The Heat gets turned up and the Bulls turn over


Feb 22

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It turns out the Bulls might need Derrick Rose after all.

“It was supposed to be an exciting night,” said Joakim Noah said of the much anticipated national TV matchup Thursday with the Miami Heat which turned into an 86-67 Miami rout. “To come out and play like that is disappointing. They kicked our (butt). You got to give credit when credit is due. They’re very, very good.”

Best team I’ve seen this season, oh other than the San Antonio Spurs bench, perhaps.

Yes, Kirk Hinrich was out again with his elbow issue, and the Bulls are 4-9 this season when he doesn’t play. Though LeBron James, who was brilliant with 26 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists and even missed a dunk, pretty much has that award wrapped up as the Heat continue to pull away in the Eastern Conference with their ninth straight win to go to 38-14. The Bulls are fifth at 31-23.

Joakim Noah

“Miami is rolling right now,” agreed Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “They are playing great. Their intensity’s great, they’re playing very unselfishly at both ends of the floor. You have to give them credit.”

There wasn’t much else to do or say as the Heat got down and played the Bulls game and beat the heck out of them at it. The Bulls need to pound smaller Miami on the boards to have a chance, and the 30th place rebounding team in the league, Miami, hung in losing the rebound battle only 39-36.

Miami would like to fast break and dunk and throw lobs off the backboard like it’s an All-Star game, and like they did Wednesday in Atlanta in one of their typical wins, easing into the game and then pulling it out late.

There was none of that this time as the Heat players were aggressive and into the game from the start, pushing the Bulls into eight first quarter turnovers and a shocking 27 for the game, just seven fewer than the all-time franchise record.

The fast break points were about even; Miami, in effect, told the Bulls they’d beat them at their own game, defense and intense play, and they did.

James missed a wide open dunk and so did Dwyane Wade, who had 17 points. Nate Robinson led the Bulls with 14 points, though a third late when the game was long over. Plus, he was in early foul trouble and Marquis Teague had to play 19 minutes, three fewer than his season high.

Noah was the most effective Bull with 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists while Carlos Boozer had 12 points and 11 rebounds, though just nine shots as without Hinrich the Bulls got him just two first half shots after he had scored 27 points against Miami last month.

It was the fewest points the Bulls had scored at home in 10 years and now the second in the last two games scoring fewer than 70 points. But that was more Miami’s doing than just poor shooting or one of those nights.

The Heat overwhelmed and outmaneuvered the Bulls. They’d obviously heard all that stuff from the Bulls win in Miami last month, about not being able to matchup playing small, about not being able to produce against tough teams.

“Just another win in a long NBA season,” James said on TNT after the game.

You know, no big deal. Robinson somewhat out of frustration threw a bit of a body block on James late in the game on a runout. No big deal, James suggested afterward about limping around a bit afterward and the United Center crowd cheering. Bad sport, that. Though they seemed to understand the Bulls — or perhaps anyone else — stands no chance against Miami this season as long as James is upright.

Though we had enough of that LeBron/Michael debate last week, the Heat does remind me a lot of those early 90’s Bulls championship teams. They started a pair of non scorers in Bill Cartwright and John Paxson, and the Heat start Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers, who combined for eight points.

But it was Jordan with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, Johnny Bach’s Dobermans, who swarmed the opponents’ offense. Yes, Michael looked great dunking and running out with Pippen after those turnovers. But those turnovers came with pressure defense, long arms harassing, the interior closed, the lanes shut off, Jordan and Pippen up on the wing scorers making every dribble difficult.

Miami does a lot of that. They were as aggressive defensively as I’ve seen them all season. From the start, they were blitzing the pick and roll, effectively sending a big man up to trap the ball handler over the screen and force him so called east to west across the court. Their long arms and physical play kept the ballhandler from turning in or turning the corner, and then they were scrambling back.

Their interior help closed off the paint where the Bulls like to drop off their clever inside passes. Their long armed defenders denied the passing lanes and James was all over bumping and running Luol Deng off his shots. Deng was three of 12 for six points.

There’s a response to that, but the Bulls, and particularly with their guards down, weren’t able respond. It essentially involves ball movement, though Miami makes that difficult as well. If you are blitzed by the two defenders you have to reverse the ball to the weak side, then swing it again down to the corner for a shot or drive. But the ball stuck a bit much and you are stuck against a team like Miami when you are trying to mano a mano them. It’s a term that comes from bull fighting, but these really were not fighting Bulls often enough Thursday in a TNT national TV snoozer.

Nate RobinsonI thought Richard Hamilton did an excellent, physical job frustrating Wade into one point and a half dozen pouts toward officials in the first quarter. But Hamilton was three of eight shooting with limited play, though a bit more with 22 minutes this time. Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler were a combined zero for seven off the bench in being somewhat unaccustomed to Miami’s swarming play. Various times Miami defenders forced the Bulls to pull up on fast break drives or chang shots at the rim even without great size. Their quickness and aggressive play seemed to overwhelm the Bulls, who lack a dominant independent scorer without Rose. The Heat seemed also to virtually dare the Bulls to shoot threes in packing in the paint and making sure the Bulls weren’t going to have that intimidating rebounding advantage.

“They flood and overload where the ball is,” explained Deng. “That’s when you’ve got to move the ball and find their weakness. When you play into their hands, turnovers, they get fast breaks and they get going.”

It sounds simple enough, and it is the Bulls routine plan. But a lot of teams had those same plans against Jordan, Pippen and Grant. It’s not so easy to do with athletes like James and Wade, and then Bosh repeatedly popped open for easy jump shot as the Bulls interior collapsed trying to cut off James or Wade’s penetration. Miami shot 50.7 percent while the Bulls were at 37.3 percent, two of 10 on threes and with just 11 free throw attempts when they didn’t deserve any more.

“They have great quickness,” said Thibodeau. “They were into us and we didn’t move the ball, and that part, I have to make our team understand the type of plays that we have to make to give ourselves a chance. Obviously when you turn the ball over like that, that part is on me. We have to understand what we have to do against that team to have a chance and we made the wrong type of plays against them. They’re very good at pressuring the ball and swarming the ball. If you’re trying to thread the needle against them into the paint and keeping the ball on one side of the floor, you’re going to have a problem. I thought we were unselfish. We were trying to pass the ball. However, we didn’t see the plays the way we should have seen the plays. I also thought the level of intensity in this type of game wasn’t where it needed to be. “

The Bulls didn’t quit or give in. They ran the plays. But what a great team does is take you out of them, and that’s what Miami did. One of the Bulls bread and butter plays is the side pick and roll with Deng. But James was so quick getting over the screen Deng could barely get shots off.

James was so good he was like Jordan in taking the game seriously and having some fun so as not to get bored. After one foul call that ended a play, James tried a three-point shot left handed and banked it in. That was early in the third quarter as Miami began to pull away after leading 45-35 at halftime. It was just practice for later, as it turned out.

At the end of the third quarter after Deng made a layup with 3.4 seconds left after a fullcourt rush with the ball by Noah. James then dribbled out and as he got about 28 feet away he attempted a three pointer left handed. It barely missed. I’d seen this before with Jordan when he got lost inside a big game that came easily only to him. I saw him try some free throws with his eyes closed, which he’d told the opposition he was about to do. James doesn’t talk much on the court, though his teammates seem to enjoy it. They do have some animated huddles as well, which coach Erik Spoelstra laughed about afterward and said, “That is just our team. When we have banter back and forth it is a good thing. It is taken the wrong way by those outside, but not inside. It is just the competitiveness of the guys wanting to win.”

That’s also what winning a championship means. If the Heat hadn’t, it would have been a day of stories tomorrow about sources close to James’s thinking saying Spoelstra had lost the team. Now, it’s just the Bulls who have been losing their way.

“Foul trouble, turnovers,” Thibodeau signhed and then paused for several seconds. “Nobody played well.”

It was the Bulls kind of game to start, though perhaps not with the turnovers. It’s been an issue for the Bulls of late, though they’ve mostly survived it against mediocre teams, which in the East pretty much means everybody but Miami. That pretty much remained unchanged with no major balance of power trades before the Thursday trading deadline. Though the big talk before the game was comments Reggie Rose, Derrick’s brother, made to about the Bulls not working hard enough to make a trade to enhance the talent for Derrick to return. I’ll get into more on that in my Ask Sam emails Friday, though the Bulls and Rose released a statement before the game with Rose saying he and the Bulls had the same goals.

The way the game would go it suggested both having Rose return and perhaps not to. Obviously, to have any chance to beat Miami in the playoffs, the Bulls need Rose despite a 6-2 regular season record against the Heat the last three years. But the longer Rose stays out the shorter period he’ll have to prepare for a very tough team to play. Should Rose be pushing himself in a playoff setting after such a serious knee injury when he hasn’t played all season? Those questions, obviously, have yet to be answered.

The game was slow and physical with each team committing eight first quarter turnovers and the score tied at 22. Hamilton, who Wade threw into the stands in frustration in a Heat win last season, did a good job again annoying Wade. It’s your best chance against Miami. There’s no real way to counter James now given he’s abandoned his love for the fadeaway three and has become an amazingly efficient and accurate shooter. He’ll move the ball without hesitation, but if you can hold down Wade and Bosh there’s otherwise not enough scoring. Though the addition of Ray Allen, who had 11 points and plays with an effortless fluidity, makes Miami better than it was last season.

“Our guys brought a competitive spirit to this game,” said Spoelstra. “It was not the cleanest game, but on some occasions you just have to find a different way to win. It was not the most fluid game, but it was competitive. You know you are going to have a tough time when two defensive minded teams meet. They are going through a tough time now with guys in and out of the lineup.”

You could see the Bulls were playing hard, as usual. Boozer delivered a hard foul on Bosh when you expected wide open Bosh to have an easy dunk. But without Hinrich the recognition remained poor as Boozer had Shane Battier on him in several possessions and the Bulls didn’t get Boozer the ball once.

“Having Hinrich out of the lineup helped our defense out,” conceded Spoelstra. “They are not as efficient with him missing. We wanted to apply aggressive pressure because that is what our competitive nature is.”

Taj Gibson

The Bulls went to the bench for the second quarter and there were hopeful signs to start with a big Taj Gibson dunk and a pair of Teague scores as the rookie showed an ability to get to the basket even against a good defensive team. But Teague still is more offensive oriented and mostly lost on defense and playmaking.

Miami then broke the game open just about for good with a 15-1 run. The Bulls shot 54.5 percent in the second quarter, but were undone by nine more turnovers, now 17 for the half on the way to a season worst 27 (18 for Miami).

“They had a good game plan,” said Gibson. “They denied the wings, pressured to corners. They forced a lot of turnovers. We have to do better taking care of the ball. Most of their points came off of turnovers. We kept fighting back, but we have to learn to take care of the ball. Just too many turnovers. That’s not like us.”

Well, actually it is of late. There is a delicate balance in being an unselfish, great passing team like the Bulls. Magic Johnson was the wizard of passing but often led the league in turnovers. It’s minimizing them at the most important times and making the easy pass when it’s there. At times, the Bulls get carried away with the fancy pass with a few behind the back beauties and inside one hops Thursday ending up going the other way.

Though the Heat’s pressure had something to do with that. Well, maybe more than a little.

“We’re putting together some good basketball right now,” said James. “We’re defending, we’re creating turnovers, we’re winning the turnover game. We’re the best shooting team in the league. If we don’t turn the ball over, we have a good chance to win.”

They did and still won. Easily, the Bulls with a pair of 13-point quarters.

The Bulls even with all those turnovers were down just 10 at halftime and still just 56-49 late in the third quarter after the Bulls began finally to find Boozer and he converted on a nice pass over the top from Hamilton against aggressive fronting, the Bulls now having the wings make the plays instead of the point guards. Though Belinelli couldn’t get his shot to go, and Butler found out as Deng did when you have to put everything into defending James it takes away something from your offense.

“He’s a great player and the game is real easy for him,” said Thibodeau of James. “He’s reading the game extremely well. A guy like that you try to make him work for his points. That’s all you can do. We gifted them too many points. The rebounding was not great, but it was good enough. The turnovers is what got us. We struggled, we struggled.”

But everytime the Bulls crept close, James, once considered a poor shooter, just walked into a shot and made it, 11 of 15 in the game.

Noah got himself a technical foul late in the third, and the Bulls still hung in somehow, down 65-54 going onto the fourth quarter. But it also was somewhat reminiscent of the Bulls/ Pistons games of the 80’s when the Bulls were close but never could win. The Pistons always seemed beatable, but an eight-point margin was like 30 for many teams because you couldn’t score against them.

The fans got a nice laugh earlier in the third when James went up to dunk on a fast break and the ball slipped out of his hands. It was as if he was giving the Bulls every chance, almost to make it more competitive like Jordan might try.

But enough is enough, and in the fourth quarter after Hamilton scored on a Noah pass, Allen hit a three, Wade made a great spinning drive splitting a double team, Norris Cole and his big hair ran out for a score after a turnover and shortly after that Robinson went back to his U. of Washington safety days with a hard body block on James going in for a score. Robinson also hit James’ knee, and James hobbled some before finishing off the rout. Later he said it was nothing and Nate didn’t do anything wrong.

No, the Bulls couldn’t even get them mad the Heat dominated that game so completely.

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