Derrick Rose is supposed to be too old for this. There’s supposed to be too much wear and tear on the tires. The engine isn’t supposed to hop and hum quite the same as it used to. And he certainly isn’t supposed to be the most important player on the basketball floor, in the most important moments of a game.
Yet there he was Sunday afternoon at the Garden. The Knicks had already blown every ounce of a 14-point lead to the Pelicans and then some, staring at a seven-point hole, less than three minutes to go, their feel-good five-game winning streak very much in jeopardy, 2,000 fans wondering if they should try and sneak downstairs for an early train home.
Except there was Derrick Rose, 32 years old, saying, “Hang on.”
“He’s a dog,” Julius Randle would say later, his voice dripping respect. “He’s a winner.”
And even now, it’s not just reputation, not just old low-definition videotapes and yellowing newspaper clippings. He hit a free throw to make it six. Hit a 6-footer to make it four. Knocked down a 3, 90 seconds left, to sneak the Knicks within 101-98.
And then, 7.8 seconds in regulation, down 3, Rose reminded the world why he has spent time in his life as the greatest point guard on the planet. Even elite point guards sometimes forget how much time 7.8 seconds can be, sometimes wither and panic and throw up a hero-ball special. You see it every night.
Rose’s first option — Randle in the corner — was covered. Seconds melted away. He started to drive, with enough ferocity that Lonzo Ball believed he was serious, and sloughed off Reggie Bullock in the corner. More seconds melted away, but still plenty of them left. Few point guards remember that in the moment. Rose did. Seeing the opening, he hit Bullock in the corner. Bullock did his job, sending the game to overtime.
Twenty minutes later, the Knicks walked off the floor 122-112 winners.
“That’s what Derrick has always been,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said at game’s end, the Knicks improving to 31-27. “He’s a great teammate, always puts the team first, he’s had a hell of a career. Other than the times he’s not been healthy, this is who he is. No moment is too big for him.”
The whole day had felt like an extended party at the Garden an interactive treat for the folks in the house. There was a second Randle-Zion Williamson showdown in a week, which played to a draw. All the old audible standards were on display.
“M! V! P!” they chanted for Randle.
When Randle’s wingman would do something they joined the PA man: “R! J! BARRETT!”
When a stop was needed came the old standby: “Deee-FENSE! Deee-FENSE!”
When the officials got involved: “REF! YOU! [STINK]! REF! YOU! [STINK]!”
The Knicks weren’t always great but they were always the 2021 Knicks, resilient and redoubtable. There was a remarkable moment in OT when New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram elevated for a dunk but was intercepted by the Knicks’ Nerlens Noel, who rejected the jam and then fell hard to the court, looking hurt.
In a flash, four of Noel’s teammates sprung from the bench and lifted him to his feet — all while play continued on the opposite end of the court. That’s probably not 100 percent legal but the crowd loved it. And Noel wound up sprinting back to join his teammates once he was on his feet.
Still, it was Rose who made the day complete, even in the free-basketball portion, stealing the ball from Ingram on the Pelicans’ first possession of OT and hitting the driving layup that gave the Knicks the lead for good.
“I don’t have to do much,” Rose said when his 35-minute, 23-point, five-assist, plus-22 day was in the books. “Back in Chicago, I always had the pressure on me. Now I just see what the game needs.”
Thibodeau, of course, was there in Chicago when Rose was at his peak, when he won an MVP, when he was the basketball equivalent of the kid with the 99-mph fastball who simply overwhelmed everyone and never had to learn the art of pitching. Rose is a pitcher now, and an artist, and his coach is as charmed by what his old star become as anyone.
“Early on as with most players he did it with talent,” Thibodeau said. “He didn’t have the experience he has now. Now you combine the mental part with the talent and you’ve got a different kind of player.”
“He always makes the right read,” Bullock said.
Said Rose: “I haven’t had a winning streak like this for a while. I’m enjoying it.”
Sunday afternoon at the Garden, reaching back for a few old molecules of magic, Derrick Rose simply decided he wasn’t through having fun yet. You’re never too old for that.
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