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Derrick Rose still the engine that drives Bulls

The Bulls are still Derrick Rose’s team.

As if that needs to be said.

All the recent chitchat — is it Jimmy Butler’s team or Pau Gasol’s or maybe Rusty LaRue’s? — misses a fundamental point.

Rose is the highly paid starting point guard who is not leaving town — the Chris Paul of Chicago, so to speak — and nothing else matters.

Let Butler take 40 shots a game, do all the commercials, have the entourage, make the All-Star team. Rose still brings the ball up the floor, makes the first pass, either plays well or doesn’t. And the Bulls will not be successful without him playing at an elite level, no matter what happens to anybody around him.

Rose is not an outspoken, shrewd, pep-talky kind of leader. We know that. He never was, he never will be. He’s 27, eight years removed from (brief) college ball.

The intensity with which he plays, the blank look on his face as he does so, his low-key presence in the locker room — those things are set, not changeable like a new jersey. And so, as Rose, the ever-battered, once-promising phenom goes, so go the Bulls.

Indeed, seeing oft-injured point guard Kyrie Irving come back for the Cavaliers and score 22 points Monday against the Suns made one realize again how much the Bulls need Rose to even halfway contend with the Eastern Conference favorite Cavs.

Butler can try to be a LeBron James clone as much as he wants, but it will never happen as long as James is healthy. LeBron is such a freakish athlete and ballplayer that only he and Stephen Curry currently do things on the court that nobody else can do.

No, Rose is where the Bulls must gain an advantage. If you take only the Irving-Rose comparison, you can see that a limping or bricklaying Rose makes the Cavs an immediate 4-zip playoff favorite. Irving missed most of the last seven months rehabbing after breaking his kneecap in the Finals, but he’s a three-time All-Star and only 23. If Rose can whip him at the right time, then it’s possible the other Bulls can break even with James, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Co.

And that is the goal, right? To beat the Cavs and make it to the Finals?

So we monitor Rose’s ups and downs under a lab microscope. He finally threw off his protective mask and started shooting a little better. His eyesight, damaged after the broken orbital bone and surgery, still isn’t right. For a while, he couldn’t have sunk a long jump shot if you gave him a baseball and made the Chicago River the hoop.

But there are flashes of change, and they tantalize us. Like Monday night.

In the Bulls’ 104-97 victory against the Raptors at the United Center, Rose scored 20 points. Combined with the 25 he scored Saturday against the Mavericks, this gave him his first back-to-back 20-point games of the season. Throw in his 19 points Friday against the Thunder, and that’s a 21-point average for three games.

That’s just a snapshot, and it’s not like the 25 points he averaged during his MVP season of 2010-11. But it’s something.

And if Butler wants to be the man — the kind of wing scorer the Bulls didn’t have during Rose’s heyday — then let him have at it. Butler is a star shooting guard, averaging 20.8 points and 4.9 rebounds. But he never started an NBA game until halfway through the 2012-13 season, a season Rose missed entirely while recovering from his first knee surgery.

Butler came of age while Rose was aging, and it makes sense that there might be some friction between them. But it all can be worked out if they just play the roles they have earned.

‘‘Hopefully, that’s the Derrick Rose we’ll see from here on out,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said after the passionate victory over the Raptors.

Rose is averaging a career-low 14.4 points and is near his career low in almost every category, including minutes. But averages can be deceiving. They don’t factor in things such as games that are must-wins, blowouts, nail-biters or, above all, games in which a player is getting his stuff together, not losing it.

This team can be Thomas the Tank Engine’s for all the difference it makes. Just know that the only way it’s staying on track is behind the quietly — precariously — chugging engine named D-Rose.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com