Rose on the rise

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Nuccio DiNuzzo | Chicago Tribune | MCT
Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose (1)
drives around New Jersey Nets point guard Jordan Farmar (2), on Wednesday, April 13, 2011.

Barbara Barker
Newsday (MCT)

The NBA has never been a league for understatement. It’s not a place in which marquee players go about their business quietly, figuring that if they do what they are supposed to on the court, the world eventually will take notice.

So how unexpected is it that a guy like Derrick Rose is the leading candidate to win the MVP award? Rose is to hype what LeBron James is to restraint. Rose is not a big image guy. He’s not into producing reality shows, he doesn’t live in a mansion or own a fleet of sports cars.

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What the Bulls’ point guard does do, according to his coach, Tom Thibodeau, is work as hard as anyone in the game.

“He doesn’t beat his chest or draw attention to himself,” said Thibodeau, a former Knicks assistant. “He’s so driven. He gets there early and stays later. He practices hard and he cares a lot about his teammates doing well and winning. He’s gotten better and better and is never satisfied.”

The Bulls, who play the Knicks on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, have clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. That’s the first time that has happened since the 1997-98 season, when Michael Jordan won the last of his six rings. And Rose, the Bulls’ third-year point guard, is the biggest reason why.

Rose, averaging 25.1 points and 7.8 assists, is coming off a 39-point game in Orlando on Sunday, which was Chicago’s 60th win. He has received MVP nods from everyone from Jordan to Celtics coach Doc Rivers to Nets coach Avery Johnson.

If Rose does win the award, it would be noteworthy on a number of levels.

First, at 22, he would be the youngest MVP in history, passing Wes Unseld, who turned 23 days before winning the award as a rookie in 1969. Second, Rose would become the first MVP to win it while still chronologically eligible to play in the NCAA; he would have been a senior at Memphis this past season if he hadn’t left after his freshman year.

Finally and most tellingly, the Chicago native would become the first MVP in years to come out of nowhere. In his two previous seasons, Rose didn’t get a single vote. Every other player in this season’s MVP conversation -Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade and James-finished in the top 10 in balloting last year.

So what happened? Rose basically took his game to a new level this season by improving his jump shot, bringing his assist level up to where it was in his rookie season and improving his free-throw shooting.

Rose has always had great speed and leaping ability for a 6-3 player. Now that he can knock them down from outside, through 79 games he’s made 126 three-pointers after hitting only 16 last season. Defenders don’t seem to know what to do with him.

If that’s not enough, he also plays defense. In leading the Bulls to a win over the Nets last month, Rose scored 21 points and helped hold Deron Williams, another talented point guard, to 1-for-12 shooting.

“He makes the biggest shot on the biggest stages, and that’s part of what I look at as an MVP,” the Nets’ Johnson said. “He seems to always be there in the last two minutes of the game. Everybody knows the play is for him, and you still can’t stop him. That’s when you’re really getting it done.”

Said the Celtics’ Rivers: “Derrick Rose is the best player this year in the NBA. And when you have the best player in the NBA, your team is usually pretty good.”

Part of the reason Rose has improved so much season is his strong relationship with Thibodeau, the Bulls’ first-year coach who is also a tireless worker. Rose lives in a relatively modest three-bedroom townhouse near the Bulls’ practice facility. Sometimes when he is bored at night, he likes to bring his friends to the facility to shoot with him.

“Whenever I’m there, he always seems to be in his office working,” Rose recently said of Thibodeau. “I was there at 2:30 in the morning, and he’s up there working. It’s crazy.”

Rose was feeling pretty good about his game and his team coming into the season, after having won a gold medal at the World Games this summer. Though usually not much of a talker, he does believe in being honest. He asked reporters, “Why can’t I be MVP?” on media day last fall when asked about his attitude toward the season.

“You want to set the highest goal you can with a season,” Rose said. “People thought I was crazy when I said it, but I know how hard I worked during the summer and I wanted to keep pushing myself.”

Perhaps all the way into the record book.

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