CHICAGO - In the searing heat on a turf field in Southern California, any lingering doubts about Derrick Rose's ability to dominate again vanished from teammate Taj Gibson's mind.
They were pushing carts with weights. They were running and cutting and jumping, and in those agonizing off-season workouts, it all came into focus.
Rose was, well, Rose. Gibson could see it. Now, the rest of the world will find out.
The Chicago Bulls have their superstar point guard back, and they believe they're ready to challenge LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Heat for supremacy in the Eastern Conference, starting with their season-opening matchup on Tuesday night in Miami.
Rose insists he's returning better than ever after sitting out a year following surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, a scary proposition considering how good he was before the injury. From Rookie of the Year to All-Star to the league's youngest MVP in his first three seasons, it was a rapid and steady rise for the Chicago native, one that came screeching to a halt just as the top-seeded Bulls were gearing up for a playoff run in his fourth year.
"This is a new start," Rose said.
For him, and for the Bulls.
They're back to being relevant again for the first time since Rose crumbled to the court in the 2012 playoff opener against Philadelphia. Without their star, top-seeded Chicago spiraled toward a first-round exit and then a season-long holding pattern.
The soap opera over his recovery and a return that didn't happen last year — some wondered why Rose didn't come back as Chicago made the playoffs — has given way to hope and high expectations. For Gibson, the "aha!" moment came during those exhausting workouts in Carson, Calif.
"It was so hot," he said. "We would have to push these carts and trays with weights in them. You were just moving them. Then, we were doing cut drills like football players — cutting back and forth."
As for Rose?
"He was so fast, so explosive, and I just knew he was back," Gibson said.
Yes, Rose is back — but back to what?
He was nothing short of spectacular during the preseason, but the fact remains he will have gone 18 months between meaningful games by the time he steps on the court at Miami.
For now, the explosiveness is there. His crossover looks as nasty as ever, and his jumper might be even better than it was.
"He's playing like he's a video game right now," said Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, who worked out with Rose in California and watched him score 26 against the Thunder in Wichita this past Wednesday.
"He's back," Durant said during a call promoting 2K Sports' NBA2K14.. "He's a guy that works so hard, strives for perfection every single time he gets on that court. He's going to have a great season."
Rose was averaging almost as many points (21.7) as minutes (26.5) entering Friday's preseason-finale against Denver, and his shooting percentage was well above his career rate, particularly from long range. He was hitting about half his shots overall and was 12 of 23 on 3-pointers, a big jump for a career 31-per cent shooter from long range. He put on about 10 pounds of muscle, which he thinks will help him finish drives and increase his shooting range, and added five inches to his vertical leap to bring it to 42.
"I think I'm way more explosive now," Rose said. "Getting to the rim, I think I can take contact a little bit better. As far as jumping, I think I can jump even higher."
As far as the improvement in his shot? The knee injury played a role.
"A guy like Ray Allen," said coach Tom Thibodeau, who had an up-close look at Allen as a Boston Celtics assistant. "Whenever he had an off night, the one thing you could count on the next day is he'd be in an hour before everyone just improving his shot. I think back to all the shooters that I've coached, they've basically been the same, and Derrick falls into that category. It's incredible how many shots he's taken. I think part of that was last year where he couldn't play and he would just shoot, hour after hour. I think he's gained a lot of confidence from that. A big part of shooting is confidence and concentration. When you watch him shoot, he's not messing around."
Rose missed a game against Washington in Rio de Janeiro because of soreness and still might hit a bump or two along the way, but he has no major concerns about the knee. He said he's ready for double teams, something he didn't think he could handle last season, and he expects opponents to go right at him rather than ease up in an effort not to hurt him.
The biggest hurdle for Rose might be mental, but he says he has a clear mind.
His recovery took on almost a circus-like feel last year, particularly after he started practicing without restrictions.
Fans saw him shooting and dunking before games and wondered why he wasn't playing. Instead, he remained on the sideline while the Bulls fought injuries and illnesses on the way to 45 wins and a first-round victory over Brooklyn before falling to Miami.
The debate over when he'll return, whether he should return and who was behind the decision not to return raged on. Never mind that Rose was dominating in practice, Thibodeau insisted he wasn't quite the same player.
"I think he was smart," Thibodeau said. "I think his brother (Reggie) had given him some good advice. His brother had gone through the same injury. Reggie made it pretty clear to him, as did (chairman) Jerry (Reinsdorf). They wanted him to be patient and completely healthy, and he followed what everyone asked him to do. Sometimes, that's not an easy thing to do, but it was the right thing to do."
If his image took a hit last season, the numbers didn't reflect it. Only LeBron James sold more jerseys worldwide last season, and in China, Latin America and Europe, Rose was the winner.
His rise from one of Chicago's toughest neighbourhoods to stardom with his hometown team still resonates. Adidas executive Lawrence Norman saw it during promotional tours of Europe and Asia with Rose and his family.
"I think that kids around the world that love basketball, that love the NBA can aspire to be someone like Derrick Rose," he said. "They can aspire to be a point guard. It's tough to aspire to be a 7-foot centre. But they can all aspire to be a point guard, and that's another very appealing part of Derrick Rose's persona."
They see a player who blows a kiss to his mom Brenda before games. They see someone who's now 25 with a 1-year-old son vowing to do better for his own child after growing up without his father in his life. If that means donning a beard and dressing up as Willie Robertson from "Duck Dynasty" for P.J.'s birthday, and the picture just so happens to wind up online as it did a few weeks ago, well, so be it.
Most important, fans are seeing Rose in a Bulls uniform again.
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