CHICAGO – Fans cheered just about every time Derrick Rose touched the ball. They showered him with "MVP! MVP!" chants.
In many ways, it seemed like he'd never been gone.
Rose scored 22 points in his long-awaited return to the United Center court to lead the Chicago Bulls to a 96-81 preseason victory over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.
The way Rose was dominating, it was hard to believe nearly 18 months had passed since he suited up for a game in this arena. The explosiveness was back after he spent last season recovering from knee surgery, and when he wasn't finishing drives, the former MVP was hitting his free throws.
As for any emotions? Rose downplayed them.
"Not at all," he said. "I think I'm past that, jitters and everything. For me, it's just going out there and trying to compete and try to do better as a teammate and as a leader."
He got a thunderous ovation during the pregame introductions and proceeded to put on a show, scoring 18 in the first half. He had the crowd chanting "MVP! MVP!" at the end of the second quarter after he froze Peyton Siva with a wicked crossover and flipped the ball in off the glass over Andre Drummond as he crashed to the floor. Rose buried the free throw to complete the three-point play.
Rose hit 6 of 9 shots and was 9 for 10 on free throws over 22 minutes after missing the previous game against Washington in Rio de Janeiro because of soreness in his surgically repaired left knee.
"He didn't look like he lost a step to me," Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks said. "He was as quick as he's ever been."
Carlos Boozer added 10 points and 11 rebounds. Joakim Noah had two points and eight rebounds after missing the first three preseason games because of a strained right groin.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led Detroit with 18 points, but this night was all about Rose.
"We are starting to see him find his rhythm," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "The moves, the explosion, the power, the change in directions ... that's been there all along. Now, he has better balance and (is) playing in rhythm."
Rose hadn't played at the United Center since April 28, 2012, when the Bulls' worst nightmare unfolded near the end of a playoff-opening victory over Philadelphia. There was Rose coming to a jump stop and crumbling to the floor with about 1:20 left in a game that was out of reach, a torn anterior cruciate ligament ending his season and sending top-seeded Chicago to a first-round exit.
His recovery became a running soap opera last season, and it only escalated after he returned to practice in midseason.
Should he return? Should he sit out the season?
Rose and the Bulls never publicly ruled out a return, so the debate raged on. His image took a hit in some corners as the Bulls clawed their way through injuries and illnesses on the way to 45 wins and a second-round playoff exit. None of that seemed to matter on Wednesday.
When the PA announcer bellowed before the game, "From Chicago! No. 1, Derrick Rose!" a deafening roar echoed through the arena. There was a loud cheer when Rose caught an outlet pass from Boozer after a miss by Detroit's Drummond on the game's first shot, and they were screaming again moments later when Rose scored off a feed from Noah. He added a neat layup, pumping in midair and drawing a few "oohs" and "ahs" from the crowd," and scored eight points before heading to the sideline with 3:59 left in the first quarter.
It was a promising start punctuated by that brilliant move at the end of the half. It still remains to be seen how the knee will hold up once the season starts and how he'll fare against stiffer competition, such as Miami in the opener. But the signs are good.
"I was just trying to really be aggressive," Rose said when asked about the play at the end of the half. "That's the way I normally play. (If that's a sign) for what's to come, I hope so. For me, I was just trying to do anything to get to the basket."