After reaching all those dizzying heights and unfurling countless acrobatic moves in his first three spectacular seasons, Derrick Rose's fourth ended with an awful image.
A jump stop. A clutch of his left knee as he rose two feet into the air. A crumple to the ground, where he writhed for several moments while medical personnel attended to him. And following a slow, supported walk off the United Center court, an MRI at Rush University Medical Center that revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The Bulls won Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals Saturday, downing the 76ers 103-91 before a raucous home crowd. But news of Rose's injury-plagued season ending with the biggest and cruelest setback of all made the postgame locker room seem funereal.
"Saddest win ever," Kyle Korver said.
Rose, who missed 27 games with five separate injuries during the regular season, stuffed the box score with 23 points, nine rebounds and nine assists before his injury, which came with the Bulls up 12 with 1 minute, 22 seconds remaining.
After missing so much time with toe, back, right ankle and right foot injuries, Rose overcame missing six of his first seven shots to look like the explosive player who became the youngest most valuable player in NBA history last season.
And then this.
"We have to pick ourselves up," Korver said. "We've played a lot of games this year without him. Maybe that was getting us ready for this."
Nothing can prepare the Bulls for losing their best player on the cusp of what all hoped would be, following the league's best regular season again, a championship run. That's why executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, other management figures and players rushed to the hospital to support Rose, who had told a teammate he heard his knee "pop."
That's why players leaguewide commiserated with Rose via Twitter or, in the case of Heat rival and fellow Chicago native Dwyane Wade, prayer.
Recovery time for torn ACLs varies widely. Rose is expected to undergo surgery once the swelling subsides, and some athletes are sidelined up to nine months.
"It's part of the game," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "There are going to be injuries. A guy can get hurt in practice. He can get hurt in the first five minutes of the game. He can get hurt at the end of a game. He can get hurt any time. Then you have to deal with it.
"He has had a lot of injuries this year. It has been unfortunate. But we do have more than enough to win with. Whatever the circumstances are, we'll deal with it."
The Bulls, who also got 19 points from Richard Hamilton and 12 points and 13 rebounds from Joakim Noah, led by 20 with 4:36 remaining on a Korver 3-pointer. Rose, who played 37:13, had returned with 7:53 left and the Bulls up 15.
But a series of turnovers and fouls helped the 76ers trim their deficit to 12. Thibodeau, as is his nature, had four starters and Korver in down the stretch.
"I don't work backwards like you (reporters) do," Thibodeau said when questioned on his strategy. "The score was going the other way. He has to play. He has to work on closing. Our team didn't handle that part great. That's what I was thinking."
"Philly was making a run," he said. "In playoff basketball, you never want to give a team confidence. If it's having your starters in, you have to keep a team down. You need to have your scorers out there."
C.J. Watson will start in Rose's absence in Game 2 Tuesday at the United Center, and John Lucas III and Mike James' roles will increase as backups.
Teams that have won the first game of a seven-game playoff series have prevailed 78 percent of the time. The Bulls went 18-9 without Rose during the season.
But such numbers mattered little to a locker room that felt like it took a punch in the gut. Lucas, one of Rose's closest friends, was near tears.
"That's our brother," he said. "We're a family here. He's such a competitor and loves the game. We finally had everybody healthy. It's just tough man."