CHICAGO -- The biggest hurdle Derrick Rose had to climb last season had nothing to do with his ability to move up and down the basketball floor. It was mental.
Rose wanted only to return to the floor when he knew he could dominate the game again. He wanted to be sure he could take over and be the superstar player he had always been.
No matter how many times fans begged and doctors told him it was all right to play again, Rose knew he was going to come back when he felt like he always had before the injury -- better than everybody else on the floor.
The good news for Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau and his players is that after almost a year and a half of waiting, Rose is ready to go again.
There's no doubt about it after watching the former MVP torch the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night to the tune of 24 points in 27 minutes. Most important, after all of the uncertainty of last season, Rose looks -- and sounds -- like his old self.
When asked if the offensive burden was too much for him early on, Rose smiled through a busted lip and gave the type of answer Bulls fans have been yearning to hear for more than a year.
"For me, I think I'm not getting enough," Rose said. "I wanted to go back in the game tonight but Thibs didn't call my name, so I can't get mad at it. They've been managing my minutes great."
In truth, Thibodeau has been giving teams a break by playing it safe with Rose. During the past three games, Rose has played 80 minutes, 50 seconds, scored 78 points, dished out 15 assists and grabbed nine rebounds. It's the type of pace that might surprise some around the league, but it doesn't surprise those close to Rose.
"I think he has a great balance to his game right now," Thibodeau said. "If you back up on him, he doesn't hesitate to pull up. If you come up on him, he will go back. He is pushing the ball and attacking right from the start. He is pushing himself, which is what I like to see.
“You cannot underestimate how hard he is practicing right now."
That's really the only issue for Thibodeau. With three other key contributors out right now -- Joakim Noah (groin), Kirk Hinrich (concussion) and Jimmy Butler (knee) -- Thibodeau must do his best to slow Rose down for his own good. The Bulls need Rose healthy for the long haul, although they are enjoying having him back more and more.
"It's a lot easier, because when he's on the floor they really have to choose who to guard," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "Nine times out of 10 he's going to have three or four defenders on him, and it opens up the game for everybody. Especially in fast-break mode. We're getting a lot of fast-break points, because he gets it and goes and he's just real unselfish sometimes.
“And it's great because he's so fast and we need that kind of speed, especially after last year, when we didn't get too many fast-break points. And with that unit in, especially with Joakim [Noah] and myself and Luol [Deng], we're on the break and we're just going."
The scary part for the rest of the league is that Rose doesn't believe he has even scratched the surface of how much better he can be. He knows he still hasn't unleashed the floater that he has spent so much time working on, and he knows his jumper can be even better.
"It's coming along, but I'm like a perfectionist," he said. "I want to see every one of my jump shots go in, so I think that's how I work out and it can only get better. For me, I'm hitting jump shots now and I feel like my timing is still a little bit off. So for them to still be going in I think that I'm not there yet. It's just building my confidence."
As Rose's confidence builds, so does that of his teammates. They know that with Rose back on the floor, they have a legitimate chance to win a title.
For Rose, just being back on the floor is all that he could ask for. He is enjoying it more than ever, and he is happy to finally feel like himself again.
"I'm loving every moment," he said. "Every second, I'm loving it. I'm back playing the sport that I love playing, so for me it feels like a new start."