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Rose looking toward first playoff run since 2011

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Apr 13

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Derrick Rose says he doesn’t think about it much, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Because Rose is now just a few days away from what could be walking off the court for the first time in a playoff game since May 11, 2011.

“Being in the playoffs is an honor,” Rose was saying after Bulls practice in Manhattan Monday morning before the game with the Brooklyn Nets. “But just being back on the court is just even bigger.”

It’s big for the Bulls as well, obviously, especially considering the hope and possibilities Rose produced Saturday with his huge fourth quarter of scoring, playmaking and defensive plays that carried the Bulls from near defeat against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers.

“I thought he had a great rhythm offensively,” added Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “I thought defensively he was very good. He made two effort plays that were huge for us. And that’s a sign that he’s feeling a lot better. He handled the extra minutes well. He felt good the next day. And those are all good signs. Hopefully he can continue to build.”

You get lost when you are around or following the Bulls in the daily or weekly minutia with all the drama and medical bulletins and supposed feuds and personnel changes that you tend to overlook, in a sense, one of the more remarkable periods in NBA history.

After all, here was the league’s MVP in the conference finals against the Big Three story of the era with LeBron James in Miami. A passing of the torch from LeBron to Rose? A classic rivalry for the ages with LeBron’s Heat against Rose’s Bulls. The Bulls, after all, would go on to dominate the Heat in the regular season in 2011-12 after that excruciating finish in the 2011 conference finals when the Heat shocked the Bulls with that double digit comeback in the last three minutes to close the series.

Rose and his teammates—a much less talented group than the Bulls have now—trudged off the United Center court four years ago in disappointment and dismay, though confident they’d established themselves as the true rivals for Miami’s supposed juggernaut.

It never would happen, which also is why you never look too far ahead in sports and always try to win the one you are playing for now.

Because even as the Bulls led the Eastern Conference in wins that shortened season in 2011-12, it was not to be as Rose struggled through a succession of seven different injuries during the regular season and then sustained his torn ACL in the last minutes of the easy Game 1 win over the 76ers on April 28, 2012. Rose would have surgery the next month, miss all of the 2012-13 season, return in 2013-14, but go out for the season again after 10 games, this time with a torn meniscus.

Again, there would be a return this season, though again surgery in late February after another injury to the meniscus. But this time the surgery was not as severe and Rose returned last week in Florida. In his first home game Saturday, the word “superstar” was coming out of everyone’s mouth.

“Derrick just makes the game easier for everybody,” Thibodeau reiterated Monday morning. “That’s why we were very encouraged he was able to come back. We don’t expect him to be playing 40 minutes and scoring 35 points. But with each day, he’s going to get better and better. When you have a guy like that who commands two being on him, it opens things up and makes it a lot easier for everybody.

Asked about having Rose playing like that in the fourth quarter, an unusually ebullient Thibodeau cracked: “It’s great. I prefer it. Trust me.

“I think it tells you how he’s feeling,” Thibodeau went on. “It’s good to have those options. Just the way he was attacking you can tell something good was going to happen. Either we were going to score or get fouled or get the second shot or get a wide open shot. When you have a superstar like that, that’s what it does.”

Obviously, Rose’s presence and good health means everything to the Bulls’ playoff fortunes no matter whom they meet. Currently, it’s likely Washington starting Saturday in Chicago, though that could still change if the Bulls pull ahead of Toronto. Talk about your inequities. The Bulls swept the Raptors 4-0 this season. But the Bulls lose the tiebreaker to Toronto as they are now tied because Toronto will win its division, a division in which everyone but the Raptors has basically been out of contention all season. Until even a few days ago, it seemed likely no one from that division but Toronto would even make the playoffs. Toronto will be the only team in that division to be above .500 this season. Some tiebreaker, eh?

But the Bulls are not complaining—at least publicly—and it really hasn’t come up. The issue has been getting healthy and playing together for the playoffs, especially for Rose. Rose doesn’t say much, but the pain and hardship he’s gone through is almost dismissed as if anyone would prefer three years of rehabilitation and almost four years without playoff excitement when you are a top pro player.

Rose was asked Monday about his latest rehabilitation and summed it up in a word: “Hell.

“Because you’ve got to do rehab over again,” Rose said about the February meniscus surgery. “Waking up at 7:30 every day and being there two hours before practice (after a night game), beating everybody to the training room when you arrive to a city. You have to do two or three workouts every day. So the game, that’s kind of easy. For sure it’s easy.”

It’s what the hateful critics never understand wrapped up in their own petty biases: Who the heck wants to keep doing rehabilitation. Like it’s fun? Anyone who has been through serious injury understands the grueling part is trying to just return to whom you were, just to get back to work and a normal routine.

Now extend that to a professional athlete who essentially has trained and prepared for one thing. And to have that taken away again and again, and then be required to go through hours and days of lonely and painful strengthening just to return, all the while never knowing if you can do what you did before.

“It just feels good being put in those situations again,” Rose said about his Saturday fourth quarter save. “It’s always a blessing when you come back to a team like this and they allow you to play the way that you play. I’m grateful for it. And I’m happy that I’m playing in the fourth quarter now. Thibs, we talked about it. He’s going to allow me to play the way that I normally play and let me figure it out. That’s all I need. I just need to play, run around a little bit more and get ready for these playoffs. These next two games, it’s like there’s no pressure. Go out here and play, try to make the team better and try to win every game.”

Also encouraging is this is probably as healthy as the Bulls have been in years—Kirk Hinrich is out Monday but will play Wednesday or to start the playoffs—and with more talent than they’ve had anytime since Rose joined the team in 2008.

“It’s hard to say because every time we seem to get everyone back we’ve always had something pop up like the Kirk piece now,” said Thibodeau. “But I’d say it seemed like we had two and three guys out a lot this year at the same time. So from that standpoint, only having Kirk out right now is a plus for us.”

So encouraged?

“I’m the same every day,” Thibodeau said with a laugh. “I’m encouraged every day. Whoever we have, let’s get out there and get it done. I want us to be as healthy as we can be, playing well, building continuity, being sharp, having our focus. That’s the way I approach it.”

You encouraged? You also always say you are concerned every day?

“I am concerned,” Thibodeau responded with a smile. “Very concerned. Every day.

“Obviously, getting Derrick back and we want everyone playing well,” said Thibodeau. “This (last two games) gives us a chance to build some chemistry. I’m more concerned right now just about our improvement. If we’re doing the right things the results will take care of themselves. In the end, you play who you play. But I want us to be playing well.”

And for Rose, well, it’s just playing. The Bulls’ practice was at Baruch College in the city college system, named for financier and statesman Bernard Baruch. A longtime presidential advisor, he counseled, “Do not blame anyone for your mistakes or failures.” And, appropriately, Rose moves on above the uproar.

“It’s always exciting,” said Rose about going forward with this Bulls team. “Especially when you know how hard everybody works. It seems like everybody has the same goal. So it’s fun. It’s great to see that everybody is having fun. And it’s great to be playing with these guys. I’m getting the most out of every day as far as workout or recovery or lifting or whatever I’m doing. When I get on the floor, I try not to think about the past, my previous injuries. I just try to play the way I normally play. Last game was all right, but it’s already in the past.

“To tell you the truth, it’s everything (that is encouraging), running, playing defense, being on the game plan, them double teaming me,” said Rose. “I’m appreciative of everything when I step on the court. I’m just happy to be playing again, just happy to be on the floor. This is my life. I’ve dedicated so much to this sport, this art. I’m just appreciative right now. I think I have a lot more in my tank.”

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