This season for the Bulls has been about whether they can get past the Miami Heat, much like the Bulls of the late 1980’s struggled with the Detroit Pistons.
It’s been about being able to counter the star power of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and lately, whether Derrick Rose will be healthy enough for the Bulls to make that run.
But in Miami’s 83-72 victory over the Bulls Thursday to even the season series at 2-2, a very Pistons-like issue arose again for these young Bulls. Will they stand and fight back?
The preliminary answer was no the way things transpired Thursday, and it seemed to concern Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau.
“There was a lot of stuff going on, a lot of stuff going on,” Thibodeau agreed after the Heat without Chris Bosh pulled away with the Bulls within 68-65 with just over nine minutes left.
It did feel a lot like one of those old time Bulls/Pistons game, if not quite a playoff atmosphere with Bosh and Derrick Rose out. The Pistons used to be a few points ahead of those Bulls teams in the fourth and you knew the Bulls wouldn’t be able to score enough against the physical play and defensive pressure. It was that way Thursday for the Bulls with an 11-point fourth quarter and 27.3 percent second half shooting.
“That’s to be expected,” Thibodeau said about the rugged play. “You’re on the road. They’re a good team. We’re fighting for the same thing.
We’re going to have to deal with that more effectively. This is what a hard fought game is going to be like. You still are going to have to be able to execute. The rebounding thing hurt us (outrebounded 45-40) because we weren’t able to get out into the open floor and get easy baskets. It was a pretty physical game.
“Everytime we play them that’s the way its going to be,” Thibodeau added. “You have to have the mental toughness to get through all of that. You can’t shy away from any of that stuff. It’s going to be there. And that’s the way we like it. I just want to see them respond.”
At least this time, Thibodeau didn’t see it. And you begin to wonder like with the 1980’s Pistons if the Heat feel they can push the Bulls around without a response. We began to see it in last season’s playoffs with the Indiana Pacers. It’s why some around the Pacers privately yearn for the Bulls in the playoffs, though these things are a lot different when Rose isn’t playing.
John Lucas led the Bulls with 16 points, though shooting five and 16. And because he dribbles so much, he often misses cutters and the Bulls offense often stagnates when he is at point guard too long. But C.J. Watson was ineffective at zero for three with three turnovers in about 20 minutes while Luol Deng, who sustained a seven-stitch cut, and Carlos Boozer combined to shoot nine of 26.
Technically, the Bulls departed from the game plan that worked so well in Chicago in two wins over Miami, one without Rose and one with Rose having his poorest game as a pro.
Miami pursues to the ball with a trap and then falls back into the paint to defend. So you have to swing the ball around the floor to get open shots on the weak side. But both Watson and Lucas kept dribbling into the traps as the Bulls went on to a season low 72 points.
“We stared settling, taking long jump shots,” said Thibodeau. “And if you don’t have floor balance they make you pay for that (with fast breaks).”
But it was more than that as James Jones was ejected for a flagrant 2 foul against Joakim Noah, a cheap shot forearm from behind. LeBron James laid a huge blind side pick on Lucas that leveled him. And Dwyane Wade basically threw down Richard Hamilton in what probably should have been an ejection as well.
Wade and Hamilton had been going back and forth as they have for years in classic Pistons/Heat battles when Miami won a title in 2006 and had to get past the Pistons championship team. Hamilton, who had just six points on one of six shooting, was elbowing Wade for position. And Wade, who played poorly in the first half and seemed bothered by some injury that limits his explosiveness, reacted with a throwdown.
“Like Detroit all over again,” Wade told reporters. “One of those pesky defenders who gets away with a lot of stuff. I just decided to bring a little more attention to it.”
Wade and Hamilton both got technical fouls with 9:05 left in the third quarter and Miami leading 48-42 while Hamilton also got two free throws.
But what was perhaps most problematic to Thibodeau was after Hamilton’s free throws Wade drove and scored. No one is saying to hurt anyone, and I’m not much a believer in the rough stuff. But you do have to stand up and make your point, and the Bulls didn’t. Wade was left standing to score.
Wade scored on the drive and would score the next seven Heat points among his personal total of 18 after the double technical.
It was as much symbolic and significant given the Bulls fell behind 64-53 but went on to get within three twice early in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls got in position to make a run, but perhaps the Heat made a larger point that they can play the Bulls physically and the Bulls won’t retaliate or respond.
It seemed to be what Thibodeau was asking for.
“Not great,” Joakim Noah said of the Bulls response to the tactics. “But we’ll be back. They wanted it more than us. We wanted it bad. But they wanted it more. That can’t happen.”
Noah was active with 15 points and 10 rebounds, but he’s not a fighter. The Bulls really don’t have that kind of player on their roster anymore, though it wasn’t like they did that much to overcome the Pistons in 1991. The guys the Bulls have are tough. You don’t lead the league in rebounding unless you are, though they backed off some Thursday and uncharacteristically had only five second chance points. With their offense without Rose, there seems little chance the Bulls can win a game without the second chance boards.
Deng started strong with eight first quarter points, but he was matched by LeBron James, who went on to get 27 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. James clearly was the dominant figure in the game in carrying Miami as Wade play only in small spurts now.
“A great atmosphere,” said James, who is expected to win MVP. “When these two teams go at it, it is going to be intense and physical, great basketball. This is what the post season is about, both teams struggling to score, a possession game. This is what happens in the post season. The game slows down.”
He’s likely right about that as we’ll probably see more of these sorts of grind out games, especially if the Bulls and Heat fulfill their supposed destiny and meet in the conference finals. But given the uncertainty surrounding Rose and the fact the Bulls just have not played very well for several weeks now the whole playoffs could be a grind for the Bulls.
Especially if they lose out on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls could have clinched with a win Thursday, but now they have one fewer loss at 47-16 to 45-17 for Miami. If Miami wins out, the Bulls must do the same. If they tie, Miami has the edge in the third tiebreaker of better record against playoff teams.
So the intriguing game may come down to next Wednesday in Indiana. The Pacers are pretty much locked into the No. 3 spot. So perhaps they have nothing to play for. But we may get an idea about whom they want to play since if both Miami and the Bulls win out until then, Indiana could try to play for its potential second round opponent, and the Pacers have had problems against Miami. So maybe they play hard to try to knock the Bulls to No. 2 and have Miami in the opposite bracket. It’s all speculation now, but it gives the Bulls more to think about in what was supposed to be a quiet last week of the season.
You’d think that means the Bulls are past trying to rest players, that they need the wins and they need to get Rose playing.
On the TNT broadcast, flamboyant dresser and sideline reporter Craig Sager reported from anonymous sources that Rose’s fluid buildup problem was due in part to poor taping of his ankles.
Thibodeau was asked about it after the game and said it was nonsense.
“I have not heard that,” Thibodeau said. “I don’t know where this stuff comes from. We have a great medical staff. I can tell you that.”
Also on the national broadcast, analyst Charles Barkley said he didn’t see how the Heat could win a title with their bench being so poor. Though Barkley said he also is losing confidence in the Bulls without Rose playing.
In Charlotte out of it yet?
Chicago’s bench did outscore Miami’s 28-12. But it was well off from the Bulls bench domination in Chicago against Miami (56-15 and 47-7). It’s an old saw in the NBA of benches not playing nearly as well on the road. The Bulls reserves scored 103 points in the two home games and 45 points in the two road games.
And as for the overview, the Bulls are now 7-6 back through March 26 winning two overtime games against one loss in that stretch. Last season, the Bulls closed with nine straight wins, 13 of 14 and 21 of 23. Which suggested for last year that was the way to enter the playoffs. Teams have struggled in the past down the stretch and then turned it around, though it’s becoming an anxious time for the Bulls the way they are playing without the fervor and determination we’ve seen earlier this season and certainly last season.
So, yes, the Bulls do need Rose badly, as if everyone didn’t know that. They are now 17-9 without him. You could be fooled by the occasional huge win with a Lucas run or Watson shot. And the Bulls statistics have remained strong. But that so called edge Thibodeau often talks about comes and goes as he’s begged for it often of late. And it wasn’t there Thursday.
James got going early with an impressive series of scores and 15 first quarter points. Thibodeau emphasizes the strong start, though you also are rarely an MVP when your best work is at the start of the game, as James’ often is.
Deng, coming off his rib injury, looked sharp in countering James with one stretch of three straight scores and the Bulls trailed 27-23 after one. Still, it’s didn’t quite have the feel of a big game with Rose and Bosh out.
The Bulls reserves were looking good early in the second as Wade was having trouble getting anywhere near the basket. That’s when Jones for some odd reason ran at Noah from behind while Noah was going for a rebound and gave him an elbow to the head. Jones was ejected and Noah made the free throws to tie the game at 33.
“I think he was just trying to keep me off the boards,” said Noah. It was just part of the game.”
Noah was clearly upset, but to his credit waited for the reporters to finish with Hamilton, sitting at the next locker, and then commented, though in clipped sentences.
“It was cool,” Noah said of the blind screen of James’ that knocked down Lucas. Lucas and James jawed some after James sort of flicked Lucas away and got a technical. Later in the game, James was calling for a pick to get a switch to go at Lucas, but it didn’t materialize.
“We did not play well offensively,” said Noah. “Seventy points isn’t going to get it done.”
Miami took a 42-40 halftime lead, and then things began to get rough after halftime with Wade and Hamilton, the latter dismissing it as just part of the game. But they seemed to do some serious threatening afterward.
“Part of the game,” said Hamilton. “One of those things. Heat of battle. You’re going to have plays like that, two people trying to outwill eachother and help their team win. He knows what I do. I know what he’s doing. I’m not going to give you an edge and he was going to do the same thing with me.
“When you fight and have aspirations and dreams and want a championship you’re going to do everything,” said Hamilton. “Things happen in the heat of battle. I didn’t even know it was a flagrant. I thought it was a technical. But that’s what playoff basketball is about.
“We’ve got to get better,” Hamilton said when asked about physical play. “That’s what the playoffs are going to be about. When someone pushes the foot on the gas and tries to push us back we’ve got to push even harder. When somebody tries to put you on your heels you never get on your heels. You’re going through them the whole game. You don’t allow nobody to go through you. We’ve got to do better job of putting our foot on the gas and responding and not let them put us on our heels.”
I think I basically understood that, and though Hamilton was matter of fact, I can’t imagine he was too accepting not to see anyone remind Wade he shouldn’t be acting like that. And though Hamilton didn’t get much going offensively, it didn’t seem like he was getting much help as the screens were soft and wayward and Miami’s defenders were mostly able to run through them.
After that bruising screen on Lucas late in the third, James threw in a couple of impressive scoops on drives and Miami led 66-61 after three. The Bulls closed a bit, but as Miami’s defense tightened the Bulls wilted. They couldn’t find scoring, shooting 22 percent in the fourth quarter while Shane Battier finally dropped a three, Wade had an acrobatic left handed driving score and when Udonis Haslem had a slam dunk on a roll when the Bulls couldn’t recover, Miami was up 10 with under six minutes left.
And the Bulls wouldn’t get much closer. It didn’t count for that much, at least yet, but as Thibodeau likes to say, every game reveals something. And the Bulls could not like what Thursday’s game appeared to reveal about them.