Derrick Rose had almost lost this basketball city.
On Saturday night, he won it back.
In the Bulls’ 103-91 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 at the United Center, Rose had 23 points, a game-high seven assists, two steals and one block.
Those are only stats.
They’re good stats. But what won the hearts of everyone at the rocking UC was the way Rose put up those shots, dished those balls, played his game.
And that was in his unique, all-out, full-tilt, take-no-prisoners attack mode.
When he fell to the floor one time in the first half and stayed there too long, all anyone who knows his history could think was: Oh, no, here we go again!
Again would be the seemingly endless knee problems that have sabotaged anything resembling a consistent game for Rose since he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs.
There was symbolism here as he flew to the hoop, as he pushed the ball up the court like a man charging through a flaming forest.
In that last playoff game for him back on April 28, 2012, against the Philadelphia 76ers, he had stats much like he had against the Bucks: 23 points, nine assists, a steal, a blocked shot. And that was basically the last we saw of him as a whole, dependable point guard.
And, suddenly, after only five regular-season games with limited minutes, here was Rose — whole again. Could it be?
The chants of ‘‘MVP! MVP!” that spontaneously erupted in the third quarter from the crowd after Rose made three consecutive three-pointers in 149 seconds — those rang loud and true. And nostalgic.
It was four full years ago that Rose was voted the best player in the NBA. Could the wounded heartbreaker, now 26, have turned back the clock?
He played 27 minutes to get his stats, whereas three years ago — in the only other playoff game he has been in for three seasons — he played 37 minutes.
There are critics who say coach Tom Thibodeau played Rose too much in the past, especially in that Game 1 victory against the 76ers. The Bulls were ahead by a lot back then — did their superstar even need to be out of his sweatsuit?
But is that why Rose gets hurt? Time? Too much of it spent playing the only way he’s effective: pedal to the metal?
We don’t know. And that has been the frustration that has overwhelmed all who care about the Bulls.
And Rose, with his monotone, noncommittal responses to questions about his health, has only made folks ever more doubtful. Holding one’s breath without relief becomes impossible. Even for fans.
Rose was losing the city. Maybe he had burst into the sky, flamed brilliantly and now was just a rocket fading to ash.
But if there was a moment when he stole the city back, it likely was when Jimmy Butler (game-high 25 points) hit Rose from the left on a fast break late in the second quarter. Rose took the pass and soared to the basket and jammed two-handed. He launched himself off his left leg, the one with the ACL that had needed so much rehabilitation after snapping and being surgically repaired.
The joy of the moment was like a bomb going off.
Look at Derrick! He can fly again!
Just seconds later, he hit a driving reverse layup that looked like something from 2011.
After the game Rose addressed the media.
He was wearing his usual blank expression, a diamond earring and a black high school letterman-style jacket with white leather sleeves. On the right breast in white thread was embroidered, ‘‘Just a Kid from CHICAGO.’’
‘‘They’re not double-teaming me, so there’s a lot of space out there,’’ he said.
This was true, and maybe the Bucks will change that defensive strategy by Monday.
But they’ll do so at their peril because Rose and Butler combined for a Jordan/Pippen-esque total of 48 points. Butler would flourish even more if the Bucks focus tightly on Rose. So would big guys Pau Gasol (10 points) and Joakim Noah (six points).
But that’s X’s-and-O’s stuff.
What we got from Rose was a gift that we’ve been awaiting for years.
What the crowd gave back were, well, X’s and O’s.
Hugs and kisses, that is.