By Cody Westerlund:
CHICAGO (CBS) – With about 40 seconds left in Sunday's preseason game between the Bulls and Hornets, the United Center crowd rose to its feet in the first fever pitch of the night. These faithful had been waiting a long time for this sight.
Their star, Derrick Rose, with the ball in his hands and a game hanging in the balance in crunch time.
For the first time in nearly 11 months, Rose was front and center in the fourth quarter for the Bulls, and he didn't disappoint. After leading for most of the game, Chicago held off Charlotte for a 101-96 win thanks in part to Rose's solid late play.
In the next step of reaching peak condition, Rose played in the fourth quarter for the first time this preseason, scoring nine points in the game's final 7:22. He shot 2-of-4 from the field in the fourth and was 5-of-6 from the line, with his two free throws with 12.2 seconds left sealing the win.
Rose finished with 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting in 27:42 of game action, his most in the preseason.
"I want him to be aggressive," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "Running the team is important and also being aggressive and finding that balance. In the fourth quarter, the intensity's different. The defense is different. You have to look at the strengths and weaknesses of the team, how they're defending you, what you can take advantage of."
The final-minute sequence that had the crowd on its feet didn't actually result in a Chicago bucket. After Rose broke down the defense and found Joakim Noah on a skip pass, Kirk Hinrich (game-high 26 points) missed a 3-pointer.
Still, it was a good look, one the Bulls could live with and one that Rose made easier to get. Prior to that, Rose hit an 18-footer from the left wing to give Chicago a 99-96 lead with 1:16 left. He also dished to Pau Gasol for a couple nice looks down low in the game's final seven minutes, but Gasol couldn't finish.
Rose left the locker room while Thibodeau was still speaking to the media, but his teammates had plenty to say about his performance.
"When he's aggressive and tries to get into the lane, the defense will probably collapse on him, and then he'll have a chance to kick it out and have guys wide open," Gasol said. "I think he did a real good job of attacking the hole at the end."
Just the presence of its closer in action was a welcome sight for a Bulls team that struggled so often to generate good shots late in games last year. As Rose sat out most of 2013-'14 with a medial meniscus tear in his right knee, Chicago shot just 34.6 percent in the final five minutes of games within five points, which ranked 29th in the NBA.
The Bulls expect it to be an entirely different story with Rose back.
"That's going to be the norm," Hinrich said of turning to Rose late. "He's our guy. I think he's played really well this preseason, and he looks really good."
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.
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