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Derrick Rose turns back clock amid amazing Knicks journey

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Derrick Rose was young again in Memphis, looking almost as athletic and bouncy as he did when he starred for the local team, John Calipari’s Tigers. He was scoring with his right hand, and with his left hand, in the closing minutes of Knicks-Grizzlies, and he was hounding Ja Morant so effectively that the kid barreled into him for an offensive foul.

At 32, Rose wasn’t just honoring his one-and-done college season, and the fans in the Memphis crowd wearing his college jersey. He was celebrating the Knicks’ first winning season since 2013, and the 10th anniversary of the night he became the youngest league MVP in history.

That was then for the Chicago Bulls, and this was now for the New York Knicks. Monday night, Morant got himself ejected after his head coach, Taylor Jenkins, got himself ejected. The Grizzlies lost their cool because the Knicks never lost their lead. Rose was absurdly good again off the bench, scoring 25 points in 27 minutes a night after scoring 24, as the Knicks won for the 12th time in 13 tries. His play under his all-time favorite coach, Tom Thibodeau, inspired a question related to his first go-around with the Knicks, back when Phil Jackson was calling the shots from above.

Why in the world did Jackson force Rose to run the triangle?

A bigger-picture pregame question was posed to another former Knick, Jeff Van Gundy, with his former team on such a dizzying roll, a question all but designed to make him spit out his drink.

Is it possible in a crazy COVID season that the Knicks could get a few lucky bounces, go on a magical underdog run, and return to The Finals for the first time since Van Gundy’s own 1999 team lost to the Spurs in five?

“Oh, The Finals,” he said with more than a trace of incredulity. “If Durant, Harden, Irving, Embiid, Simmons, and Antetokounmpo are all in the same building and crash into each other, then maybe.

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose
NBAE via Getty Images

“But could they win a first-round series? Absolutely. And if they win a first-round series, are you not just one tweaked ankle away from having that next series be a little more even? Yeah, you are. If they win a first-round series, from where they started this season in December, it’s amazing, it really is.”

The amazing journey continued in Memphis, where the Knicks beat the Grizzlies with their 3-point shooting, their defense on Morant, and their depth. Not enough has been made of that depth this year, particularly Derrick Rose’s ability to still be Derrick Rose after all these years and all those knee injuries.

Down 17 at the start of the fourth, the Grizzlies cut their deficit to five before Julius Randle sank a 3 with 3:58 to play and the shot clock expiring. Rose then did what Rose does. The Knicks are now 2-0 on a six-game road trip that closes with Denver, Phoenix, the Clippers and the Lakers — a stretch that could test New York’s bid to stay clear of the LeBron James Invitational, otherwise known as the play-in tournament.

At 37-28, the Knicks hold the fourth seed in the East with seven games to go. Who woulda thunk it?

“I like the mental toughness of our team,” Thibodeau said.

He loves the mental toughness of the ultimate Thibodeau player, Rose, who followed him from Chicago to Minnesota to Madison Square Garden. After he made 11 of 15 shots against the Grizzlies, Rose brought up his age, and the fact that it isn’t easy at 32 to get into your hotel room at 4 a.m. in the middle of back-to-back games on the road.

But Thibodeau needed him in the end against Memphis, after Alec Burks went down. And when Thibs calls, Rose answers.

“The only thing I can think of is trust,” the point guard said in explaining the long-term success of his partnership with the head coach. “He knows how hard I fought to get back. He knows I’m a gym rat. He knows I’m a student of the game. He knows where my heart is at, and it’s vice versa. I know how much work he puts into his craft. I know how he preps before the game, and you’re seeing the results of it.”

So there was Thibodeau getting a postgame bear hug from William “World Wide Wes” Wesley. There was Rose getting the same from Wesley while he waited to do his MSG interview. “A lot of love here,” Rose explained on the air, and why not? The Knicks are playing unselfish, winning ball after two decades of misery. What’s not to love?

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