MIAMI — It was instinct, for sure, but the sort that comes from muscle memory, the muscle memory that comes with countless hours of summer practice. A bang-bang play, Norris Cole called it. Not intended to embarrass—merely meant to counter.
"I knew he was playing heavy for me to come off right," Cole said, after the Miami Heat's 107-95 victory in their 2013-14 season opener. "So I rejected, went off left."
Which left Derrick Rose tangling feet with Chris Andersen, pressing a hand to the floor and crumpling out of sight as Cole stroked a jumper.
"I knew I beat him," Cole said. "I didn't know how bad, or how far away."
That will likely serve as the signature moment of Rose's regular-season return following a full season's absence, Cole figuratively breaking his ankles during a second-quarter sequence.
That will get the most YouTube traffic for sure—more than Mario Chalmers' strip of Rose on the first Chicago Bulls possession, more than Rose's strong take to the rim for the Bulls' first points, more than any of Rose's clanked jumpers as he finished 4-of-15, and certainly more than Rose naturally torquing his knee in traffic, as if it had never endured an operation.
Still, it is Cole's quote that serves a purpose here, if with some modification.
Yes, the Heat beat Rose on Tuesday night.
But, on the whole, the Bulls guard didn't look too bad.
He's certainly not all that far away.
The Heat seemed to recognize that, just as they understood the oddity of the evening—defending champions receiving their rings, yet relegated to sidebar status because of the eagerly-awaited return of Rose.
"His speed was impressive," Shane Battier said.
"D-Rose is very explosive," Dwyane Wade said. "You can see that when he goes to the rim."
Efficient? Well, that's another matter. But that doesn't mean anything was the matter with his knee.
"Oh no, my knee's good," Rose said. "You don't got to be worried about that at all."
His knee looked fine, no worse than it was during the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, when he shot 10-of-22, 7-of-23, 8-of-19, 8-of-27 and 9-of-29 as the Bulls lost four of five games to a much thinner Miami squad.
That's 35 percent. That's not a whole lot better than the 26.7 percent that Rose shot Tuesday.
And, no, Rose wasn't dogged defensively, frequently losing his man whether it was Cole, Chalmers or Wade, even when none needed to unleash a crossover. But again, he has hardly qualified a consistent defensive stopper, not even in the 2010-11 season he was voted the MVP.
So, as the questions subside regarding Rose's health, the old ones will surface regarding his relationship with the Heat: Can he find ways to be the same force against Miami as against so many others?
That's still not clear. In fact, in listening to Thibodeau and Rose late Tuesday night, little was clear about anything.
Thibodeau said "there's still going to be some rust."
Rose said he wasn't rusty: "I think it was just me missing shots. I've had worse shooting nights than this."
Thibodeau, while praising Rose's playmaking in the first quarter, added, "I thought in trying to get us going, we got in trouble."
Rose said he didn't force anything: "I just didn't knock down any shots."
Thibodeau called it a very physical game, "so that's something that he has to get used to. And he will."
Rose, while wearing a camouflage hat, downplayed the physicality.
Instead, Rose pointed to the numbers that the Heat used again him, repeatedly referencing Miami's "double-teaming," and even adding, "I think everyone in the league is just going to try double-teaming now."
Heat players, however, insisted they weren't double-teaming, just loading in transition—so that Rose wouldn't have a free run—and trapping on occasion, as part of their normal pick-and-roll defense. They stuck with their principles, sensing that Rose, while physically right, didn't have a great feel for the game speed or a first-time starting lineup.
Whatever the Heat did, it worked well enough on this night, with Rose held to 12 points—one fewer than Chalmers, just one more than Cole.
"If I would have thought I was going to have a 50-point, 60-point night, that's something you that you would think about, but you've got to be realistic," Rose said. "And for me, I wouldn't want it no other way. Where I know I work hard enough that I'm going to have a breakthrough game."
He will, against others, soon enough. It might be this week. It will likely be this month. He's not that far away, closer for sure than he was to Norris Cole.
The real breakthrough?
That will come when, or if, he finally breaks free against Miami.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat and the NBA for Bleacher Report.
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