The Eastern Conference became a lot more interesting after Derrick Rose's successful return to the Chicago Bulls.
The former MVP scored 13 points in 20 minutes in an 82-76 exhibition victory over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night.
"Same old Derrick Rose," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "He looked great."
Rose led the Bulls to the No. 1 seed in the East two seasons ago before he tore his left ACL during the playoffs, then missed all of last season while recovering. He said he had some nerves Saturday that quickly went away.
"I felt great," Rose said. "I felt normal, I felt the way I've been playing in practice. I'm just trying to get my timing back."
He was at his lightning-fast best against the Pacers in the preseason opener for both teams, breaking away for several layups and converting a steal and dunk in the third quarter. He appeared unafraid of contact, constantly challenging Indiana's large front line.
"That's the way he played before the injury, and he's back to playing like that," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "And for him, that's his game. The speed, the quickness, the power to go along with it — that's what makes him so special and unique. There's no one like him."
Rose misconnected with his teammates several times and committed four turnovers. Rose said he was going too fast, and his coach agreed.
"The speed at which he plays, you've got to get accustomed to," Thibodeau said. "His teammates have to get used to it again, and he has to get used to it, but overall, I thought he played very, very well."
Indiana's Danny Granger also returned after missing most of last season with a left knee injury. He finished with six points on 2-for-10 shooting in 29 minutes.
"He was a little rusty, and I wouldn't expect anything but that," Vogel said. "His game condition is in the final part of his recovery."
Taj Gibson had 18 points and 12 rebounds, Luol Deng scored 15 points and Jimmy Butler added 11 for the Bulls. Paul George and David West each scored 14 points and Roy Hibbert added 11 points and nine rebounds for the Pacers.
Rose sat on the bench praying in the moments before the opening tip. A large contingent of Bulls fans made the short trip, and they cheered loudly the first time he touched the ball. On his first shot attempt, he challenged the 7-foot-2, 290-pound Hibbert. Rose missed, but got the offensive rebound and scored.
"They hit me in practice," Rose said. "I'm used to getting hit now. Falling, slipping — I got that out the way."
At 7:17 in the first quarter, Rose stepped in to try and take a charge from Lance Stephenson, but he was called for a block. He played the first 7:02 and went 1 for 4 from the field with an assist. Rose sat on the baseline and rolled a softball under the back of the previously injured knee while he was out of the game.
He returned with 8:31 remaining in the second quarter. He showed some of his speed with a breakaway layup with 7:45 left in the second quarter, though it might have been a dunk in his pre-injury days. Later, after a steal, Rose came up stretching his right leg out.
Then, it happened. Carlos Boozer snagged a rebound and swung the ball out to Rose, who ran the length of the floor in seemingly no time, scored an up-and-under layup and was fouled. He made the free throw to give the Bulls a 34-31 lead with 4:32 left in the first half.
Rose scored another fast-break layup less than a minute later, then hit Deng with a perfect setup for a 3-pointer to push Chicago's lead to 39-33. Rose took a hard foul from Hibbert with 1:34 left in the first half, but quickly got up and walked away, maintaining the calm demeanor he was known for before his injury. He made both free throws to give Chicago a 41-36 lead.
Rose had 11 points on 4-for-10 shooting in the first half. He had four turnovers in the second quarter. Early in the third quarter, Rose stole the ball and finished with his first dunk, a two-handed jam. He sat for good with Chicago holding a 50-49 lead, and Indiana immediately went on a 9-0 run to take a 58-50 lead and force a Chicago timeout.
Granger played in five games last season. He has a career average of 18.1 points and was an All-Star in 2009 who averaged 25.7 points per game that season. In his absence, George emerged as an All-Star and recently signed a lucrative contract.
Granger entered the game with 6:02 left in the first quarter. He made his first basket, a 3-pointer, with 10:54 left in the second quarter.
"It was a good first step," Granger said. "My second wind didn't kick in during the first half like it usually does, but it was good to get that under my belt."