The last NBA Rookie of the Year to make the playoffs in the same season was Amar’e Stoudemire in 2002-03. This is a boring, unremarkable fact. Derrick Rose was next to do it in 2009, but his game won’t be remembered that he took part so much as who he took apart — the defending champion Boston Celtics at home. He dropped an eye-popping 36 points (tying a debut record) and 11 assists on the second-seeded Celtics on the road. Chicago walked away the 105-103 winner. It may be subjective, but doesn’t thinking that it could be a very long time before anyone comes close to Rose’s feat feel like bedrock truth? Caught in summer doldrums thinking about some of the best, recent performances and the chances they’ll be replicated bring me to the rookie’s performance, which was the start to the most entertaining first-round series I’ve ever watched.
Getting to seven games with the Big Three (pre-Rajon Rondo breakout) Celtics happened because Rose set the tone in the first go-round. Boston was 21 wins better than Chicago in the regular season, which had engineered an eight-game turnaround but still languished on defense in the bottom third of points per game allowed. Da Bulls didn’t inspire confidence. Rose did as the ROY — and then he served up his best game of the season in his first playoff game. The most points he’d scored all season was 27, while he hadn’t broken double-digits in attempts or makes from the free throw line before hitting all 12-of-12 on Boston.
There are more dramatic retellings of that game available on YouTube, but this is more clear-eyed at showing the spectrum of his dominance that night. Rose played fast as a rookie — like the sprint layup following Rajon Rondo‘s basket early in the tape — but he rarely played dumb. A player of Rose’s caliber will always take what’s given him and I have no doubt he would have dunked on KG had an opportunity presented itself on the first series. His start in Boston, with a dump lob to Joakim Noah and then a barely contested pull-up jumper to test himself, is smart precisely because a player as good as Rose — who doesn’t have any long-term limitations — knew his short-term best interest wouldn’t involve playing out of control.
Something clicks in that video in the third quarter, where everyone in the arena realized he’d gone from playing smart to playing with a glee so unexpected and murderous something analogous hadn’t been spotted again until the “Django Unchained” trailer dropped. You can hear it in the cautious howls of the pockets of Bulls fans and somewhere, fairly faint, a collective gulp from the Boston faithful. Those fans obsess over their basketball, and they knew they were witnessing the finest debut since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went for 36 with Milwaukee in 1970. His back-to-back runners over Kendrick Perkins, the blow-by of a suddenly old-man Stephon Marbury and the shake of Rondo with 32 seconds left, all of it’s the stuff most players would gladly put on their LinkedIn; Rose is doing it in his first try. The video’s cold-cut catalog of highlights eschews a dramatic score, leaving you to feel like you’re watching a sterile autopsy of Boston’s 2008-09 confidence.
The Celtics, of course, would escape in Game 7 with the first-round win. It wasn’t a total loss for Chicago, whose series may have persuaded Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau into believing in the Bulls’ promise once Vinny Del Negro was canned a year later. Thibodeau would lead Chicago to the No. 1 seed the next season and saw Rose win MVP on his watch. All facts, though all pretty astounding nonetheless. And still, that genesis has nothing on Rose’s playoff origin story.
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