The Bulls’ 82-76 victory over the Pacers mattered not. Significance came in the form of Rose taking an NBA court for the first time since April 28, 2012, a span of 525 days.
Oh, how he was missed.
“It’s good for the league,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It’s good for everybody. It’s certainly good for our team. He has put a lot of work in.”
Rose finished with 13 points on 5-for-12 shooting, three assists, two steals and four turnovers in 20 minutes, 26 seconds. He didn’t attempt a 3-pointer and came out for good at the 7:07 mark of the third quarter.
But beyond statistics, speed stood out. As did no hesitation, fear or any other worrisome signs from someone who had assured all he had recovered fully from May 2012 surgery to repair his torn left anterior cruciate ligament.
“That’s in the past,” Rose said. “I’m looking to the future.”
Rose showed rust. He came up woefully short on consecutive second-quarter free throws and later committed back-to-back sloppy turnovers, one of which led to a Pacers’ fast-break layup.
But there were more bursts of brilliance. Rose had back-to-back, coast-to-coast drives in the second quarter — one a three-point play — and a third-quarter dunk off a Pacers’ turnover. He also converted a nifty fast-break layup on a feed from Kirk Hinrich.
“You see how he makes the game easier for everybody and the speed at which he plays,” Thibodeau said. “Overall, I thought he played very, very well — the speed, the quickness, the power. That’s what makes him so special and unique. There’s no one like him.”
Rose played 7:02 in the first quarter, 8:31 in the second and 4:53 in the third before lounging on the baseline with ice bags on both knees. He also could be seen stretching while sitting out in the first half, a nod to his new commitment to that discipline.
“I had no doubt; he worked really hard,” Luol Deng said. “I’m happy for him to get his confidence built up. He went through a lot.”
Later, Rose joked about Thibodeau robbing him of three minutes of playing time in the third quarter.
“That’s when I knew we were good,” Thibodeau said with a smirk. “Things are back to normal.”
They were also normal when Rose took a hard foul from Roy Hibbert and bounced right back up.
“That’s the way I’ve been playing in practice, just attacking,” Rose said. “I’m not slowing down. I don’t care who is in the hole. If they’re going to foul me hard, I’m just going to get up and keep going hard at them.”
Beforehand, Rose said he didn’t know how long it would take for him to find his wind. Afterward, he said he found it quickly.
“I was able to push the ball the way that I wanted to, put pressure on the defense,” he said. “It kind of surprised me that I didn’t get winded the whole time I was out there. So I guess I’m steadily building it along the way.”
Taj Gibson’s 18 points and 12 rebounds led the Bulls, who rallied in the fourth quarter even while using a reserve-filled lineup featuring rookies Erik Murphy and Tony Snell while Pacers coach Frank Vogel brought his starters back. Jimmy Butler also looked aggressive with 11 points and six rebounds, including 12 trips to the line.
Rose’s return is why the Pacers’ media relations staff said media credentials rivaled the number for a playoff game, not preseason. It’s why NBA-TV televised the otherwise meaningless contest.
“I feel great, kind of relieved,” Rose said. “I can continue with my training, knowing that I got one game out of the way. And we’re just trying to take it one game at a time, one practice at a time, knowing the number one goal is a championship.”