Bulls bench the Heat with 96-86 overtime win


Apr 13

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Thursday was not only a good day for the Bulls with their 96-86 overtime victory over the Miami Heat, but it was an important day for the rest of the NBA one of those days you’ll remember where you were.

That’s because it was the day the Miami Heat, 21 months after coming together and declaring a dynasty, lost its aura.

It’s not to say the Heat cannot win an NBA championship. But Thursday’s win basically assured the Bulls home court advantage as long as they are in the Eastern Conference playoffs and demonstrated to everyone a myriad of flaws for the Heat.

They are good, yes. Scary? Not any more.

Yes, it was a wonderful and in some respects unbelievable game for the Bulls as Derrick Rose had likely the worst game of his basketball life. He was one of 13 shooting for two points after a scoreless first half, didn’t play in the overtime and only played in the fourth quarter to give C.J. Watson a rest.

And, what do you know, it worked. It was one of the most remarkable coaching decisions in the history of the game. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, riding unusual lineups and rotations all game and juggling like a master magician, sat the reigning MVP so one time D-leaguer and Greek leaguer C.J. Watson could finish the game.

And what do you know but the undrafted Watson with 2.2 seconds left in regulation hits a three pointer to tie the game. Dwyane Wade then missed a fading baseline jumper to go to overtime.

“That play hurt,” said Wade, remarkably not falling down and asking for a foul call during his comments. “We never recovered back from that shot.”

So with Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Richard Hamilton sitting, Thibodeau called on Watson, Omer Asik, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson and, of course, Luol Deng to close out the team regarded when formed as perhaps the best ever.

“Our bench,” offered Thibodeau. “You can’t say enough.”

Heck, hardly anyone can pronounce all their names correctly.

But after Deng opened the overtime with a 17 footer for an 86-84 lead, Asik blocked a Wade shot leading to a fast break three point play for Gibson: 89-84 Bulls. We didn’t know it then, but the game was over as Miami would score two points in overtime.

LeBron James, who led everyone with 30 points but predictably missed a free throw at the end of regulation that could have won the game and attempted seven shots in the last 17 minutes after 17 before then, missed on a drive. The Bulls failed to score in three trips, but the Bulls defense, especially Asik making Miami players change their shots repeatedly, shut out Miami. Watson did throw away a pass that led to a Miami break and foul of Wade, who made one of two. But then Gibson again sealed his man and rolled as Korver came out of the pindown move. Two Miami defenders ran toward Korver, who was five of six on threes, and Watson found Gibson cutting to the rim for a 91-85 Bulls lead with 2:10 left in overtime.

“I was just trying to step up and fill in for D-Rose,” said Watson in what is sort of a long explanation for him.

Taj Gibson

Gibson waved his arms to the delirious crowd and pumped his fist afterward in a rare show of emotion for him, suggesting despite what everyone said it wasn’t exactly another game.

James ran to get the ball on the next Heat possession, but he moved the ball to the corner to Shane Battier and then inside to Chris Bosh. But Asik for the second straight time made Bosh shoot high and he missed. Miami recovered, but lost the ball out of bounds as Gibson went high stepping after the turnover. The United Center was rocking playoff style and when Gibson would foul out a minute later he’d get a standing ovation.

Miami was switching on the perimeter instead of fighting over screens as they did appear beaten. Watson got Bosh on a switch and stepped back for an easy 20 footer and 93-85 overtime lead with 1:27 left. And then after Bosh made one of two free throws after a drive, Korver stepped back straight away from about 28 feet and made the clincher over Bosh.

“It didn’t really feel that good, to be honest,” said Korver, who had 17 points with Carlos Boozer leading Bulls scorer with 19. “It was one of those nights, so I’ll take it. I was calling on my inner John Lucas on that shot.”

Yes, the Bulls were having a good time, and why not. They pretty much wrapped up home court advantage in the East in going to 45-14. They have a 2-1 lead on Miami this season with one more game, next Thursday again on TNT. Now, they’ve defeated Miami without Rose and with Rose having his poorest ever NBA game. And with Miami now losing six of their last 11 and eight of their last 11 on the road, it has to give the Heat something to think about. Championship teams don’t come down the stretch like this.

“This is one of the worst feelings in the regular season I’ve had this year,” said James.

Miami is 40-17, but they again changed their lineup starting Udonis Haslem at center. It’s almost 60 games in and they still don’t have a starting lineup. They went stretches early small with their so called big three of James, Wade and Bosh with Haslem and Mike Miller. That’s now supposed to be their strongest lineup. Haslem, though, didn’t play after halftime as he became ill.

Not because of the score as the Heat was leading then 41-36.

But compared with the Bulls, Miami looks awfully flawed. James remains a reluctant finisher as Wade in between falling down with great dramatic flourish scored 10 straight Miami points in the fourth quarter as the Heat looked liked they’d steal the game.

Actually, the Bulls trailed much of the second half, and by as much as 10 late in the third. Then they rallied behind a pair of Korver shots to take a 78-74 lead with 3:28 left. But Wade was taking control going at the basket, truly making some remarkable shots.

Bosh then interrupted that Wade run with an odd three that went way wide as Wade was calling for the ball in the midst of his run. He’d scored six straight points and Bosh threw up an isolation three. Almost two years later, there still is a seeming disconnect among them. Wade gestured angrily to James to throw him the ball (not Bosh) and there were several occasions during the game when James stared down teammates, usually Mario Chalmers. It appears to be a most uncomfortable place to play if your name isn’t James or Wade.

The Bulls went ahead 81-76 with 2:03 left when Rose shot an airball, as wide as I’ve ever seen him shoot the ball. It was so bad Ronnie Brewer, running along the baseline as usual, caught it and was fouled going back up. He made one of two. But Wade scored twice more against Rose around a Boozer miss and Miami was within one with 1:20 left.

Rose then drove with James now playing him but got headed off at the basket and lost the ball. The Heat was constantly sending two and sometimes three players at Rose, and he did have eight assists in 25 minutes. I thought he was trying to move the ball and not holding it, that the offense was moving when he had it. He just was missing shots we’ve never seen him miss.

But he remained positive, and afterward stayed a long time in the locker room to answer questions and was upbeat throughout. Rose stayed so long a staffer finally had to tell him to stop answering so many questions. He just seemed thrilled with the win, which did give the Bulls the Central Division title.

“I’m just trying to get my rhythm back,” said Rose. “I’m just happy we got the win. That’s the only thing that matters to me. C.J. and the other bench guys played great. They’re the reason we won. (The ankle) felt good. My mind was thinking something that my body couldn’t do. I’ve never had a problem getting my rhythm back. I should get it back pretty quick. C.J. played a great game. Kyle and Taj played great. The bench almost played a perfect game. They’re the reason we won. I was trying to be aggressive. But my shots weren’t falling.

Asked if he was upset the way things went, Rose was forceful.

“Aw, hell no,” he said. “I’ve had worse games than this. These games right here will just make me a better player, stronger. In practice, he (Watson) always hits those shots. When he had the ball, we knew it had a chance to go in. I’m not worried about my stats or anything. I’m just trying to get my timing back before the playoffs start. Could I make up excuses? Yeah. But I’m not going use excuses. My shot wasn’t falling. Shots I usually hit I wasn’t hitting. My teammates had my back. And I’m happy I have them.”

But suddenly it wasn’t looking so good.

The Bulls went into a timeout leading 81-80 with 1:20 left and Rose would be in for one more possession. He played for a little less than three minutes in the fourth quarter. Thibodeau said he only played him to rest Watson. I’ll admit, I thought it was a mistake when Thibodeau didn’t bring Rose in at the timeout with 5:50 left and the Bulls down 72-70, and when he took him out again late. I knew Rose was one of 13, but he still was drawing that double team and trap on the pick and roll and opening the court for others. The only other time I remembered something like this, an MVP killing time to rest a reserve, was when Butch van Breda Kolf benched Wilt in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals for Mel Counts, though that was because van Breda Kolf was mad at Wilt.

“Big picture, in terms of, if this were his first or second year, maybe you would be more concerned with that (benching the MVP),” said Thibodeau. “But where Derrick is now as a player, he knows, he understands the situation. He’s coming off an injury, he’s a very confident guy. He’ll get up to speed very quickly. The thing that you love about him, he was so happy we won, and so happy for his teammates, and that’s who Derrick is.

“C.J. needed a break,” Thibodeau offered matter of factly. “Or he would have finishing it out (played the whole fourth). I was also thinking Derrick was out for an extended amount of time. It was a tough call.”

It showed several things, and not only Thibodeau’s coaching instinct about his team. Rose willingly backed away as did Noah and Hamilton and Boozer down the stretch, and the reserves didn’t feel like it was anything unusual. Perhaps in some ways all the injuries were helpful. Guys have been in these positions before and asked to do more than many have, certainly with a team of this caliber.

“Nobody questions C.J. taking that shot,” noted Deng. “If he were to miss no one would have questioned that. That’s out basketball. Making smart plays and trusting one another. Having so many guys out gave a lot of guys chances to step up and feel comfortable in those roles because those are the roles they’ve been in all year.”

So it was coming time for Watson and no one knew. In fact, it was looking like a big win for the Heat, one they badly needed.

After that Rose miss, Wade drove and Asik stepped up again to alter the shot. But Wade shot it so hard it bounced long over Gibson’s head to Bosh. James had just been standing in the left corner watching Wade. The Heat has a relatively innovative, stagnant offense built around the individual games of Wade and James, another contrast with the Bulls. So it is easy to see why so many in the media favor the Heat. LeBron James against C.J. Watson? Dwyane Wade against Ronnie Brewer? Miami is a good defensive team, but they play way too slowly and get themselves too often in these kinds of close games, unnecessarily it seems to me.

Their talent should be playing fast, and when they did earlier in the game with fast breaks after turnovers and a relative lack of Bulls ball movement, Miami was much better and out to an 18-11 lead. It’s when Thibodeau went earlier than usual to the bench, and the rotation changes would continue as the so called Bench Mob outscored Miami 47-7. Three Miami players scored at least 20 points. No one else had more than four. It’s hard to see how you win titles that way.

“It is tough,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who doesn’t seem to have the right philosophy for the talent. “You have these moments where you feel like you put so much in collectively, but just can’t get over the hump. There is no easy road. We had every opportunity to win this one. We just need to collectively learn from it.”

Though as Korver said afterward, it was better to learn while winning.

When that shot went long and Bosh got it, James was standing there and being a spectator. Bosh threw to him and James made the three to give Miami an 83-81 lead with 49.3 seconds left. Let’s not say he isn’t a great talent. He is fabulous. Imagine if they playd him in transition more. The Bulls called time and got a wide open three for Deng, who missed. Wade drove and Gibson fouled him, though it was not in the penalty. Still, Bulls down two and 25 seconds left but with Miami with 14 seconds on the shot clock.

Wade threw back to James after James screened for him, but James missed the shot. Jimmy Butler in for defense got tied up on the rebound with Ronny Turiaf and Turiaf won the jump ball to James. That should have been it for the Bulls.

Deng ran over to foul James with 11.4 seconds left. But James missed the first, giving the Bulls a chance, and made the second.

The Bulls came back out of their timeout without the reigning MVP.

They brought back Deng, Boozer, Watson, Korver and Richard Hamilton with Watson taking the ball out with 11.4 seconds.

Would Miami foul? No one seems to do it these days, and Miami would pay this time. Spoestra said there was no plan to foul even with the three point lead and team president Pat Riley has often said he is against the strategy. Thibodeau doesn’t generally employ it, either.

The play was for Korver, who was shooting so well, with screens on top of the floor. But it broke down and Korver was trapped along the left sideline by Turiaf, James and Battier. There now was 8.2 seconds left and Korver wasn’t in any shooting position, just looking for help.

“All I saw was black jerseys,” said Korver. “I was totally swarmed. I saw C.J. across, but there was no way I was going to get it to him. I saw Booz and tried to get it to him.”

Watson across court had his arm raised for the ball as did Deng on top and Boozer at the free throw line. Korver threw to Boozer, who looked at Deng with Bosh in front of him. Boozer then spun left and threw to an open Watson in the right corner. Battier had a shot at fouling Boozer in two point land, but didn’t.

“I heard C.J. yell my name,” said Boozer. “I knew we needed a three. I’m a smart guy. I went to Duke.” Battlier did as well.

Wade had been guarding Hamilton in the left corner but ran for Watson. Wade got to him, but Watson pump faked, stepped to his left, stepped back a bit and shot with about four seconds left and the ball spun around a bit and dropped through for the tie.

C.J. Watson and Luol Deng

Watson, who likewise generally wears a serious mask, skipped back happily to the Bulls huddle with his first ever NBA shot to win or two a game in the last seconds.

“It (final play) definitely wasn’t for me,” Watson said with a laugh. “The play was for Kyle. I threw it to him and cut. Kyle was double-teamed, swung it to Boozer. Booz swung it to me. I pump-faked and thought D-Wade was going to block it. I stepped back and it went in. I thought I had plenty of time (to pump fake). I just thought Wade was too close to me. Our teammates all support each other whether we’re doing good or bad. That’s the good thing about our team is no one is really mad about playing time. We just all support each other. And that’s why we’ve been successful.”

Wade got that last shot in regulation, and when it didn’t go the Heat essentially were beaten even though the NBA made them play five more minutes.

Still, no one among the Bulls was doing too much celebrating.

“We’re proud of ourselves for winning,” said Boozer, who led the Bulls with 11 rebounds (19-8 Bulls second chance points edge). “But we did not win a championship tonight. We got another victory. Now we go to the next game and try to sharpen up for the playoffs.”

Thibodeau, of course, agreed, and said the regular rotations will begin to occur with everyone basically healthy again, and the team expects as much.

“We’re obviously going to be at our best when Derrick is clicking on all cylinders,” said Korver. “Our offense is predicated on point guard pressure, Derrick in the pick and roll and him creating things for other guys. But it’s good for other guys to step up when we have to. Obviously, we’ve had to a lot this year.”

As was the case Thursday after a slow start again and trailing 22-19 after one. Thibodeau went with his defensive component with Asik and Gibson earlier than usual late in the first along with Watson, and Asik with zero points but eight rebounds and two blocks was terrific. In some respects, he could have been the player of the game, changing it the way Jason Kidd would do when not scoring. His screens got shooters wide open and he frustrated Miami shooters constantly, so much so he and Noah each played 22 minutes. And though Rose shot poorly, he and Watson combined for 17 assists as the Bulls had 26 assists to 17 for Miami, the Bulls side to side ball movement, especially after halftime being the tonic to thwart Miami’s tight middle defense.

“It’s very encouraging to me because it’s fun and exciting,” said Hamilton. “I’ve been there before. You win championships being a team. Everyone has each other’s backs. Everyone is cheering for each other and everyone is putting everything aside for one goal, and that is to win.”

And you have to wonder sometimes with Miami as they close the season staggering. They’ve become Tiger Woods. They can win, sure. But no one is afraid anymore that they certainly will.

The Bulls regained their lead early in the second quarter with a pair of Korver threes and Asik and Gibson smothering Miami’s weak bench. Wade and James returned to get Miami back ahead by five at the half. Rose finally hit his first shot in the third and raised his hands to the roof in a sign of “Finally!” But he couldn’t get much going, and back came the reserves to pull within 62-60 after three to set off another classic finish between these two teams. The last five regular games before Thursday between the Bulls and Heat had been decided by a total of 16 points. Yet, the Bulls know they still have to prove they can beat Miami in the playoffs. Only Miami has won that series before. So there was satisfaction, and perhaps the feeling that a team can transcend a galaxy of stars.

“We have a deep team,” reiterated Thibodeau. “The thing about our team is we’ve got great character. Our guys understand sometimes the matchups are going good and when a group is going good the other group supports them. I think we have a true team.”

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