And so it begins, the seven-month obsession with every single step Derrick Rose takes, with every cut left, every opponent's hard foul, every spill to the floor. And it's not just Rose we'll obsess over, really, but every nit-picking detail of the Bulls' season, which begins tonight in Miami, with every Thibs substitution, every second played past 40 minutes by Rose and Butler, Deng, Noah and Boozer. It is going to be a painfully tense time between now and the NBA playoffs because so much is at stake and so much has been invested.
It's like the 1990-91 season, a lot like it actually, when Michael Jordan's Bulls were trying to catch the two-time NBA Champion Bad Boy Detroit Pistons, the team that had thrice beaten the Bulls in the playoffs on the way to those titles. And those Bulls, with Jordan leading the way, had to go through the Pistons the same way these Bulls, with Rose leading the way, have to go through Miami. Slaying the dragon that torments you is usually the only way to glory in the NBA and it is no different for these Bulls.
Taking down a sitting champion requires, yes, a wonderful team. But of even greater importance it demands a supremely skilled, relentlessly driven -- if not outright ruthless -- player in his physical prime who (usually) has suffered enough indignity in his basketball life to play with utter defiance from November through June, to attack the season as if it's a prize fight.
And what we're looking to see, beginning Tuesday night in Miami, is whether Rose, his body up to the task once again, is that player.
All we can see thus far, through 18 months of coming back from the knee injury and eight undefeated preseason games, is that Rose -- at 25 years old -- is so very different than he was at 23. You can see it and hear it in a 20-minute on-the-record conversation Sunday at the Berto Center.
When I asked Rose to tell me once and for all if he made the right decision to sit out the entire 2012-13 season, if he made the right call to turn a deaf ear to the critics who mocked him last spring because he didn't change course and ride to the rescue during the playoffs, Rose answered with absolute certainty that it's "the smartest decision I ever made."
Of all the things we talked about, the most impressive thing Rose said, in my opinion, was that he played his first four NBA seasons primarily off talent. He didn't stretch, didn't watch his diet, didn't obsess over his conditioning.
But he does now … all of the above … fanatically.
Rose said his injury was a blessing in disguise in that the Bulls learned how to win without him, that beating the Nets in the playoffs and waging that nasty battle versus Miami with him on the bench makes the Bulls a better team from Day 1 this season.
And now, we'll see just how much better those Bulls will be. It's been said before but is worth saying again: Health will go a long, long way to deciding how far the Bulls go this season. They need Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, probably in that order, to be healthy all season and for the playoffs. And they sure can't go too long without Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich all in the lineup.
Even in an improved Eastern Conference it's difficult to see the Bulls, with relative good health, finishing lower than third. My predicted order of finish: Miami, Indy, Bulls, Nets, Knicks, Wizards, Cavaliers, Raptors. (OMG, the back end of the East is bad.) Six of the playoff spots in the Western Conference seem fairly secure. The Clippers, Spurs, OKC, Warriors, Rockets and Memphis are just about a lock to leave only two spots open in the West. And while the Lakers, Kings, Mavericks, T-Wolves, Pelicans, Trailblazers and Nuggets will be battling for those two spots, I'll close my eyes, grit my teeth and pencil Denver and Dallas into the seventh and eighth spots. And I'm NOT picking the Lakers to make the playoffs because we have zero idea when Kobe Bryant gets back in the lineup. And of all those teams, probably only the Heat, Pacers, Clippers, Warriors and Rockets will be worthy of watching obsessively. And not one of those teams, other than Miami, has a player worth watching as obsessively as Rose.
The antidote to a sequel in Miami, another one, might be a return, in Chicago. But only if the principal players stay healthy, which is difficult to imagine with Coach Thibs treating every game not just like a Game 7, but like a Crusade.
Risky as that is, it's absolutely the Bulls' personality at this point … strong defense and rebounding, grinding out close games, Rose/Deng/Butler playing 40 minutes-plus most nights.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade say that while they acknowledge the rivalry, the bad blood between the two teams, they'll welcome Rose back to the battle. They realize that basketball needs Rose, that the game is better, more exciting and more compelling with him. It's easy for James and Wade to be so magnanimous on the first night of the season, the night Miami raises yet another championship banner. The real question is how the two parties will feel about one another come June.