Going up: Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls

People often forget that Michael Jordan didn’t win his first championship until the age of 28 in his seventh NBA season. Derrick Rose just finished his third at the age of 22 and has already won an NBA MVP, which Jordan didn’t get until the age of 25.

Despite this, Rose was already facing expectations to win an NBA Title. This isn’t surprising, as the last time the Bulls had an MVP, the city of Chicago witnessed six championships in eight years and the greatest team in NBA history.

The fact of the matter is, the Bulls weren’t yet ready for the big time.

Sure, it was easy to get roped in as an NBA fan, Rose is a humble superstar who has seemingly done everything possible to get better. Tom Thibodeau is a hard-nosed coach willing to press his team day after day to become the best defensive team in the league, but most of all, they’re an amicable group of players. Especially when compared alongside the polarizing Miami Heat.

Simply put, the reason the Bulls weren’t ready is because Rose hadn’t taken his lumps like NBA greats prior. As Jordan needed to overcome the Detroit Pistons and a plethora of NBA All-Stars, Rose will need to overcome the Heat in future seasons before he can become a champion.

Back when Jordan won his first title, athletes didn’t reach near the level of scrutiny that current NBA players face today. With social media websites and increasing online and cable coverage, every second of these players’ lives are analyzed with failure highlighted just as much as success.

It’s important, then, that we as fans are able to separate the differences between failure and growth, especially in the NBA where talent and experience almost always win out. At some point, a player’s growth can only plateau and qualify as “not quite enough”. It’s easy to forget that NBA fans once watched Jordan tiptoe that line before crossing into a realm all his own.

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As far as Rose is concerned, he just wants to win. The heir to Air Jordan’s throne in Chicago has shown flashes of pure brilliance and rarely reveals any weaknesses. When he does show weakness, he fixes it.

At the beginning of the regular season, Rose was considered an elite young point guard with explosive athleticism and unbelievable instincts around the rim. From Day 1 of the campaign, Rose turned heads with remarkable improvements in various aspects of his game.

By season’s end, he had eclipsed Chris Paul and Deron Williams and gone from a top-five point guard to the inarguable best.

But this was during the regular season.

While Rose had experienced the playoffs after both his first and second seasons, in each instance the Bulls were heavy underdogs. Nevertheless, the nation was first exposed to Rose’s potential when the Bulls took the Boston Celtics to seven games in a classic 2009 series.

Rose was only 20 years old at the time, and nobody cared that he couldn’t lead his team all the way to victory. It was okay that he failed in the end, because of his age. Simply taking the Celtics to seven games was a victory in itself.

This experience certainly helped Rose lead his Bulls to playoff series victories over the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks in 2011. At times, the Bulls struggled against both teams despite finishing with the best regular season record. The struggles simply highlighted their lack of familiarity as a playoff favorite.

With greater expectations came a bigger spotlight and greater pressure. At times, the Bulls floundered as a result; Rose showed an inconsistency not seen before, and most of his supporting cast sporadically. Still, the young franchise was never in danger of losing either series, and they reached the Eastern Conference Finals for a matchup with the Miami Heat, largely in part due to Thibodeau’s defensive strategies.

The NBA MVP shouldn’t lose in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but Rose’s true test arrived in the Conference Finals as the Bulls faced previous MVP winner James and former champion Dwyane Wade. Though the Bulls were all over their heavily-favored opponents in a Game 1 blowout victory, the euphoria wouldn’t last.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, the Heat’s two superstars and coach Erik Spoelstra adjusted. Over the course of the rest of the season, Miami threw consistent double teams at Rose and played the type of defense that the Bulls themselves had been preaching all season long. Sure, Chicago was able to stay close in Games 2 through 4, but their offense looked stagnant and predominantly lost.

Why, then, didn’t the Bulls adjust? Why did coach Thibodeau continue to call out the same sets and throw out the same rotations? Yes, the defense was playing well and keeping the team in the games, but it obviously wasn’t enough.

The Game 5 loss that clinched the series for the Heat was the Bulls’ biggest collapse of the season. On their home court, they gave away a seemingly insurmountable lead thanks to a series of questionable decisions down the stretch.

Why were Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah on the bench in the last minutes of the game? The Bulls were hesitant offensively and Rose, try as he might, failed to do it by himself.

With Noah and Boozer sidelined, the Bulls couldn’t have been less adept crashing the glass and the results showed as much. Miami managed to record several stops down the stretch, but only when the Bulls didn’t waste the possessions on their own.

Sometimes, the bench can truly give its team a boost – either defensively or offensively – and both Taj Gibson and Kurt Thomas had come through for the Bulls over the course of the game as they built up their lead (not to mention the playoffs in general). Perhaps Thibodeau wanted to reward his guys for their success, but the playoffs aren’t a time to reward players, especially if it means keeping two reputable starters on the bench.

Boozer may be a question mark defensively, but he is a two-time All-Star with plenty of Utah Jazz playoff experience under one of the greatest coaches of all time, Jerry Sloan. Regardless of any recent struggles, without him, Chicago’s only threat to create offense independently was Rose. With neither Boozer nor Noah to worry about, James and the Heat were able to focus intently on shutting down the point guard.

Thibodeau won the NBA Coach of the Year award for the 2010-11 season, and it was entirely deserved, but perhaps the most important lesson he learned over the course of the year was just how differently the postseason plays out than from October-April.

Will it be easier for the Bulls to make offensive adjustments with another scoring option next to Derrick Rose? It’s likely, especially since they’re expected to make changes at shooting guard, where Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer split responsibility in 2010-11.

Between any roster changes and the continued development of young Rose (whose jump shot and defense have improved considerably since his rookie season), it’s hard to imagine the Bulls going anywhere but up.

The thing is, when you finish the regular season with the top record in basketball, there isn’t much more “up” to go. They’ll simply have to settle for slaying the modern day NBA greats that are the Miami Heat.

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