Return of Derrick Rose's game comes at perfect time for Bulls

CHICAGO -- Six words encapsulated what it has been like watching Derrick Rose play over the past two months.

"I just feel like I'm back," Rose said.

"I'm just out there playing. Whatever I can do to get my team a victory, that's what I'm going to try to do. When I'm out there, they're giving me midrange [shots], they're giving me drives to the lane. Just mixing up my game and trying to play a solid game while I'm out there."

After a terrible start to the season, which included a fractured orbital bone that kept him out of most of training camp, Rose has tried to find a rhythm that eluded him during much of the first half of the season, when he was among the worst shooters and finishers at the rim in the NBA.

But after racking up 24 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists over the lowly Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night, Rose acknowledged what those close to him have known for a while. Not only is he playing consistent basketball again, averaging 19.2 points a game since the calendar flipped to 2016, he's playing with a renewed spirit and seems to be enjoying his time on the floor more than he has in a long time.

That rejuvenation comes at the perfect time for the Bulls, who are without All-Star Jimmy Butler. The team's leading scorer has missed the past six games with a sprained left knee that figures to keep him out for a few more weeks as the Bulls try to right the ship after falling from as high as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference to their current spot at No. 8.

Rose has said he feels better on the floor since shedding his protective face mask in the second half of a Dec. 10 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. But it has been his mostly steady play since scoring 19 points in a surprising Christmas Day win over the Oklahoma City Thunder that has caught the attention of the rest of the league -- and his teammates and coaches.

"That's obviously a huge thing in this league with players, is playing with confidence," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "And Derrick is playing with a high level of confidence right now. You can tell. The shots he was hitting at the end of the game the other night, he didn't hesitate at all. He was getting that thing down the floor quickly and taking what the defense gave him. Again, that rhythm and confidence is such an important thing and Derrick has that."

First and foremost, he is finishing better at the rim. Prior to the Christmas Day victory, Rose was shooting just 43.5 percent on layups and 41.9 percent from the restricted area, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Since then, he is shooting 58.1 percent on layups and 58 percent from the restricted area.

The intriguing part is that Rose is actually going to the rim fewer times than he did earlier in the season; he's just connecting at a better rate when he does.

"The shots are just going down," Rose said. "My body's been feeling all right, just the shots are going down now. It's paying off. Floaters that I shot earlier in the year, midrange that I shot earlier in the year, even my 3-point shot . . . My legs are getting under me a little bit."

Rose's conditioning also seems to have improved. Hoiberg has noted several times, most recently after a loss last week to the Cleveland Cavaliers, that Rose has asked to come out of some games because he was winded. But after scoring 28 points in 30 minutes in the Feb. 18 loss to the Cavs, Rose scored 26 points in 35 minutes in a win the next night over the Toronto Raptors. Two nights later, he had 24 points in 31 minutes against the Lakers.

"When he gets into the offense with that thrust, with that aggressiveness, and setting the tone early, it's important," Bulls center Pau Gasol said. "It sets the tone for the rest of the guys, the rest of the team. He's been really effective the last three games. I hope that he continues to play as aggressive as he has and is effective at the same time."

Bulls power forward Taj Gibson noted that he never lost confidence in Rose because he saw the work his longtime teammate was putting in.

"I don't know how good I can become. Nobody knows ... I think it's an unknown ceiling. The way that I'm playing right now, the shots that I'm taking I didn't take when I was younger."
Derrick Rose

"He just kept consistent with it," Gibson said. "Kept putting in the work, kept staying late, coming in early. Him and [assistant coach] Randy Brown been getting up a lot of shots . . . so I knew it was going to come eventually. But Jimmy [Butler] at the time was hot, we just gave Derrick some time to get his body right."

With Butler out, the Bulls have to count on Rose to do even more, but that's a role the former MVP was accustomed to prior to his knee injuries. Before Christmas, 91 of Rose's 134 field goals (67.9 percent) were unassisted. Since Christmas, 145 of his 190 field goals are unassisted (76.3 percent).

The other key is that Rose has become even more comfortable going to his left side. As The Athletic points out, Rose goes to his left 12 percent more than he goes to his right. He also has developed a propensity for shooting a bank shot. Rose said he started taking the shot more as he came back from the orbital fracture.

"The depth perception of the rim was thrown off," Rose said.

So he started practicing the midrange banker even more, and that, along with his ability to push left when needed, has helped bring his game back to life.

"They force me left," Rose said. "I'm kind of a left-hand player, but they force me to the left . . . and I'm kind of good on the left side of the floor. And I'm just shooting shots that I shoot in practice, that I've been shooting for years, and now they're just going down."

Rose might not be the explosive player he once was, but he has shown the speed and quickness that have defined his game over the years. His teammates believe in him and know that he's the one who will have to lead them down the stretch as Butler makes his way back.

Veteran Mike Dunleavy said Rose's consistency and his ability to attack have made the difference in the Bulls' past two wins. Rose's desire to "just kind of own the game" has helped the Bulls get their season back on track after losing 14 of 19 games.

Of course, once Butler returns, it remains uncertain how he and an improved Rose will mesh offensively. The backcourt duo has struggled to find chemistry all season. Without Rose on the floor, Butler's scoring jumps from 19.4 points per 36 minutes to 24.5. When Butler is out, Rose's offensive numbers surge from 16.8 points per 36 minutes to 23.4.

The 27-year-old Rose is trying to take his up-and-down season in stride. He has always believed he could be as good as he once was. With just 27 games left in a forgettable season, Rose has a chance to help rewrite the narrative for his team and himself.

"There's always room for improvement," he said. "I don't know how good I can become. Nobody knows . . . I think it's an unknown ceiling. The way that I'm playing right now, the shots that I'm taking I didn't take when I was younger. I'm shooting off glass now. Defense could get a lot better, but I love the way I'm playing offensively."