Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Rose Conundrum

Two moments.

The freak of nature that is LeBron James barrelled through the lane towards the basket. Between LeBron and the rim stood Nikola Mirotic. Outweighed by at least 40 pounds (depending on which estimate of LeBron's measurables you accept), Mirotic gamely - and futilely - attempted to stop King James from finishing. "And one".

A few feet away, Derrick Rose stood, Boozerianly, and watched. He would not get in LeBron's way. He did not even bother to swipe at the ball and give Mirotic a fighting chance at the rim.

Yet as the closing seconds of regulation ticked down, Rose took the inbounds pass, turned on the jets that he still has, achieved enough separation, and let it fly. The bank was open on a rainy Friday night in Chicago. Pandemonium.

Rose's return from two injury-plagued seasons has been messy. It has confounded simple narratives about what he is and isn't... about who he is and isn't.

Is Rose still in the middle stages of a process of beoming a star again, perhaps in a slightly diminished form?

Or have two years of monotonous rehab, combined with the permanent security of guaranteed millions, created a man who has lost his love for the game and at a fundamental level is now wired to view everything he does through a lens of self-preservation?

His defenders dismiss his unfortunate statements about not being in pain in business meetings later in life as the misunderstood ramblings of a young man who, lets face it, needed someone else to take his SAT's for him in order to serve the absurd mandate of one semester of pretend-college.

(These same defenders, interestingly, bristle at the suggestion that he lacks the aptitude to play a pure playmaking point guard position that perhaps the Bulls' new wealth of offensive of options suggests that he ought to.)

His chief defenders are his teammates. If they have doubted his will, his value, they have done an immaculate job of hiding it.

Yet as we saw Rose seemingly wake up from a stupor at halftime on Friday, it's hard not to think that perhaps Joakim Noah got in his face in the locker room and said, "Hey, Maverick, we've got bogeys all over us here. Maybe you want to engage?"

Noah, himself, has nothing right now. The spiritual leader of the team is playing on one leg and finally took a seat for most of the second half on Friday. Noah is going to win or die trying - and let's be honest, at some point in this postseason, it's likely to be the latter. But he's a wolverine, and I can't imagine watching Rose shy away from the fight as often as he does would not make Noah a little crazy now and again. Or crazier, anyway.

Rose is not, today, the same player he was when he won the MVP in Tom Thibodeau's first year in Chicago. I don't know if he will be that good again. Neither do you.

There are moments when you watch him and think: that's him! That's Derrick Rose! The blow-by quickness. The powerful step-back into an impossible jumper that falls. The quick elevation to block a shot on a larger opponent.

But there are also long stretches where he plays a brand of basketball that is, for lack of a better word, offensive.

Even at his best, he was never a great defender, but any great athlete, if he wants to, can avoid being a liability. Thibodeau had coaxed adequancy out of him on defense, pre-injury, and that was enough. For most of this season, however, Rose's brand of defense has consisted of escorting his man wherever he wants to go on the floor, as we saw him do with MIchael Carter-Williams in Round 1 against the Bucks.

Last night, Kyrie Irving swished a deep topside three - an ill-advised shot, to be sure - but on which Rose's hands never went above his waist. He could not even be troubled to put a hand in Irving's face. Rose had already positioned himself in an odd "open" stance, inviting Irving to drive to the middle of the floor where, presumably. someone else might stop his advance. Rose seemed surprised Irving didn't bother.

For whole quarters, you will see Rose seemingly drift, never once breaking into a sprint (an anecdotal account that is backed up by the Sport-Vu cameras in NBA arenas now, which do in fact show that Rose just doesn't ball so hard.)

To avoid contact under the basket, Rose leaves his feet to pass - an absurd habit that high school coaches try to beat out of their players.

And over the course of the season, Rose defiantly took an obscene number of three-pointers, an incarnation of Rose that the obnoxious but often on-point Chicago Sun-Times reporter, Joe Cowley, refers to a "FIBA Derrick" - in reference to his passive style for Team USA.  This season, Rose hit only a hair over 1 in 4 triples. He had become the guy you hate playing with at the gym, the one who thinks that beause he makes a shot once in a while, it's one he should keep taking because sooner or later his 30% will become 40%.

And where Rose used to launch himself at the rim, leaving opponents with only two choices - allow the basket or foul him - Rose now avoids leaving his feet in traffic, instead optiing to try to snake his way around larger defenders. When he does venture into the lane, he usually misses or his shot is blocked - a sight you almost never saw before. Getting into the lane and fanning the ball out to shooters, a simple form of playmaking that comes as second nature to LeBron, is an afterthought to Rose.

Never a pure playmaker in the sense of Nash, Paul or Parker, Rose nonetheless performed his facilitation duties competently before his injury. His explosiveness opened up passing lanes for him to exploit, which kept his assists over 7 per game and limited his need to take low-percentage shots.

Too often now, his decision-making defies logic. In the first two games of the Cavs series, Rose was picked up on a switch by a big man on four occasions, leaving a guard on Pau Gasol. In none of the four instances did Rose get the ball in to Gasol, who would have either scored easily or rotated the ball to an open teammate for an easy shot. Instead, Rose each time opted for difficult jumpers, making one and missing the other three.

Yet in the same situation Friday night, Jimmy Butler twice worked the ball in to Taj Gibson, resulting in a basket once and a foul the other time. It's an un-sexy play, one that won't show up on the stat sheet. But it's Basketball 101, an elementary tactical approach that too often eludes Rose as he tries to find himself again. He at times seems more interested in proving to himself and to the world that he's back, as opposed to winning a basketball game.

In the end last night, all was right. A heart-stopping finish. A crucial win. An appealing, if inefficient, 30-7-7 line, and a firm whooping of Uncle Drew. Kyrie lays down the road the Bulls must travel, and last night Derrick got the best of him.The Bulls now stand a Sunday home win away from solid control of the series and a very real path to the NBA Finals. And while Jimmy Butler is clearly the Bulls' best player right now, Rose still mans the helm.

Yet amidst the failing health of Noah and Gasol, and peak toxicity between Thibodeau and management... the halting, frustrating, at-times scintillating but perpetually vexing (r)evolution of Derrick Rose is just another layer of complexity heaped atop what could be the messiest conference champion in memory.

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