CHICAGO — The Heat and the Bulls met in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday night, but the real story wasn’t about who was in uniform. It was again about who was in civvies.
The undermanned, overmatched Bulls were without Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, and when center Nazr Mohammed was ejected in the first half, team radio analyst Bill Wennington was next in line, presumably.
While LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took the first half off — they attempted seven shots between them — the home team made a game of it. Still, as hard as the Bulls try, try, try again, it’s difficult to take this series seriously. Sure enough, on a night when their best players weren’t James and Wade but Chris Bosh and Norris Cole, the Heat woke up in time to score a 104-94 victory.
“The next game is gonna be the tough one,” James tried to convince anyone who would listen en route to the locker room afterward.
Oh, haven’t you heard? Derrick Rose plans to make a comeback in Game 4. Maybe — just like it has been for weeks on end.
While Rose sat out his 92nd consecutive game this season, one could only imagine what the Bulls might have been with their healthiest player in uniform, not in a suit. Just a guess, but I’d bet Cole wouldn’t go off for 18 points in 24 minutes if Rose could help it.
“They miss D-Rose in a lot of ways, but mostly at the offensive end,” Heat backcourt mate Mario Chalmers told me. “Not only is he another option, but he’s their main option. You have to respect his ability to drive to the basket. Because they don’t have anyone with his kind of talent, our defense has one less thing to worry about now.”
So the question remains, why has Rose yet to play a single minute more than one year after his injury? A number of reasons have been given for his extended absence, some of which threaten to make sense. He can’t dunk in stride, we were told last month. Now he can’t get the torn ACL out of his mind, he says. (Is it too early to include bruised muscle memory as an official NBA injury?) Remember, this is the same guy who played with turf toe, back spasms and a strained groin before he blew out his knee last season.
Me? I’m convinced the clutter in Rose’s head comes from his handlers, namely, his big brother-agent Reggie and advisor B.J. Armstrong, the former Bulls guard.
As you may recall, it was Reggie who basically said it wouldn’t be in his brother’s best interests to return to a rag-tag bunch that had no championship potential. As he put it at the time, “It’s frustrating to see my brother play (sic) his heart and soul out for the team and them not put anything around him.”
As for Armstrong, he was overlooked for the Bulls general manager position years ago, when ex-teammate John Paxson was hired instead. It’s no secret that he has been bitter about the perceived slight since then.
Connect the dots.
One would think that Rose could fend for himself. After all, he’s not a kid any more. He’s 24 years old. It’s his body, his career. But has been allowed to make so few important decisions in his life, it’s unreasonable to believe that he’s capable of one now. Earlier this week, when Rose said he was oblivious to his growing number of critics, it was a stunning reminder of just how out of tune he was with the real world around him.
What we’re left with is a very confused young man at the center of a full-blown mess in which everyone loses and nobody wins.
The Association, its fans and sponsors, are all losers. In a league that’s driven by big names and big markets, especially in the playoffs, there’s a serious lack of star power at the moment. At a time when Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and both Los Angeles teams are out of the picture, not to mention Russell Westbrook and the Boston Celtics, Rose and Chicago would be a much-appreciated alternative.
Even without their floor leader, coach Tom Thibodeau’s fife and drum corps has made for a nice story this postseason. But does any player on this team quicken your pulse? Really, what does it say for the rest of the league that its greatest attribute is the willingness to bring it at both ends almost every game?
The Bulls are losers, and not only because they coulda been a legitimate contender with Rose at close to full strength. From a public relations standpoint, the situation couldn’t have been handled much worse. Rather than allow rampant speculation to become an unnecessary distraction, he could have addressed the situation on a more regular basis. And those public workouts of his accomplish nothing except to generate more questions about mental toughness or lack thereof. It could be the front office attempted to guide him through the process but got nowhere, which would further speak to its disconnect with the Rose camp.
The media are losers, too. Erroneous Rose-to-return reports have been as prevalent as Chris Anderson tattoos the last few months. Does accountability mean anything in this new media world of ours? Credibility? Seriously, is only Sheridan Hoops to be believed any more?
And then there’s the person who has the most to lose in all this.
Not long ago, Rose was one of the most popular and well-respected athletes among fans and media alike. The guy was everything that too many superstars were not — quiet, humble, selfless, a team player in every sense of the word. One year later, D-Rose may still be all of that, but for the first time in his career, there are doubters out there.
If and when Rose does return, he’ll have something to prove to himself and others. For many of us, it’s a process that can’t begin soon enough.
Paul Ladewski is a veteran Chicago sports journalist and occasional contributor to SheridanHoops.com.