CHICAGO – As Bulls guard Derrick Rose grabbed his left knee and crumpled to the court Saturday, a tight-knit team, a sellout crowd and a sports-crazy city collectively held its breath.
“My heart kind of dropped,” Bulls guard Richard Hamilton said.
“Just pray that he’s going to be all right,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said.
“It’s the saddest win,” Bulls guard Kyle Korver said.
It became even sadder a few hours later.
The Bulls confirmed fans’ worst fears Saturday evening when they announced that Rose tore his left ACL on a drive to the rim late in the fourth quarter of a 103-91 win against the Philadelphia 76ers. Rose will miss this summer’s Olympics and likely at least part of next season because of the injury.
It was a horrible break for one of the game’s most exciting players.
It also was one that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau could have and should have avoided.
Before I question Thibodeau, let me say that he’s one of the NBA’s best coaches. He guided the Bulls to a league-leading 50-16 regular-season record despite a parade of injuries made worse by a grueling schedule, and players fully bought into his demands for hard work.
Without Thibodeau, the Bulls would not have been hosting the 76ers as the No. 1 seed.
All of that said, Rose had no business being in the game with his team up by double digits and the clock dwindling from five minutes to four to three to two. The Bulls led by as many as 20 points with 4:36 to go and were up, 99-87, when Rose drove to the rim with 1:10 remaining.
As Rose came to a jump stop, he immediately winced and clutched his left leg. He stayed on the court for several minutes as players from both teams retreated toward their benches.
Meanwhile, an upbeat song offered a strange contrast to the reigning MVP lying on the court.
“Boom, boom, boom, shake the room!” DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince sang on the speakers.
The room wasn’t shaking, but plenty of heads were.
Nobody could have predicted Rose’s injury, but why take the risk?
Risk management is an important part of business. The same is true with the Bulls, where Rose missed 27 games during the regular season because of groin, back, wrist, ankle and foot injuries and should have been enjoying the closing scenes of Game 1 from the bench.
Naturally, Thibodeau defended his decision against those who had the benefit of hindsight.
“I don’t work backwards like you guys do,” Thibodeau said. “The score was going the other way.”
Nor was Thibodeau thinking forward. He was focused entirely on Round 1, Game 1, without thinking of the other 11 wins the Bulls will need for an NBA Finals appearance or the other 15 wins for a title.
Having Rose healthy was the only way the Bulls could have competed for a championship. They still should beat the 76ers in a series without him, and they could knock off Boston or Atlanta in Round 2, but there’s no way they can topple the Miami Heat with C.J. Watson or John Lucas III running the offense.
Before learning the extent of Rose’s injury, Thibodeau talked about dealing with risks.
“It’s part of the game,” Thibodeau said. “There are going to be injuries. A guy can get hurt in practice. He can get hurt in the first five minutes of the game. He can get hurt at the end of the game.
“He can get hurt any time. You’ve got to deal with it. That’s part of this game.”
That’s true, but Rose didn’t get hurt in practice. He didn’t get hurt in the first five minutes of the game. For that matter, he didn’t get hurt in the first 46-plus minutes.
He got hurt with 1:10 remaining and his team leading by double digits.
Hamilton, who left the game long before Rose’s injury, defended his coach’s decision to keep Rose in.
“In playoff basketball, you never want to give a team confidence,” Hamilton said. “So, if it’s having your starters in or whatever, when you’ve got a team down, you’ve got to try to keep them down.”
In doing so, Bulls’ best player went down.
What a shame.
• Tom Musick covers professional sports for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.