No substitute for No. 1

CHICAGO -- Derrick Rose returned to resounding applause Monday afternoon. He only missed the last five games, but it seems longer.

Is it my bad memory or was his last assist to Trenton Hassell?

Don't get me wrong, C.J. Watson, John Lucas III and Mike James are nice players, but even with some Voltron-like magic, those three can't combine to equal one Derrick Rose.

After missing nearly two weeks with an injury, Rose was aggressive early and seemed to suffer no ill effects of his lingering back problems. He drove easily through the paint and hit a pair of 3-pointers to lead the Bulls with 23 points and six assists in an uneven 90-79 win over the Atlanta Hawks in a rare late-afternoon matinee.

"Today was just trying to play the way I normally play," Rose told ESPN's Doris Burke after the game. "Play aggressive."

While the Bulls' team defense and the play of inside tandem Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer have somewhat covered up for Rose's recent absence, the players are more than aware there is no substitute for No. 1.

"We're not going anywhere without Derrick's play," said Noah, who had 16 rebounds in the win. "It was good to have him out there. He looked pretty healthy out there. I'm sure he's sore. Taking two weeks off and coming back to play an NBA game is not something that is easy."

Rose played 35 minutes and took his usual spills, one in particular in the third quarter, after absorbing contact in the paint, but told Burke his back was fine.

"It feels good," he said. "I put a lot of ice on there, but I should be all right."

While his explosion looked normal, Rose had a little trouble finishing, making just six of 16 shots inside the 3-point arc. He also missed four of nine free throws.

"His explosion was there, his drives were there, but conditioning-wise, he was not where he normally is, but that's to be expected," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.

With a city dreaming about a Grant Park rally in the summer, Rose's playing status dwarfs all other debate in Chicago. If Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to sneak a property tax hike in, he should do it now.

Thibodeau's all-out coaching style has earned him some questions, but he said the Bulls were actually very careful in bringing Rose back. After all, five games for "back spasms" seems pretty delicate.

"The big thing was making sure he was 100 percent and pain-free," Thibodeau said.

With the debate of playing Rose right now, especially given his all-out style, last week I asked Celtics coach Doc Rivers what his feelings were on resting stars, especially in a shortened season, and he explained the complexity of it.

"Well, legs over brains," he said, and he wasn't talking about the swimsuit issue. "I'm a big believer in I'm going to take the legs. If I can give our guys' legs rest, I'm going to do it. But also, they're creatures of habit. An NBA player for the most part, the competitive ones, they don't want to sit. And it really upsets their rhythm. So you've got to be careful how you do it. ... I just think it's up to each individual player and each individual coach."

It was an ugly game, and Atlanta nearly mounted a comeback behind the long-range shooting of former Bull Jannero Pargo. Chicago was lucky it built a 35-17 first-quarter lead.

Rose, traditionally a media darling, surprised the swollen local press contingent by skipping out after the game, something he's done less than a handful of times in his four years here. You've never seen reporters more confused and hurt then when we're denied a Derrick Rose soundbite.

Some wondered if that was a sign his back was ailing him. I figured he was in another room trying to hammer out that prospective Carlos Boozer-for-Pau Gasol deal that made the rounds Sunday night. Did anyone see Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak around 5:45 p.m. CST?

The thought of Rose turning into a player-general manager isn't impossible, but given his personality, it's unlikely enough that it amused those who know him. After all, he was the guy who didn't want to call LeBron James, but now he's pushing for a deal for Gasol?

Maybe he really does want to be Michael Jordan. Heck, I think Rose could put together a better team than the Charlotte Bobcats. The Bulls pride themselves on not being a mercenary group, but as the saying goes: "It's the NBA." That is a saying, right?

"None of us in this locker room are like that (recruiting players)," said Luol Deng, who has been mock traded many times in his Bulls tenure. "We leave that job for the guys upstairs. Everyone in this locker room, we believe we're good enough and we believe we can win with everyone here. None of us is ever going to speak out about wanting something or something being changed. Things always come up. I really believe, at the end of the day whoever's in this locker room is who I'll go out and play with."

Deng was practically exasperated by the waves of media at his locker asking Rose questions, before figuring out that Rose had left. On the court, however, Deng was happy to see his All-Star teammate return. Who wouldn't be? Well, maybe Lucas III, who only managed eight shots in 14 minutes.

"It's good to have Derrick back," Deng said. "Hopefully after the break, Rip (Hamilton) will be back. We've got one more game, Milwaukee (on Wednesday), and from there on, everyone will be back."

Deng, one of the league leaders in minutes per game, played 44 minutes, but only hit 4 of 15 shots, scoring 10 points to go with nine rebounds and four assists.

Deng had two great games without Rose, putting up consecutive points-assists double-doubles, but he was glad to see him back. It was the first time the pair had played 30-plus minutes in the same game since Feb. 4. Rose left the next game early with back spasms and then played 22 minutes against New Orleans before missing five straight. But while it felt like Rose had been out longer, does anyone remember seeing Hamilton play? (His last game was the loss to Miami on Jan. 29.)

Hamilton has only played 11 games this season and is currently out with a thigh bruise. He worked out before the game with coaches and two other players, as the Bulls braintrust of Gar Forman, John Paxson and Michael Reinsdorf looked on. The feeling is that he'll be back after the All-Star break, but who knows how long he'll stay back. Hamilton has that Reggie Miller type of build, eternal skinniness, that makes early-30's fatsos like me jealous, but it's possible he won't be healthy when the Bulls need him, which would be deadly to their title hopes.

Resiliency, though, has been the story of the Bulls' first half, especially considering the Bulls have gone 7-3 without Rose, and that Boozer, of all players, has played every game. The planned starting five has barely played together enough to get a fun handshake going.

"These guys have played well together at times," Thibodeau said. "Would you prefer to have the same group? Yes. We're capable of doing a lot better, and we've shown that. We've got to be careful in not taking shortcuts."

Thibodeau didn't want to see Rose play at half-speed, so he liked what he saw out of his star.

"The thing is you don't want him to change who he is," Thibodeau said. "That's the nature of the game. Guys are gong to be aggressive, they're going to attack. You're always concerned about health, but a guy could get hurt at practice, a guy could get hurt at a shootaround. Those things happen and are part of the game."

Rose happened Monday. Hopefully for the Bulls, he'll happen again Wednesday, survive the All-Star Game and be ready for the second half of the season. Whether he talks or not, Rose is the leading man of this story.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com