With the Chicago Bulls on the cusp of advancing to the second round of the NBA playoffs, Derrick Rose finds himself preparing for something more important than a best-of-seven series against the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers.
For him, this inevitable matchup is bigger than playing into the second round for just the second time in his career. It's bigger than the chance to clinch an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
It's bigger than anyone with a working knowledge of the last three years could have foreseen.
Upon taking the floor against Cleveland, Rose will bask in the glow of all those things. But he'll also try to recapture his "superstar" designation, the one that has been inelegantly stripped from him over the past few seasons.
These are not temporary stakes Rose will be facing. The imprint he leaves on a Cavaliers-Bulls series will be a permanent one that lasts through the offseason, into 2015-16 and beyond.
Cleveland pieced together a 103-95 victory over the Boston Celtics on Thursday night, seizing an insurmountable 3-0 series edge. Chicago did the same in its 113-106 double-overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
No NBA squad has ever erased a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. Teams that win their first three tilts are a perfect 110-0, according to WhoWins.com. The question of whether the Bulls and Cavaliers will meet, then, isn't actually a question—it's a forgone conclusion.
As is the importance of Rose's performance.
Injury after injury, setback after setback, Rose's road to recovery following a left ACL tear in April 2012 has been anything but smooth. At different points, the future looked outright bleak, hopelessly uncompromising in its refusal to let optimism prevail for more than three winks.
Through the last three regular seasons, including this one, Rose has played in just 61 games. Stephen Jackson has appeared in more contests during that time, and he hasn't logged a minute of NBA action since Jan. 4, 2014.
If it wasn't Rose's left ACL, it has been a torn meniscus in his right knee that he suffered 10 games into 2013-14. Even this season, while mustering 51 appearances (his most since 2010-11), he battled a number of injuries.
From soreness in his left knee and sprained ankles and strained hamstrings to hip discomfort and a torn right medial meniscus that threatened to ruin yet another season, Rose has not found refuge from the injury bug that turned his post-MVP years into a cautionary tale.
But Rose is writing a different ending to the same old story in the aftermath of his latest meniscus tear. The postseason has become the playground on which he's rounding into form.
In Game 1 against the Bucks, he tallied 23 points, seven assists and two steals in 27 minutes of action. And though he struggled in Game 2, shooting 4-of-14 from the floor, he racked up nine assists, brought down seven rebounds and recorded the second-highest plus-minus of Chicago's starting five.
Rose's Game 3 performance loomed even larger. He drove and skipped and ran his way to 34 points on 23 shots. He also added five rebounds, eight assists and three steals through 48 minutes of burn (two overtimes), finishing with a plus-15 in a contest that was decided by seven points and included nine ties and 12 lead changes.
That's something. It's everything. It was, and remains, a performance worthy of Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer's affirmation: "Derrick Rose is back, though. Let’s not run away from that big batch of giddy."
It seems both unreasonable and ridiculous to hang such heavy assertions on a three-game sample. But this isn't solely about the stats, or the Bulls' 3-0 series edge, or the conference finals that suddenly seem within reach. It's about Rose showing something on the league's brightest stage that he hasn't in quite some time.
Sure, he has visibly altered his playing style to some degree. His drives per game (10) are up from his regular-season average (7.2), and more than 40 percent of his total shot attempts are coming from downtown. But he's reading and reacting better to defenses and isn't hesitating once he gets into the lane as he often did before.
Plus, Rose is making 45.5 percent of those deep balls and averaging more drives than James Harden. And the drives Rose is making are deliberate—calculated, but not forced. He's shooting 66.7 percent in those situations, finishing with the confidence and consistence of the human highlight reel he used to be:
The Bucks, in turn, are respecting his dribble penetration, collapsing in a way that allows Rose to showcase the court vision his recurring wars with injuries never once took away:
As Tom Ley writes for Deadspin:
It’s not even so much the numbers from these games that are encouraging, but the style with which Rose has been playing. The tentative version of Derrick Rose that we’ve grown so accustomed to watching over the last few seasons seems to have been put back in the garage, and he’s been replaced by the springy, attacking Derrick Rose of old.
Both Chicago's offense and defense have been sensational with Rose on the floor. He's posting the highest net rating of anyone on the team, and it's not even close. He's second in total minutes played as well, behind only Jimmy Butler.
All this is happening, mind you, against a Bucks unit that ranked second in points allowed per 100 possessions during the regular season. Don't think the Bulls haven't noticed, either.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau is overtly aware of what Rose's performance thus far means, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
Some will now invariably look to seasons past, to the absences and the injuries. Others will harp on his regular-season performance and 40.5 percent shooting that spanned a sample far larger than these playoffs have provided.
That's where the Cavaliers come in. Rose and the Bulls have all but ensured themselves of at least one more series. If Rose plays like this—to perform without restraint—against one of the NBA's title favorites, the skeptical whispers will have no choice but to ebb entirely.
And, in a full-circle sort of way, it's fitting that Rose will meet the Cavaliers under these circumstances.
LeBron James' Miami Heat were the last playoff opponent to face a full-strength Derrick Rose beyond the first round. They made mincemeat of the then-MVP in 2011, dispatching the Bulls from the Eastern Conference Finals in five games.
Everything is admittedly different this time. James plays on a new team, while Rose isn't working off an MVP campaign.
Most will barely even give Chicago an outside shot at beating Cleveland. The Bulls are now 19-5 (playoffs included) when fielding their preferred starting five, but the Cavaliers won the season series 3-1 and have the NBA's best record since starting out 19-20. They will be the favorites.
Yet again, this isn't about revenge or rediscovering Rose the superstar. That version of Rose is already back, owning the playoffs, almost as if he never left. Though some won't give him the superstar label until after the impending Cleveland series, he has earned it by both reputation and, most importantly, current craft. Postseason heroics tend to have that effect.
So once Rose takes the floor against the Cavaliers, he will no longer be playing for his return.
He'll be competing for the right to stay.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.