Derrick Rose was winded, couldn't see out of one eye, had just missed 14 of 22 shots in the season opener -- and he was beaming.
When it came to pushing the ball, exploding to the basket, firing off his push shots and floaters in the lane and involving teammates, Rose was having a flashback. He felt like his old self, even if his vision was blurred and he had no chance to locate the rim on deep jump shots.
Rose was so wired in the moments after a season-opening 97-95 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers that the words just poured out, which doesn't happen all that easily or often for him.
"I've missed this game so much, and I appreciate it so much," Rose said, which in his parlance qualifies as an outburst of emotion. "I owe so much to this game, and I accept that I have to take the good with the bad, even if it means getting cracked in the face now and then. It's a first step, kind of a step in a new direction. I have to be more of a leader, be more vocal ... and I'm getting better at it day by day. I'm rebuilding my game. I'm getting back to the floaters and finishing around the rim.
"Man, I used to be real creative with the ball in those situations. I'm getting it back. I had the explosion," Rose added. "But I'm still playing catchup ... and trying to finish with one eye ... I couldn't do that very well. I'm told by the doctors that getting the vision back, it's a slow, slow process. Timetable? There isn't one. All I know is it's getting a little bit better every day. But I don't have to score as much now. I do have to get into the paint and create. I want [Jimmy Butler] to shoot more 3s, but I don't need to. I just want to get my old form back."
Rose looking like his old self, at least in his midrange game, certainly wasn't the only important development for the Bulls, but it might be the subplot with the greatest long-term impact. Having your team's most accomplished defensive player, Joakim Noah, sitting on the bench to start games is risky at best, and it's going to be worth watching closely how long it takes opposing teams to zero in on the defensive deficiencies of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic playing together.
"There's no telling how good I can be again, and no telling how good this team can be." Derrick Rose
OK, the Bulls held the Cavaliers to 40 percent shooting in the opener and the absolutely dreadful Brooklyn Nets to 41 percent shooting the next night in the second of back-to-back games. And two defensive plays in the final seconds, from Gasol and Butler, sealed the win over Cleveland.
No one outside the Bulls' locker room thinks this team will be able to sustain the kind of defense over the long haul that it did under former coach Tom Thibodeau. Giving up 100 points to Brooklyn would have driven Thibs nuts. But Fred Hoiberg was hired to get the Bulls playing 21st century offense, which they surely have done through two games, what with 45 percent 3-point shooting and 115 points in Brooklyn on the back end of consecutive games.
Even with this teeny-tiny sample size, it's easy to see the potential of the Bulls' offense with Hoiberg's emphasis on pace, spreading the floor and shooting. It's another one of the reasons Rose was beaming. Through two games, he had more room to drive to the basket than he used to have because defenders simply can't leave Mirotic, Tony Snell and Butler to help corral Rose, who knows at some point he'll start seeing one rim, not two.
Still, questions loom
Better news for the Bulls: Rose isn't the only beneficiary of the new offense. At that position alone, Aaron Brooks and E'Twaun Moore through two games have combined to average 19 points per game on 54 percent shooting, which reveals remarkable depth should Hoiberg continue to use it.
It took less than one quarter against Cleveland for him to use 10 players, and while some of that can be attributed to a new coach simply trying to see as many combinations as he can while feeling his way, it did cause Butler to say: "We can throw some bodies at people. ... We have a lot of guys who do different things well."
That, too, is what Hoiberg has to see under game conditions: whether Gasol and Mirotic can defend well enough to keep them in the starting lineup; whether Snell is a real NBA starter; whether it means anything that the Bulls have been outrebounded by the Cavaliers and Nets, neither of whom are expected to be prolific rebounding teams; whether Noah can go indefinitely being the good soldier coming off the bench for the presumed good of the team.
Still, the biggest and most important question for the Bulls, and one of the biggest questions in the Eastern Conference, is whether Rose can be great again. He doesn't have to be 2011 MVP dominant. And that shouldn't even be the goal because Rose had to score 20 points or more per night for that team to win. Rose knows that would be detrimental now because Butler, Gasol, Mirotic and Snell are more than capable of scoring consistently. But if Rose can explode into the lane and hit enough floaters and push shots, he'll open up even more jump-shooting room for his teammates, which is why he has a new vision (blurry or not) of how he wants and needs to play.
So, even as Butler has emerged as an All-Star two-way player, even as Gasol has shown he has quite a bit left in the tank, even as Mirotic and Snell emerge, it's still Rose who is the key to the Bulls' season. His health still is the No. 1 concern, but around that clear mask protecting his fractured face, Rose has dared to sneak a peek at the possibilities.
"There's no telling how good I can be again," Rose said, "and no telling how good this team can be."