Derrick Rose was clutching his left knee in pain, and the question that a lot of people had been asking themselves in the minutes before the injury occurred suddenly became a plaintive, frustrated cry:
Why in the world was the Bulls’ superstar still playing when Saturday’s game was already in hand?
It had been established by the middle of the season that Rose’s body and hard-driving game were not built for a condensed schedule. He had gone down with a sprained left toe in January that caused him to miss five games, and from there, his season read like the index to a human-anatomy handbook: lower back, right groin, right ankle and right foot. In all, he missed 26 regular-season games.
It meant that every decision the Bulls made during the season should have flowed from the simple truth that he was brittle. The idea should have been to keep Rose healthy, to keep him off the floor whenever opportune and, above all, to keep him away from banana peels.
The Bulls were up by 12 with about 1:20 left when Rose took a hop-step and threw a pass in the playoff opener against Philadelphia. When he came down, he winced, grabbed his left knee and dropped to the United Center floor.
He has a torn anterior cruciate ligament and is out for the rest of the playoffs. Just like that.
And so that pesky question, Tom Thibodeau: Why?
Why was Rose still playing? By that point, the 76ers had taken starters Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala out. It was over.
“It’s part of the game,” Thibodeau said. “There are going to be injuries. A guy can get hurt in practice. He can hurt in the first five minutes of the game. He can get hurt at the end of the game. You can get hurt any time.”
You can get hurt playing in highway traffic, too, but it doesn’t mean you should be doing it. It’s the coach’s job to look at the scoreboard, see that his team has a double-digit lead and get his injury-prone point guard out of the game to fight another day.
“I don’t work backward like you guys,” Thibodeau said. “The score was going the other way.”
No, it wasn’t. He could rationalize that Rose, having missed so much time this season, needed to work on finishing drives and games, but it all seems hollow right now, especially if you saw how much better the Bulls were than the 76ers.
There are livelier coroner’s inquests than the Bulls’ locker room was after their 103-91 victory.
“This might be one of the saddest wins ever,” forward Carlos Boozer said.
Thibodeau apparently never learned to work the brake in driver’s ed. It has been his weakness all season, and whenever anyone asked if the team would be better off with Rose sitting and healing, he dismissed it as the babbling of people who didn’t understand the game.
There’s a decent chance the Bulls can beat Philadelphia in a seven-game series without Rose, but that wasn’t the goal heading into the season. The goal was to avenge their loss to the Heat in last year’s Eastern Conference finals and win an NBA championship.
That’s the reason Rose should’ve been sitting in the last seat on the Bulls’ bench late in the game. His injury is a season-killer for the team.
“Come on, man,” center Joakim Noah said. “He’s the MVP of the NBA. It’s tough, but you know what? There’s basketball to be played.”
This is Rose’s sixth injury of the season, and we’re beyond the point where it can be considered reckless or unscientific to suggest that the lockout-driven, 66-game season is the culprit. Rose hasn’t been able to take the physical exertion.
So why was he still in the game?
“You have to talk to Thibs about that,” Boozer said.
Something I wrote earlier in the season still stands: Rose might have to change the way he plays if he wants to survive in this league. His fearless drives are something to behold, but there’s a dark side to them. We saw it as he fell to the floor and writhed in pain.
That’s where a coach is supposed to come in, to protect a player from himself.
Rose’s teammates tried to offer some comforting words as the trainer and assistant trainer helped him off the court.
“Our whole concern was him,” teammate John Lucas III said. “Basically, we had the game already won, so our whole concern was Derrick. That’s our brother.”
Their brother has gathered injuries like coupons this season, and his body seems intent on collecting them all. The game was already won.
Why was he out there?