All week, Deron Williams had done his detached, NBA best to downplay his return here. But when the orange-clad love started showering down during player introductions, he waved once, then twice and the cheers just got louder.
Forty feet away, Derrick Rose stood, eyes steeled, expression serious, another night of serious NBA challenge his only focus.
Williams is a star, Rose wants to be one and the Bulls' 108-105 victory over the Jazz at Assembly Hall served as merely another lesson along the way.
"We're both competitive players," Rose said. "He's just like everybody else, a basketball player. To me, I don't look at nobody like they're way bigger than me. I treat everything like a learning experience."
The Bulls enjoyed this part of the learning curve, easily Rose's most assured exhibition performance until a cramped left calf ended his night midway through the third quarter.
With Larry Hughes out because of a sore knuckle on his right hand, Rose returned to the starting lineup and finished with 14 points and five assists in 23 minutes, 32 seconds.
Williams rebounded from a scoreless first half to finish with 14 points and nine assists.
"It's going to take Derrick a while," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. "The point guard position is the hardest. Some guys adapt quicker than others. I think Derrick will adapt very quickly just because of his personality and work ethic."
Rose's cramp struck as he descended from scoring on a left-handed layup at the end of a breathtaking coast-to-coast drive. The basket was the finish to a dizzying sequence in which Williams and Rose went at each other repeatedly.
"He came out real aggressive," Williams said. "He shot well, which had been a question mark. He's already so quick with the ball it's tough to stop him. If he develops a shot, it'll be even tougher."
Del Negro said Rose's injury isn't serious and that he could have returned in a regular-season game.
The Bulls took the lead for good on Ben Gordon's three-point play with 87 seconds remaining, then hung on as Thabo Sefolosha almost fouled Kyle Korver on a three-point attempt at the buzzer that went just long.
Gordon scored 23 points in his return from a toe injury. Andres Nocioni added 20 points and Tyrus Thomas contributed 16 points and 12 rebounds to help Del Negro earn his first NBA coaching victory, exhibition or not.
"We did a better job of getting Derrick in the open court," Del Negro said.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and Williams clashed often during a rookie season two years ago in which Sloan brought the former Illini along slowly.
"Every young player has to go through a transition of trying to adapt to who he was and what we're trying to do as a team," Sloan said. "I probably made a few mistakes trying to do the right thing. But I did them. Life goes on. You have to overcome that."
The Bulls need to overcome interior defense that continues to treat the paint like an iPass lane. The Jazz, led by Carlos Boozer's 21 points, enjoyed a 62-30 edge in points in the paint.
Anyone still upset about Rose spurning Illinois for Memphis didn't voice it as the No. 1 overall pick drew loud ovations often. But nothing rivaled the cheers for soon-to-be-cut Illini alum Roger Powell, who entered to a thunderous standing ovation with 52.8 seconds left in the third quarter.
"I played decent, only one turnover," Rose said. "Winning and turnovers are my biggest things."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times