Derrick Rose returned from a five-game absence and took two hard falls on his back in the Chicago Bulls' 90-79 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday afternoon. Following each one the United Center crowd, and fans watching on TV, held their breath. After all, they know that the Bulls' title aspirations rest on the shoulders of the 6-foot-3 reigning NBA MVP.
Fortunately for the Bulls and their fans, Rose responded well after both tumbles, with a slight grimace following the second one that occurred in the third quarter, and poured in a game-high 23 points on 8-for-18 shooting to go along with six assists and five rebounds. His crossover looked as filthy as ever and he propelled the Bulls to a 35-point first quarter, in which he drained two three-pointers and made an acrobatic, left-handed layup over Josh Smith, the Hawks' athletic forward. Then, in the fourth quarter, Rose connected on a pair of critical jumpers that gave the Bulls a much-needed cushion.
Having not watched Rose in nearly a month, the sellout crowd of 22,033 gave him an extremely loud ovation during pregame introductions -- and even when he first dribbled the basketball up the court -- which set the tone for his teammates.
"Anytime the UC gets loud like that, it's always a great feeling," center Joakim Noah told Bulls.com's BullsTV after the game. "There's great energy as soon as they call D. Rose's name out.
"It's good to have our MVP back. Having Pooh back just opens up everything for a lot of guys."
While both Luol Deng and Noah played over 40 minutes, Rose was on the court for 35, and the Bulls clearly didn't look the same when their star point guard he was on the sideline. The Bulls outscored the Hawks by 19 points when Rose was in the game and his counterpart, Jeff Teague, played just 22 minutes and didn't have much success defending him. Rose wasn't on the floor when former Bulls guard Jannero Pargo knocked down three three-pointers near the end of the third quarter, though.
Of course, Rose had to shake off some rust. The 23-year-old, who hadn't played since Feb. 8, missed 4-of-9 free throw, committed four turnovers and, as expected, wasn't in the type of game shape that would allow him to play heavy minutes -- the latter of which coach Tom Thibodeau alluded to after Sunday's practice. The Bulls' offense lacked much continuity as the game wore on, but Rose helped his squad get off to a good start and build a healthy lead that would prove insurmountable for the pesky Hawks.
"[He looked] good," Thibodeau told reporters. "His explosion was there. His drives were there. I thought conditioning-wise [he was] not where he normally is, but that's to be expected. Overall, very pleased and he said he felt real good out there."
Thibodeau made it clear that Rose met all of the team's criteria in order to return from his lower back spasms. The reigning Coach of the Year said Rose -- who has missed 10 games overall this season, five of which in January because of a turf toe -- had no problem with both the contact and non-contact drills and that he was cleared by the training staff. At that point, whether or not to play against the Hawks was Rose's decision, which, as usual, had nothing to do with the Bulls' competition.
"The big thing was making sure he was 100 percent and pain-free," Thibodeau said. "And then he had to be cleared medically first. So once that happened, he had to feel very good about playing, that he wanted to play, could play and there wouldn't be any problem."
"Who we're playing had nothing to do with it. He felt he was 100 percent and that he could go. He was cleared medically to do it. And I think that's important. We'll just go from here. He said he felt well out there."
However, in an uncharacteristic manner, Rose left the United Center without speaking to the assembled media after the contest. That will certainly raise some eyebrows, although by all accounts, the fourth-year veteran's back was in good shape. And he did give an on-court interview to ESPN's Doris Burke after the final buzzer sounded.
"[My] teammates were waiting for me to come back, the fans were, and I was just feeling good," Rose said. "[I] was just trying to play the way I normally play. Play aggressive. My teammates follow me. The coaching staff did a great job with the game plan and we just came out and try to execute it.
"[My back] feels good. I've got to put a little ice on there, but I should be all right."
Obviously, Rose, whose health continued to improve over the past couple weeks, is one of the best players in the league and the Bulls were ecstatic with the fact that he played Monday. Most importantly, he perform at a high level and the Hawks, for the most part, had no answer for him. Rose would love nothing more than to put his back issues behind him. But his teammates, coaches and fans understand how much it meant for him to put up a strong effort, and they are certainly hopeful now that his injury is in the past.
"He played well," Deng said. "He's going to get more comfortable as we play more. But it's really good to have him back."