CHICAGO — The game is starting to feel fun again for Derrick Rose.
There hasn’t been much fun about the last two weeks for the Chicago Bulls—six losses in eight games, a growing sense of uncertainty about the future, widespread second-guessing of head coach Tom Thibodeau and of this team’s ceiling.
It’s funny how one game can change the conversation completely.
Following Thursday night’s 104-81 rout of the San Antonio Spurs, in which Rose had 22 points and five assists in just 27 minutes, Rose was looser and more comfortable than he’s been in weeks, a 180-degree turn from the angry tirade that followed Monday’s loss in Cleveland.
“I kind of just got a feel for the game,” Rose said. “I’m seeing lanes, teams are still going under [screens], still not double-teaming, so it’s kind of like free basketball, freelance basketball when I’m out there. It’s so much space when you’re playing with the players that I’m playing with.”
Quietly, even through a stretch of losses and inconsistent play, Rose has gotten his groove back. Over his last eight games, since the end of the 13-2 stretch, Rose is averaging 21 points and 5.4 assists per game. He’s been more aggressive finding the basket. Even the three-point shots, which have been such a cringeworthy part of his game for most of the year, are falling. Since the Bulls’ January 7 loss to the Utah Jazz, which was the first sign of trouble, Rose is shooting 44.9 percent from three-point range.
On top of that, Rose is no longer playing on a minutes restriction, K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reported Thursday. The Bulls’ training staff has lifted the limitations on his workload, no small step for a superstar who’s missed most of the past two seasons with serious knee injuries. Rose only had to play just under 27 minutes in the blowout victory over the Spurs, but he looked as good as he has this season.
As strong as Rose’s numbers have been recently, though, it hasn’t translated into wins. The Bulls have lacked the urgency that they’ve constantly talked about needing to rediscover. On Thursday, down two starters against the defending champions at full strength, they showed the most fight they’ve shown since the calendar flipped to 2015. It was the statement win they’ve been searching for and unable to find in recent weeks, and it reminded everyone—including themselves—how dangerous they can be when they’re fully engaged.
Thursday night, Rose’s energy was contagious. He scored six points in the first quarter of a game in which the Bulls weren’t hopelessly behind from the start, for a pleasant change. This Rose was the best of all worlds. He got his points, but he didn’t do it at the expense of getting his teammates into the flow of the game. Every Bulls starter scored in double figures, and Aaron Brooks added 15 points off the bench.
If the Bulls are ultimately able to fulfill their expectations of contending for a title, Monday’s already-mythical team meeting will go down in history as the catalyst for a turnaround. By Rose’s own admission, they have never had a meeting like this in his time in Chicago. It wasn’t the players-only meeting that’s been a last resort for every team in a losing streak in NBA history. Thibodeau was very much involved, but the opportunity for every player to speak his mind proved beneficial in allowing the team to refocus its energy.
“I said what I had to say,” Rose said. “I think my teammates took it to heart. I think the entire team took everything we said to heart.”
What that meant, above all else, was rediscovering the joy that comes from basketball in its best moments.
“We shouldn’t come in here and feel like we’re at a 9-to-5 [job],” Rose said. “And that’s no disrespect to people who have 9-to-5s, but when you play a sport for a living, you shouldn’t have that feeling. You should have that joy of remembering when you were younger, when you were out in the park, winning games and competing and just giving it your all while you’re on the floor. Just appreciating the game.”
The Bulls have a long road ahead, with a schedule that will only get tougher. They’re still not physically healthy, but for the first time in a while, they appear to be right mentally.
“It came back tonight, but we’ll have to see how long it can last.”
Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @highkin