The Miami Heat delivered a brutal, bitter and humbling lesson to Derrick Rose on Tuesday night: The road back is always longer than it seems.
LeBron James knows this. Even now, two rings and a brand-new national reputation later, he lives with moving past the mistakes of his past and trekking toward whatever legacy he will leave after his career.
Dwyane Wade knows this, too. He has been called old and washed up, labeled a now-second-tier player on a team he once ruled, and has recently had his relationship with co-star and possible 2014 free-agent James questioned.
The Heat, chasing a way back to yet another title, all know this, from Chris Bosh still getting laughed at when mentioned as part of the Big Three to head coach Erik Spoelstra’s two rings not ending talk he lucked into his greatness to guys like Michael Beasley and Greg Oden embarking on their own last-chance comeback stories.
Fair? Not fair? True? Utterly false? It doesn’t matter, not to the guys in the trenches fighting to be the last team standing. When you yearn for the highest of heights, the path up is always more arduous — and longer — than first imagined. If you’re not careful, the unsubstantiated noise can dog you just as much as the truth.
Now Derrick Rose knows it, too. He choked that knowledge down against a Heat team Tuesday night in the regular-season opener and opened himself up to talk both of his marvelous upside and durability and the chance he is not ready for the full-on, this-is-the-real-world realities of the regular season.
There, as proof, was the Heat’s 107-95 beatdown of Rose’s Bulls, a score that hardly did justice to the way in which Miami utterly dominated Chicago for much of the game. There was Heat guard Norris Cole putting Rose on the ground with a crossover that will be ripe for replay, trash-talk and fretful fears of Rose’s skills.
There was a Heat team that got only 30 combined points from James and Wade on an ugly 10-of-24 shooting night but that still managed to make the Bulls look like a far-distant threat to Miami’s three-peat hopes.
And it all came on a warm Miami evening in which the Heat raised a second straight banner, this one hanging from the rafters of American Airlines Arena to commemorate a season in which Rose never played a single minute.
The truth? Rose looked utterly explosive at times, was fearless and wildly athletic in attacking the rim, and put torque on his knee with the free-wheeling confidence of a player no longer worried about his health.
“His explosiveness looks good,” Spoelstra said. “There were a couple of times I thought we were gaffed and he just exploded through them. I think he’ll just continue to get stronger and better as the season goes on.”
But he also looked off target too often, a raw specimen trying to find his way. He had only 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting and five turnovers in 34 minutes. LeBron nailed it: “He’s still trying to find his rhythm.”
But being healthy — and that’s a big, big thing for the former MVP and his Chicago team — is only the edge of the start of a process that will include commentary and concern over every minute he plays. This could well be a season largely defined by what Derrick Rose is, or is not.
There’s also the very real fact that, even if Rose is 100 percent healthy, even if as he claims he has a higher basketball IQ than before his injury, even if the Bulls’ season in the wilderness without their leader made them more capable now that he has returned, it is a long and brutal path for a team craving a championship.
Such dreams are flimsy things, much like a man’s ACL. You can do all the right things and still find that it is easily broken.
We are only a single game into this season. It is, obviously, early. Early for Chicago. Early for Miami. Early for Rose.
Still, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau captured this day when asked before the game what this season opener meant, if anything.
“It’ll reveal,” he said, “where we are, where we have to go.”
The Chicago Bulls and Derrick Rose are at the beginning of a very difficult comeback. And they have a long, long way to go before they return to the top of the Eastern Conference.