Shot after shot before Monday night's Bulls-Lakers game at the United Center, Derrick Rose smoothly lofted high-arching attempts four feet beyond the 3-point line that fell softly through the net.
Five straight baskets represented Rose's longest streak during a 15-minute shooting session that was as meaningful or memorable as anything that happened later on the same court. Nobody charted shots but, judging from the wide eyes and big smiles of fans courtside, suffice to say Rose made more than he missed.
Rose took jab steps with his surgically repaired left knee as Bulls assistant coach Adrian Griffin guarded him. He lifted off the floor the way the NBA is used to seeing his legs lift. As one league executive remarked, Rose displayed a shooting form that looked more fluid than before his injury almost nine months ago; suggesting Rose's ACL might not have been the only thing that improved during rehabilitation.
After seeing Rose remind Chicago what we are missing minutes after hearing Tom Thibodeau open the door to Rose's return to full-contact practice this week, suddenly watching Kobe Bryant try to save the Lakers' season didn't seem so compelling.
"He's very close,'' Thibodeau said of Rose. "He is showing great patience. Everybody else has to.''
From the Book of Thibs, that's the best piece of advice since, "Do. Your. Job."
Not even team doctors know the right answer to the only Bulls question that matters: When will Rose return? As Thibodeau advised, think caution over curiosity, later rather than sooner, after the Feb. 17 All-Star Game instead of before it. Think March 3 in Indianapolis against the Pacers, as logical a guess as any. Returning away from home in a calmer environment at a point in the schedule with three weeks before Rose's first back-to-back challenge would make sense for an organization thinking conservatively.
Those close to Rose suggest he would prefer not to wait that long if it were up to him. It isn't, thankfully. The calendar is the Bulls' friend more than their enemy.
Stop comparing Rose's recovery to Knicks guard Iman Shumpert, who tore his ACL on the same day Rose did last April 28 but returned to action last week. When the Knicks have identified Shumpert as the $95 million future of the franchise, those comparisons will be valid.
Be careful, too, reading too much into Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio returning in December nine months after tearing his ACL. Rubio has struggled with back spasms and the type of nagging injuries the Bulls want Rose to avoid.
Delaying Rose's return only will make him stronger if the Bulls play deep into the postseason, a thought more plausible halfway through the season than it seemed three months ago. In a mediocre East, these Bulls possess enough depth and focus to make the conference finals barring any setbacks with Rose.
"Let him handle his rehab,'' Thibodeau said. "Continue to listen to what our doctors have to say and go from there.''
Things have gone better for the Bulls than anybody but Thibodeau expected. Carlos Boozer, with more double-doubles than any power forward in the East (23), earned praise from Thibodeau for his defense and finally deserves respect from fans. Luol Deng, out with a hamstring injury, leads the Bulls in scoring and every other way. Joakim Noah elevated his game enough to be an All-Star.
As for the bench, once Thibodeau started trusting reserves after a Nov. 26 debacle when the Bucks overcame a 27-point lead, the Bulls have thrived. Marco Belinelli, who beat the Celtics with a game-winner, didn't play in the loss to the Bucks for reasons only Thibodeau understood but has averaged 11.9 points in 26 games since. Jimmy Butler continues to develop at both ends. Taj Gibson resembles himself again. Nate Robinson hasn't put Thibodeau in a straightjacket — yet — and can be even harder on opposing coaches if he gets hot.
Forget the drama Thibodeau created by benching Noah for the final 23 minutes of Saturday's loss. The Heat benched stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the fourth quarter of a recent defeat. Celtics coach Doc Rivers publicly called out his veteran team Sunday night after losing to the Pistons. It's the NBA and, while sometimes his moves merit scrutiny, Thibodeau has earned the benefit of the doubt.
"I like our team (and) believe we have more than enough,'' Thibodeau repeated. "If we do the right things, we're capable of beating anyone anywhere. And we have a lot of room for growth. We went through half a season last year without Derrick. You begin with the end in mind.''
In his mind's eye, Thibodeau can see signs marking the end of Rose's rehab — which sure looks like the beginning of something else.