Unwittingly, Chicago’s most unsympathetic sports figure of late elicited a degree of sympathy late Saturday night inside the Bulls’ ebullient locker room at the Barclays Center.
Derrick Rose awkwardly maneuvered himself through the celebration of the Bulls’ scintillating 99-93 victory over the Nets in Game 7. Rose proudly held his son, P.J., as he partook in the party atmosphere with joyously weary teammates who had made it all possible.
But you wondered if, deep down, Rose felt as oddly placed as he looked giving congratulations, rather than accepting them from the NBA’s hardest-working team.
The moment had nothing to do with Rose.
The moment had everything to do with Rose.
Hours before the Bulls propelled themselves into a second-round matchup with the Heat with emotion and intangibles, Rose yet again coyly left open the possibility of returning in the playoffs. In the next breath, Rose claimed to be oblivious to mounting criticism of his decision not to play, suggesting he is either out of touch or excuses.
And Rose used to have such keen instincts and awareness.
He’s fooling nobody. End the charade. That’s how Rose can contribute to the Heat series: officially shutting it down. That’s what a team leader owes his teammates.
As national interest in the Bulls increases against the Heat, more questions will come about the most tired topic in Chicago. They will sound numbingly familiar. They could distract.
The Bulls can stop them all by preemptively answering no before tonight’s Game 1 and ruling Rose out for the series. Welcome Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich back with open arms, if and when both get healthy, but keep Rose on the bench in the nicest suit his $16 million salary can buy.
Letting the will-he-or-won’t-he issue linger does a disservice to everybody. Not the least of which are Rose’s teammates who have earned the right to have the organization limit the focus to the players who gave all they could instead of the one who chose not to. Stop wasting everybody’s breath on what Rose might do and start appreciating what his teammates have done without him.
The time for Rose to return was at the end of the regular season, but not now. Besides, playing against LeBron James is no place for a point guard who was medically cleared but still mentally foggy to make a season debut, no matter how accomplished Rose is.
No matter how seamless Rose thinks his transition would be, he will need time to adjust after not playing a game in more than a year.
The Bulls can’t beat the Heat with or without Rose. Rose could play 20 minutes a game, and the Heat still likely won’t need more than five games to oust the Bulls.
Or Rose could keep sitting next to VladRad, and the series will last just as long – or short. Intensity and intelligence can carry the Bulls past a team as fragile as the Nets, but not the Heat and James.
This takes nothing away from what the Bulls accomplished in a Nets series that stamped their season a success. In fact, it makes being one of the last eight teams standing even more impressive.
The Indomita-Bulls beat a team with three All-Star-caliber players while getting key contributions from a summer-league-looking backcourt of Marquis Teague and Daequan Cook.
Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson, who never played a game with Rose, came through with clutch shots that justified general manager Gar Forman’s offseason gamble.
Jimmy Butler warmed up for guarding James with a breakthrough postseason effort. Carlos Boozer did more to praise than pan. Joakim Noah produced the penultimate game of his career when the Bulls needed him most.
The force of Tom Thibodeau meant the Bulls were unfazed and unselfish in Game 7, determined and disciplined. They were the rare pro sports team that disproved the theory that talent prevails. They used a philosophy built around the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, one that made Bulls executives exchanging hugs in the hallway as proud as they ever have been about a group of players.
That group belongs in the Eastern Conference semifinals – and that group alone deserves a chance to finish what they started, free of distraction.