Away from the glare, away from the attention and away from his hometown, Derrick Rose went back to playing like Derrick Rose on Thursday.
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The Bulls guard notched his highest-scoring total in three years and his highest playoff scoring total in four years in Chicago’s Game 3 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. Sloughed off to the relative anonymity of an NBA TV contest, working in front of a Milwaukee crowd that seemed nearly half made up of Chicago Bulls fans, Rose attacked early and then often on his way toward 34 points in Chicago’s 113-106 double overtime win. The victory pushed Chicago to a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 in the team’s first-round series over the Bucks.
Rose infamously tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in Game 1 of his team’s first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers in April 2012, and he tore his right meniscus in the winter of 2013 – both injuries kept the 2011 MVP out of all but 10 games of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Rose had to undergo cleanup surgery on that same meniscus in late February of this season, but by and large he’s been relatively healthy if not a wee bit slackened by the rust and recovery that comes from basically taking two seasons off.
Little of this showed in Game 3, as Rose managed 34 points on just 23 shots, playing just over 48 minutes (a season-high) in the win while adding eight assists and five rebounds. His five made 3-pointers (including one banked-in make, if that counts, in nine tries) represented a career playoff high.
Rose did have a chance to win the contest with under five seconds to go in regulation after being hammered by Bucks swingman Giannis Antetokounmpo on a drive. Instead, he missed the first before rattling in the second prior to Milwaukee failing to score in the final seconds of regulation.
Following that misstep, Rose was more than a bit peeved:
"When you're coming off injuries, every game is damn near like a playoff game," Rose said. "You want that same approach where you're taking it very serious, preparing for it the night before, recovering right, and it has been helping me.''
In a game chock full of swings, Rose seemed the only stabilizing force as Milwaukee looked to and eventually failed to make a series out of things.
Both teams traded shots in the early going, but the Bucks raced out to what seemed like a well-constructed 18-point lead in the second quarter by playing off of injured Bulls forward/center Joakim Noah on defense while grasping for turnovers. The Bulls somehow managed to crawl back to make it a four-point deficit by halftime, with Rose combining with All-Star Jimmy Butler (24 points on 20 shots) to keep Milwaukee’s brilliant defense on edge.
By the time the second half hit, Rose was back to his natural and bouncy state. Even against the NBA’s fourth-ranked defense, he still managed to dive into the lane and pull off either the one-handed brilliance that marked his 2011 MVP turn, or turn in those much-missed Rod Strickland-esque rollers in the paint. He was shouting. He was angry, and happy and anxious and weird and all of the other emotions one should feel not only during an NBA playoff game – but just your third healthy NBA playoff game in three years.
Of course, Milwaukee had a counter. There was Giannis. There was Antetokounmpo. There was so much Giannis and so much Antetokounmpo.
Milwaukee’s second-year forward loped his way toward 25 points on 22 shots, with 12 rebounds (six on the offensive end) and two blocks. The Bucks managed to return from what seemed like an insurmountable fourth-quarter deficit, even with all those sullen faces watching from the bench, to pull off an 11-1 run to make a contest of it and eventually an overtime game of it. The Bucks even culled together a one-point lead on Khris Middleton’s smooth 2-point jumper during that spell, with the restricted-free-agent-to-be pouring in eight points during that grind.
Both overtimes showcased Chicago’s pregame insistence on packing the paint while defending these Bucks. Milwaukee is easily the worst offensive team amongst the 16 NBA squads in the current playoff bracket, and the Bulls had no reason to extend its defense while securing Milwaukee’s perimeter. In the second overtime Milwaukee even went scoreless for the first four minutes while Chicago pulled ahead, and the Bucks needed a few inconsequential late scores to manage an 11-point tally in all 10 minutes of OT ball.
Derrick Rose is back, though. Let’s not run away from that big batch of giddy.
Rose is just five days removed from pointing out that he’d need to spend an entire day off of his surgically repaired knees in order to function as a pro and, yeah, he totally banked in a 3-pointer on Thursday – but why the bother?
The Bulls point guard didn’t look as sprightly as he used to prior to April 2012, but an approximation was enough. Especially with two somewhat unexpected All-Stars in Pau Gasol (17 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, two blocks) and Butler playing alongside him, and with Noah, the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year, gritting his way toward a floor-bound 12 rebounds and five assists in 42 minutes on one healthy leg.
Chicago could take the series with a victory on Saturday and enjoy a week-long respite prior to the second round even if the Cleveland Cavaliers also sweep their first-round pairing with the Celtics. In months’ past, this time off would have been more than welcome for a limping Bulls lineup. Following Thursday, however, you get the feeling Chicago wants to get to its next game sooner rather than later.
Three years in basketball purgatory will do that to a team. And its franchise player.
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