Maybe this is what it was always meant to be, some karmic balancing of the basketball world, a payback for the years and dreams lost for Derrick Rose.
It was 10 years ago this month that Rose, at 22, was named the youngest Most Valuable Player in NBA history. Teamed up with hard-driving coach Tom Thibodeau, it seemed like the future was set in Chicago for the hometown hero to lead the Bulls to championships the way Michael Jordan had.
But like a hardwood version of "The Natural", the path to history was shifted by an unforeseen series of injuries and surgeries. A torn ACL in the postseason ruined the first chance. He missed the entire next season and when he came back the next year he lasted just 10 games before tearing the meniscus in his other knee. He has never come close to playing a full season since then, the once certain stardom fading into a series of sore ankles, knee problems and a laundry list of minor tweaks.
So when the Knicks made a deal with the Pistons in February to bring him in it cost them little — Dennis Smith Jr., who was about to play in the G League, and a second-round pick. Even the thought of reuniting him with Thibodeau only raised concerns that he might impede the progress of a rebuilding project. But as the young Knicks find themselves in a dogfight of an opening-round playoff series with the Hawks, it is Rose who once again has surfaced as the key component in their postseason dreams.
It was Rose who led the Knicks to a come-from-behind Game 2 victory on Wednesday night with 26 points in 39 minutes, bringing a calming presence to a desperate team. And he did that while also providing a jolt of energy, inserted into the lineup at the start of the second half with the Knicks down by 13 points. He spurred them to a 101-92 win and sent them to Atlanta for Friday’s Game 3 with the best-of-seven series even at 1-1.
Maybe it is simplistic to say that this was vintage Rose, and the amiable point guard bristles at that description. He posted before the series on Instagram a long look back and pointed out, "WHAT if you’re a totally different player! It's nothing VINTAGE about my game but my floaters. I don't dunk or jump high anymore. I’m not killing u with speed nor am I a one-man fastbreak anymore. I don't even shoot my reverse layups lol. I'm a totally different player. I love chess so I would put it this way... I lost my Queen early in the game but I fought my [expletive] way back to get one of my pawns down the board to get her back."
Taj Gibson, who has paired with Rose and Thibodeau in Chicago, Minnesota and now New York, shook his head at the notion.
"Yeah, you let him gas you up if you want," Gibson said. "He’s just being modest. He’s been playing extremely well. But at the same time, he’s been really taking real good care of his body. One thing about Derrick I’ve noticed, when he’s in a familiar situation, in a situation that he’s comfortable in, he understands it’s family, he understands that it’s a good environment, a winning environment, he’s going to flourish. And right now he’s around familiar faces he’s been in battle with for a long time.
"It’s no coincidence how he’s been playing. His leadership role is on a whole other level right now as far as just talking to the young guys. But in that third quarter, I was shocked. I didn’t know what to expect. But Thibs switched the lineup up, just trying to give some more energy, and it worked . . . We’re a real family here. We really believe in the 15 guys. And nobody never pouts. Everybody understands that whatever it takes to win the game. We always celebrate together. We’re a real team and a real family."
The Knicks needed Rose, not just because starting point guard Elfrid Payton has struggled terribly for a month now, but because the Hawks have done a stellar job of containing Julius Randle. With a need for someone to step in and provide a spark, Rose has responded.
"I’m trying to stay in the moment, stay present," Rose said. "Every time they say that you think about the past or the future, you go into default mode. I need to stay mindful where I’m at. I’m just happy that I’m feeling good, we got the win and I played a lot differently than the first game, making sure I got to the ball and just tried to play with urgency. Because I didn’t see that last game and I was disappointed in myself."