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Sports fans with even passing knowledge of anterior cruciate ligament tears know how these things work. It's the most important of three significant ligaments that help our knees do the fabulous things they do for our bodies, whether that means crouching in order to scrounge for the cheaper brands of cereal in the breakfast aisle or coming to a jump stop in the midst of nearly dropping a triple-double while leading the team with the NBA's best regular-season record to its first win in the playoffs. Derrick Rose tore his ACL on Saturday in the fourth quarter of Chicago's win over Philadelphia, and the effects of this sort of injury cannot be overstated.
The resulting league-wise reaction, from writers to fans to fellow players, all drew along the same lines. This was an absolute gut punch, a deadening thud for fans of every team. And though this in no way compares Rose's relative talents, productiveness and likability to other All-Star types, the reaction wouldn't have been the same if the same injury befell another All-NBA talent on the first weekend of the playoffs. Other superstars have help, and though Rose has a wonderful team that has done amazing work in his absence already this season, the Bulls are not rife with supporting superstars. This injury is different, and nearly incomparable.
In the immediate, the Bulls will have a devil of a task attempting to merely keep the home-court advantage in this series, much less beating the Philadelphia 76ers. This team managed a sterling 18-9 record with Rose out with his various injuries during the regular season, and the 76ers were a sub-.500 ballclub at nearly full strength over the last few months of that season. But as we sadly saw on Saturday, everything can change in an instant.
Without attempting to get into Chicago's head, it's fair to wonder if the team doesn't take well to the news. Throughout the season, though Rose was clearly hurting from ankle, toe, mid-foot and (most severely) groin injuries, the Bulls banked on the knowledge their MVP would return at some point. Nobody doubts the mettle and professionalism of this Bulls outfit, but we wouldn't be wrong in doubting the legs that are running underneath broken hearts. In a minute, it was over. And there's a game on Tuesday. That's a heavy burden.
Though an easy schedule aided in the 76ers' start, they bounded out to a 10-3 run to begin 2011-12. When there's a spark there, and especially while playing against a starless team not unlike themselves, the 76ers could mount a turnaround here. The Boston Celtics might be next in the second round, and the Sixers took two of three from Boston this year. They know this could be a chance.
Chicago, which beat Boston twice this season without Rose in the lineup, might almost prefer the Atlantic Division champs to play right now instead of the runner-up in Philadelphia. Based on the team's 27-game run without Rose (with a couple of those games played without All-Star Luol Deng, as well), the Bulls were the equivalent of a 55-win team without Derrick, a startling achievement that says every bit about the team's drive and focus as you'd expect it to. And 55-win teams make conference finals. It's do-able.
In a way, the Bulls were both the worst and best equipped of any team to lose its best player. The glass-half-full approach doesn't make it any easier, though.
Readers of this site know my Chicago allegiances. Though Bulls fans have had to deal with early retirements, crushing late-season losses and years of lottery-level play, nothing like this has ever happened to Bulls fans, in terms of a star player suffering a season-ending injury. It's rare in basketball because you just don't see many all-world types go down like this.
Magic Johnson missed most of the season following his first championship, but he returned for the playoffs. Same for Michael Jordan, following his rookie year, and his 1986 Bulls team wasn't a title contender. Larry Bird's 1985 postseason was marred with bone chips in his elbow, but he was still able to play. Back injuries may have contributed to Charles Barkley's playoff efforts in 1994 and '95, but at least he was on the floor. Luckily for this generation, none of the typical MVP candidates have had to deal with a major injury that wiped out a playoff run, unless you count the delicate balance that the Houston Rockets had to deal with regarding Yao Ming during his prime.
This is, happily, rare. But while I'm seeing all over Twitter that "no team is equipped to handle this like the Bulls," you can't prepare for something that leaves you this crestfallen. On paper, and allowing for past history, the Bulls will battle and make Chicago proud. But we wouldn't think twice about putting our collective arm around the remaining Bulls if the team just isn't up for it. There's a reason they call it a "gut punch." It's supposed to knock you down.
What happens to Rose from here on out cannot be ably guessed upon by any sane observer. In the last decade, athletes have returned to action following ACL tears showing absolutely no ill effects from the significant tear, with their explosiveness and jumping ability intact. But as it is with Rose's team, even Derrick -- perhaps the league's bravest player, if you could put a ranking on such things -- doesn't know how he'll respond the next time he'll come to the same jump stop, with yet another 7-footer in his face. It's just something he'll have to figure out on the fly -- after missing the London Olympics and possibly Chicago's 2012-13 training camp, preseason and first month of the regular season.
He, like the Bulls, will have relearn everything. All over again. And no amount of missed regular-season games can prepare either side for this new, and abrupt, reality.
Game 2 is on Tuesday. That much is cruelly certain.
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