The only way for him to get through it is to let him do it."