“You could not have scripted a better ending to this game,” Timberwolves announcer Dave Benz said exultantly after the final buzzer of Minnesota’s 128-125 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night. From a myopic perspective, Derrick Rose’s career is indeed a textbook comeback story waiting to be written. After his career-high 50-point performance in the Timberwolves’ win, perhaps a few chapters were penned. Rose took full control of the team down the stretch in a game without Jimmy Butler, who sat out, and starting point guard Jeff Teague.
Cameras panned to a tearful Rose being embraced by his teammates on the court. There was a pause in the broadcast as it lingered on Rose. “He’s got a lot of stuff going on off the court, and I’m not a judge, and I’m not a jury. And to my estimation, he’s not been convicted of anything,” Wolves analyst Jim Petersen said. From there, he paused and stumbled on his words.
“But what he is—he plays hard. He is a gutty basketball player.”
The announcement left the off-court issues vague, but as a reminder, here is what Petersen was alluding to. In 2016, Rose, then part of the Knicks, faced a civil trial—which, unlike a criminal trial, calls for a preponderance of evidence rather than fact beyond reasonable doubt—for sexual battery, among other civil claims, for an alleged incident in 2013. During the deposition, Rose was unable to define “consent” when asked to do so. He was found not liable for the offenses—as opposed to not guilty—in the civil case. The woman who brought forth the sexual assault case has an appeal scheduled in two weeks.
Rose’s in-game performance brings a new wrinkle to the Wolves’ personnel struggles. The 2009 Rookie of the Year and 2011 MVP scored Wednesday’s career high after a long road back from a handful of knee injuries that significantly stunted his career. So much so that the Rose of old—a burst-to-the-basket force of a guard—wasn’t expected to ever return to form. Coach Tom Thibodeau retained Rose on a one-year contract over the summer after signing the guard to a minimum deal last March. Last Monday, Thibodeau said that “as long as [Rose is] healthy, he’ll be one of the best players in the league.”
Rose’s performance Wednesday was a rare win for Thibodeau, whose messy offseason has carried over into a poor start to the season. The knee bruise that kept Teague out of action against the Jazz isn’t expected to be a long-term issue, but if Rose can sustain this type of play, Minnesota may have the X factor needed to stay relevant in the West. Prior to Rose’s 50-point performance, he was averaging 14.3 points in 28.4 minutes. Though Thibodeau typically favors playing his starters to exhaustion, Rose has solidified a prominent spot in the rotation. After the Jazz game, he is now averaging the fourth-most minutes on the team (30.0), more than permanent starter Andrew Wiggins. Rose has not, however, been efficient this season: Those 14.3 points came on an average of 13.7 field goal attempts.
This was Minnesota’s first glimpse at what the team might look like without Butler, though it’s highly unlikely that Rose can be the Wolves’ saving grace night in and out; the veteran point guard hadn’t produced a 40-plus-point outing in seven years. While Rose’s outburst was a surprise, what remained consistent for Minnesota is Karl-Anthony Towns playing the role of second fiddle to a former Bulls star. His numbers were loud—28 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks against Utah—but his presence is still more of a murmur. He still hasn’t ascended as a leader or a dominant first option, which is concerning for a fractured team desperate for an identity. KAT’s playoff performance (or lack thereof) against the Rockets seems to have carried over to this season, which began with Towns trying and failing to unite the Wolves after the Butler fiasco.
Without Butler, there is no clear alpha in Minnesota. Wiggins comes in flashes, Towns doesn’t seem ready, Teague is the third- or fourth-best player on the team (assuming Butler goes), and Rose can’t be expected to bring back his 2011 self consistently for an entire season. But Wednesday night, fans in the arena gave a standing ovation, celebrating both a team with an indeterminate future and a player with a past that’s hard to forget.