Derrick Rose clapped his hands, almost rhythmically, as the Madison Square Garden faithful stood in approval, roaring and exhaling at once, finally able to bathe in their basketball cathedral.
As long as it’s been for the New York Knicks, it’s almost seemed like a longer wait for Rose to return to this stage and to have a moment that he can appreciate after so many winds, so many turns and so many questions.
The Knicks tying their first-round playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks was spurred on by Rose and Taj Gibson starting the second half, with Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau leaning on his old horses to get his team through more quarters of playoff nerves. You might as well call them the KnickerBulls.
“I’m fortunate, very fortunate,” Rose said.
Those words didn’t come in the aftermath of this 26-point performance, but to ESPN’s Lisa Salters in the aftermath of the last time he sent an arena into delirium — Game 3 of the 2015 playoffs when he gave his hometown Chicago Bulls a 2-1 lead of LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers with a banked triple that looked like a missile, on a mission to deliver one final playoff moment.
He showed more emotion with his handclap than he did on that Friday night in May, jumping into the arms of teammates with a nonplussed reaction, moments after Thibodeau clenched his fist in satisfaction.
Rose is older now, no longer the 26-year-old trying to negotiate his excellence against gravity and science, but the 32-year-old counted on for so much more than just a veteran presence to help steer a young group through its first playoff experience.
“I’m very fortunate to be in this position. Not only am I in the league, I’m on a great team,” Rose said.
That was in the aftermath of saving his team’s season Wednesday night, which could pale in comparison to reviving his career after all the knee surgeries and doubts about his ability to adapt and willingness to persevere.
But still grateful.
Helping keep Julius Randle’s head in it after a subpar six quarters and keeping his even-keel composure in the face of Atlanta possibly taking a 2-0 lead seemed like child’s play. Starting point guard Elfrid Payton was struggling, getting pulled sooner and sooner by Thibodeau in the first and third quarters, so the change seemed inevitable.
“We just felt we were flat and we needed a jolt of energy. So we wanted to change it up,” Thibodeau said. “And we got going. And it started with the defense.”
Thibodeau’s head coaching career can largely be defined by two terms: “Defense” and “Derrick Rose,” and he’s not delusional about either. He’s been among Rose’s biggest advocates during his brightest and bleakest hours, and also knows his own strengths sit in his teams playing harder than you, longer than you, largely on the back of defense.
But letting Rose be the best version of himself relies on Thibodeau giving Rose the freedom to make decisions, to trust his eyes and his voice in critical moments, whether he’s an MVP or sixth-man candidate.
“Both he and Taj have been in a number of playoff games so I think they understand that we have some guys that haven’t been in playoff games,” Thibodeau said. “There’s only one way to get experience in that you got to get it.”
As exhilarating as Madison Square Garden can be, it can also be intimidating even as a home team. All those years of disappointments, not being able to participate in a pretty fruitful era of basketball can make the air thick for the players wearing “Knicks” across their chest. Cheap chants at Trae Young are comical compared to the massive expectations placed on Julius Randle, winner of the 2020-21 Most Improved Player award.
He had only two points at the half and didn’t look comfortable. If Rose hadn’t come in to energize things, if Gibson hadn’t added his brand of toughness, the Knicks could be in a 2-0 hole.
But the disparate group found its way, turning the game on its head in the third quarter, and giving a thirsty crowd hope for its first playoff win since 2013. The comeback was familiar, and finding a way with unlikely sources was the usual story to the Knicks climbing to fourth in the East.
Reggie Bullock gave Young some issues defensively, and even though he still managed to score a game-high 30 points with seven assists, he didn’t have the control that he exerted in Game 1. It was just enough to pull away, even though the Hawks got the split they truly came to New York for.
Rose played 39 minutes, his highest output since a 40-minute outing in October 2018, when he scored a career-high 50 points against the Utah Jazz as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
His coach that day? Tom Thibodeau.
Rose’s career had already taken so many turns by that point, and every season he returns for more almost feels like gravy.
“My appreciation is on an all-time high,” Rose said. “It’s a lot of guys my age that still feel like they can hoop. It’s a lot of guys younger than me that’s out the league and they want another opportunity.”
Rose put out an Instagram post recently, disputing the notion of being “vintage” considering how his game has changed. No longer an innocent high flyer, he’s got wounds and scars, both seen and unseen, yet he’s persevered to this point.
Gibson, though, bristled at Rose’s apparent humility and acceptance of no longer being able to hang with the elite.
“Y’all be letting him gas you,” he joked, an indication Rose’s success isn’t a surprise because of his quiet confidence.
In 2011, Rose and Thibodeau were the inexperienced ones, MVP and Coach of the Year, eliminated by the dynastic Miami Heat on this very day 10 years ago. In 2015, they were fighting against the tide — Thibodeau’s battle with Bulls management, Rose’s battle with his body — gamely giving James his toughest battle in the East playoffs and coming within a bounce or two of making an improbable run.
Now, as Thibodeau turns to Rose yet again, for more minutes than usual, more effort, more production, they’ve remade themselves on the fly, gearing up for one more run and maybe more to come.
“God doesn’t make any mistakes man, follow your path,” Gibson said. “You just got to believe in yourself. And truly believe, because this is some magical stuff right now.”
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