MILWAUKEE — There’s only one step left for Derrick Rose. When it will come is still unclear. But his renewed presence in practice has been huge for his Chicago Bulls teammates as the squad gets ready for what it hopes will be a deep playoff run.
Rose cleared a major hurdle this week in his recovery from February surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. After four weeks of noncontact rehab work, he returned to full five-on-five scrimmaging in practice.
That’s the last roadblock. Next up for Rose is playing in an actual game. It won’t be Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks. It probably won’t be Friday at home against the Detroit Pistons. The team is still optimistic that it will happen before the end of the regular season. But, as usual, nobody wants to put a date on it.
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Rose said Wednesday morning after a team shootaround at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. “Just been worrying about rehab. Just building strength, trying to take care of my body, hydrate. But the strength has to be there.”
That’s been his and the team's focus since he started taking contact again. Mostly, though, the Bulls are happy to have him back. They know what they're capable of when he's healthy, and they know he's doing everything in his power to make that happen.
"When he gets hurt, it's not just him," Joakim Noah said Monday. "It's on all of us. We all feel it. We're a family. We spend more time together than we do with our families. It hurts to see him go down or to see any of your guys go down. We know how much we put into this. To see him come back and be resilient like that, I think it makes our team stronger."
Rose's surgically repaired knee is healing as expected, but there’s still the matter of his conditioning. Both Rose and head coach Tom Thibodeau knew that was going to take some time to return, given that he hasn’t played in over a month.
“That’s the last thing that I’m missing,” Rose said. “But that comes with playing and that comes with running around. Just doing rehab and doing isolation stuff. I’ve just got to move around a little bit more.”
“He’s just building,” Thibodeau said. “He needs a little time, but each day he’s getting better and better.”
If Rose is still hazy on an exact date, there’s still a reason for hope: His progress comes at a forgiving time in the Bulls' schedule. They only have eight games left in the regular season, and just one more back-to-back (next week in Orlando and Miami).
The bulk of their schedule, save for Sunday’s matchup with the Cavaliers in Cleveland, is against lesser teams. If the goal is for Rose to ease back into game action before the start of the playoffs, there will be plenty of opportunities—and plenty of time—to do so.
Until then, it’s just slow, steady progress. The Bulls believe they have enough to beat any team in a seven-game series, but they need Rose, and Rose needs to be at full strength.
"We know when Derrick's back right, he takes our team to [a] whole other level," said Noah. "He knows that. We know that, but right now it's just about being healthy and being in good spirits."
The comeback is still in its infancy, despite the return to contact. He still gets winded running the floor. The explosiveness is still coming back. He still doesn’t feel comfortable shooting the ball. But he and his teammates have been nothing short of thrilled with his progress, and there isn't anything to suggest that there have been any setbacks.
“It’s a big morale boost,” Taj Gibson said at practice on Tuesday. "It’s up there with watching a rookie who overcame so much adversity. Now you see Joakim out there, and then you see Derrick coming in there, and just that old attacking personality, how he is. He’s back in the hunt, talking trash, hitting threes, running back up and down the court. And it’s good to know that even while he was hurt, he was still paying attention to detail. It’s only a matter of time before he’s back out there going up and down the way he normally is.”
“I was able to get to the spots [on the floor],” Rose said. “It’s just making shots and getting my wind to where I’m actually able to run up and down, that’s the hardest thing. But as far as playing in a game or trying to come back full strength and all that, that’s going to come. My rhythm of the game will come. It just takes me being out there and actually playing.”
When that will be, nobody knows. All that’s left to do is guess.
Cleveland on Sunday is probably too soon. The Florida trip is a possibility, but there’s no reason to play him on a back-to-back this late in the season. The Bulls' final three games are against the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and an Atlanta Hawks team that will probably be resting every relevant player on its roster (the Hawks locked up the top seed in the Eastern Conference last week). That’s as good a trio of games as any to get him up to something resembling full speed before the playoffs start.
"A lot of times when guys get injuries, they shy away from pushing it," Gibson said. "He was out there pushing himself extremely hard, yelling, just being a teammate the way he was before he left. It's good to have him back. Last year and the year before [when Rose didn't play], it was frustrating."
It's still frustrating to Rose and to his teammates that he can't be out there yet. But, as always, Rose doesn’t want to rush it.
“I know it’s a process, but I’m along for this ride.”
Sean Highkin covers the Chicago Bulls for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.