Derrick Rose’s comeback begins with an exhibition victory over the Indiana Pacers

INDIANAPOLIS – It was a brief return to action, a cameo in a contest that meant absolutely next to nothing, but Derrick Rose acquitted himself quite well on Saturday evening in his first NBA game in more than 17 months. The Chicago Bulls guard played more than 20 minutes in his team’s 82-76 win over the Indiana Pacers, showing equal parts rust and well-honed muscle memory as he contributed 13 points, two assists and three steals in Chicago’s conquest. And although Rose sat the final 19 minutes of Chicago’s comeback win, the first step in his on-record recovery was a successful one.

You’ll recall that Rose chose to sit out the entire 2012-13 season following the ACL tear he suffered in the first game of the 2012 postseason, often refusing to comment publicly on his recovery and timeframe for return while the Bulls sweated out a tough, injury-plagued season. Though he had his teammates’ support, Rose still struck some the wrong way as he worked his way back into shape – far exceeding the rehabilitation time that contemporaries like Ricky Rubio and Iman Shumpert dealt with as they returned from the same injury.

Though Rose didn’t look like his MVP-best on Saturday, he wasn’t far off. The spring was there – Derrick nailed five of his six shots from the paint in his first and third quarter bouts with the NBA’s top defense in 2012-13, including one two-handed dunk on a breakaway that left the crowd (which nearly numbered a half-and-half Chicago/Indiana split) giddy in a preseason game. It was no small feat. Watch:

This isn’t to say Rose’s return wasn’t without hiccups. Though the 2011 NBA MVP has been practicing with his Bulls since the midpoint of the 2012-13 season, he was also hesitant in initiating the Chicago offense at times. Derrick set up a few lengths behind the 3-point line as he called up plays, forced a few plays on his way to four turnovers in 20 minutes and didn’t seem entirely comfortable dealing with the Pacers length in the half-court.

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, long Rose’s chief backer, even admitted as such following the contest -- while still pointing out that Rose’s “rust,” as he called it, was “to be expected.”

With that in place, Thibodeau (who didn't play Rose in the fourth quarter, though the Bulls entered that frame down six) also left some of the blame with Rose’s teammates. Only five of the Bulls who shared the court with Derrick on Saturday have shared court time with the former All-Star before, and Thibodeau was quick to warn Rose’s teammates they’d “have to get used to his speed.”

In a way, Rose still has to get used to his own speed.

Reps are key, in a return like this, and based on Chicago’s championship window Rose has 8 1/2 months between now and the typical end of the NBA Finals to find those sea legs. It isn’t as if Rose’s left leg is lacking; his hops and speed were clearly there, springs that Thibodeau made sure reporters knew were in place during practice some months before. The difference between practice bounding and in-game execution is entirely different, though, even if the exhibition season doesn’t exactly bring out the klieg lights.

In between now and then, the Bulls have an unending series of issues to work through. The team has to make up for the desultory mess that was the inspired but ultimately frustrating and fruitless Rose-less 2012-13 term. The franchise has to make peace between a warring coaching staff and front office in the wake of Ron Adams’ departure, has to figure out what to do with potential 2014 free agent Luol Deng and it has to mind the minutes and aching doggies of players like Deng, Rose, Kirk Hinrich, and Joakim Noah.

Toughest of all? It has to figure out how to make Derrick Rose a part of the game plan again, mindful of his long absence and ball-dominating ways.

Best of all? The team has to figure out how to make Derrick Rose a part of the team’s game plan again, mindful of the fact Rose has the ability to lead this heady, hard-working team on a championship run.

The first, uneasy steps took place on Saturday night. In an exhibition game in a road arena, far away from the glare of a sporting world focused on playoff baseball and college football, Derrick Rose chiseled away at a comeback turn. Considering his aversion to the limelight, and incessant focus on what really matters, you get the feeling Derrick wouldn’t have this setting pitched any other way.