Bulls cool off hot Heat and end winning streak


Mar 28

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It really was something to see. LeBron James was losing it, unraveling like a worn Nike Wednesday with the Miami Heat trailing the Bulls 90-82 with about four minutes remaining on the way to a 101-97 loss and the end of Miami’s 27-game winning streak, the second longest in NBA history.

Don’t kid yourself, and don’t believe James when he said afterward the streak didn’t much matter and it’s only been about winning games. He wanted this streak badly, just as Michael Jordan and the Bulls wanted those 70 wins in 1995-96. The great ones are not humble. They want milestones, not asterisks. You could tell the way James was pounding his chest and exulting in some of those nearly a dozen fourth quarter comebacks during the fabulous streak.

Luol Deng

“What they’ve been doing is once they took a lead a lot of teams would stay back and let them attack,” said Luol Deng, who was terrific with 28 points and a pair of big fourth quarter threes when the Bulls were supposed to join the others and yield in the face of the supposedly inevitable. “We did a good job keeping our focus and our foot on the pedal.”

Those were gigantic threes by Deng, and Jimmy Butler with one as well in the fourth starting for the injured Marco Belinelli with Joakim Noah also out and Derrick Rose not back yet. That sort of stuff just wasn’t supposed to happen, and it was all becoming just too much for James as history began to slip away.

So after James absorbed a hard foul on a drive from Butler and Taj Gibson, merely enforcing a playoff like no layup rule that James should have welcomed as preparation for the playoffs, James instead sought retribution for the insult. After all, is this the way to treat a king?

“I believe and know a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays,” James would tell reporters later in a weak moment of complaint. “It’s been happening all year. I’ve been able to keep my cool and try to tell Spo (coach Eric Spoelstra), ‘Let’s not worry about it too much.’ It is getting to me a little bit.”

Yes, how dare they! Do you know who I am! Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. He’s playing for history, after all, and his subjects must please him.

James shot his free throws, making one to bring Miami within 90-82 and seething. He’d been like that much of the game, a playoff atmosphere as it is with Miami much of the time now because of their streak and success. They remain the favorites to win the NBA title no matter Wednesday’s result. But this time the little kids were fighting back. James had been picking himself up a lot, arguing with the officials, yelling at teammates, putting his head down and smashing his way to the basket. The Bulls had made Lilliputians of his supporting cast and the giant of the game seemed to be feeling the burden. After all, he is a great competitor, and great competitors don’t take these things easily.

So as Kirk Hinrich began to go over a screen being set by Carlos Boozer, James eyed Boozer getting into place, raised his elbow and flailing at Boozer, a shameless and blatant attack that drew a flagrant foul on James. Boozer, who had a terrific game with 21 points and 17 rebounds, never budged. It was solid as much as symbolic.

Look, you’ve run into something that’s not going to back off or fall down.

Boozer, who played with James one season in Cleveland, stared at James and told him, “I’m too strong for that.”

It was a statement for a team perhaps more than an individual.

LeBron James

Too strong for that stuff.

“The message going out was to beat a tough team you’ve got to hit them first, don’t let them put you on your heels,” said Butler, who matched James’ dunks with a late third quarter lob throwdown of his own over Bosh. “We had to be the aggressors and I felt we did that tonight.”

James hit the floor more times, it seemed, that the 11 times Dempsey put Firpo down in less than four minutes in that classic heavyweight battle. And if the Bulls aren’t quite in the same ring with the Heat this season as NBA heavyweights with Rose out and so many other injuries and now a 39-31 record, they still believe they have a puncher’s chance.

“We held our composure and stayed focused and did a good job at the end,” said Boozer. “It lets us know when we’re right, when we’re focused and locked in, we can beat anybody. We’re missing four big people, Jo an All-Star, D. Rose an MVP, Marco and Rip (Hamilton). Everyone stepped up and took on the challenge. We feel as long as we’re right and can play with everybody and can get healthy going into the playoffs with all our troops we’ll see that happens.

“The games we beat them (Miami), we dominated the boards,” noted Boozer as the Bulls Wednesday had a 43-31 rebounding edge and 22-8 on second chance points (though 6-11 Chris Bosh did have four boards). “We know we’re a good rebounding team. When we’re a great rebounding team we can beat everybody. Like I’ve been saying, we feel like we can play with anybody, especially if we are healthy.”

So the Bulls get some confidence heading toward the playoffs, if it is one game. But it was not just another game as much as the losers would suggest it is and the winners can’t get too full of themselves, not that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau ever would allow.

“We’ve been saying all year when we are at our best we can beat anybody and we are at our worst we can lose to anybody,” said Deng. “It’s something we all believe in. The good thing is to know we have the focus to lock in and can beat anybody. At the same time the way the season is going it’s been tough with injuries. Last year, we felt like we had the great record and beat everybody and everyone got hurt at the start of the playoffs. This time we feel (it can be) everyone getting healthy at the right time.”

Those, of course, are hopes and dreams, and who knows. It’s certainly possible. Maybe Rose returns. Maybe it’s enough, at least, to get by everyone but Miami. And then who knows.

After all, the last three seasons the Bulls are 7-3 against the Heat in the regular season and 8-7 overall with the 2011 conference finals loss. It’s the difference for the Bulls when they play Miami and why not only are they 2-1 this season and the only team in the league with a winning record against them the last three years but why they beat the Heat: They believe they can.

It’s not so much a matter of fear, but we saw that with the champion Bulls of the 1990’s. You hear so much about great players and great teams—and James is the game’s best player and had 32 points, seven rebounds and four blocks Wednesday—that even the pros get cautious, if not fully awed. And when you are uncertain you lose your edge.

The Bulls play with an edge to them, like when Hinrich wrapped up James on a drive early and both went to the ground, Hinrich banging his head as he fell. And then later when James got the Gibson/Butler sandwich and a hard shot from Gibson. No flagrant, though on review. Just tough basketball.

Kirk Hinrich

“I said, ‘Welcome to Chicago/Miami basketball,’” Spoelstra said when asked. “I’ve spent three years of that.”

It’s been the heavyweight fight cliché with clinches and blows struck in both directions. There was the final regular season game of the 2010-11 season when the Bulls finished the season sweep with a last second win and Spoelstra revealed some of his players (named Bosh) were crying in the locker room afterward. Or the final regular season game last season after the Bulls won without Rose earlier and Miami dirtied it up, like Dwyane Wade’s throw of Hamilton into the stands. The Bulls felt they were punked in that game, and with Rose hurt in the opening round of the playoffs never got chance for payback. So they were ready Wednesday after an embarrassing home loss to Miami last month.

And Miami—really, James—didn’t like it. You won’t quite call it a blueprint for beating Miami. But perhaps this was just as good for the Heat because it puts them on notice with what is coming. The Pacers were the last team to beat them two months ago before the Bulls, and they play that way. The Knicks will try.

Though James complained and then said he wasn’t complaining, the blows really bother him the least. He’s a perimeter version of Shaq. You can pound on him endlessly seemingly without effect. But otherwise Miami isn’t that type of team. Bosh is a finesse shooter who doesn’t rebound. Wade, who was the second best Marquette player on the floor Wednesday, doesn’t quite fly like he used to and if you stay down and in front of him he has to work for scores. He also retains that bad habit of pouting in transition, like when Nate Robinson stripped him from behind early in the second quarter (predictably after a Nate turnover), Wade stopped to complain to the officials. Robinson ran back and hit a three for a 40-27 Bulls lead that had Spoelstra fuming. He once called out Wade for such lapses, though they seem to have a tentative truce for now on that issue.

But while the Heat have nice specialists, they are mostly not physical or aggressive players. Their main three was in double figures and no one else was. Ray Allen and Shane Battier are too nice to fight and be tough, though Battier will give you a good flop like a fat halibut. The Bulls even made one more three, eight to seven, as they ran Miami off the line, a strategy the Bulls have also used to hold a 3-0 edge on the Knicks.

There’s not much you can do with James, but if you deny around him he’s not Wilt. He’s not scoring 50 or 100.

He does make an amazing number of great plays, though. Deng, who noted he’s defended James basically his entire career, says James is better this season than he’s ever been. And 27 straight wins in the NBA, or pretty much anywhere, is remarkable.

But the Heat protested way too much about getting that record not being all that important. ESPN had started basically televising all the Miami games anticipating the record. And the story of the game certainly was the record and the Bulls putting a stop to it. Many still recall it was the Bucks who finally stopped the 1971-72 Lakers after 33 in a row. Streak busters get noticed as well.

“It was a game so hyped up, everyone watching,” noted Deng. “It’s a good feeling to say we’re the ones who ended the streak before they broke the record.”

Yes, the Bulls again. As much as the Heat like to turn away and say beat us in the playoffs to be a rival, you know the Bulls bother them.

“Ummmmm, I don’t know if I like that question,” James said when asked about why the Bulls give Miami such trouble and then went a bit defensive.

Carlos Boozer

“We hear that a lot,” James said in a somewhat remarkable sililoquy. “It’s never what it is about the Miami Heat that make it tough on other teams. It’s always the Bulls or Pacers or Knicks or whatever the case may be. Teams make it tough on us; we make it tough on them. When you have two well coached teams it’s going to be a competitive game. That’s what it’s all about.”

Did he really say that?

Actually, James had calmed down quite a bit with a needed cooling off. I barely could play and always needed more than 10 minutes after a bad loss. You have to credit James as one of the more eloquent and cooperative stars in the game today. But he clearly was still bothered by the result—which is good as he does care—and in addition to his objections to being fouled went on about the game being more important. Yes, the Heat will be judged on the title. But the streak would be forever. Michael cared. Kobe wanted 81. LeBron cared a lot.

“We weren’t pressing every game to get the win to get the streak,” he insisted as his nose had to be growing. “It happened. We were just playing each and every game to win. And we just hapepened to win 27 in a row. Our motto is to try to go out and win every game. No one really talked about it.”

Sure, right.

Probably all those ESPN TV trucks were hanging around to get gas.

It was a fueled Bulls team to start the game, a 32-22 first quarter lead as James had 13 while the Bulls pretty much locked up everyone else. That also is a theory about playing Miami: Turn James into a scorer since he’ll get his points, but he prefers to be playmaker as well. Miami generally is an aggressive defensive team, like the 90’s Bulls, that often gets overlooked because of their star power.

They’re good at blitzing and stringing out the pick and roll and recovering, though starting forward Udonis Haslem got three quick fouls and left Miami playing smaller. It’s not good for their rebounding, though they like to play that way spreading the court to drive and shoot.

But the Bulls were sending their message early, if hardly unexpected, when Hinrich ran down James for fouls on fast breaks, the second when he ended up putting James into a vice and both tumbling down.

“We just fought,” said Hinrich, who had seven points, six assists and five rebounds. “We had that intensity. We feel if we do that and guard well we’re going to have a chance. “The play earlier (before the bear hug) he was barreling down on me and I gave the foul and he almost made it. You don’t realize how strong he is. With his speed and strength you can’t take anything for granted. I still got the worst of it (on the takedown). I knew I’d try to take a foul. I just was going backward.”

But it was significant and symbolic because the Bulls weren’t getting out of the way. So many in the NBA do with LeBron you wonder sometimes whether he is that strong. The Bulls weren’t giving up those dunks. Hey, it doesn’t hurt so bad.

Robinson hit a floater to finish off the first quarter with the last four points with another nice offensive effort with 14 points as the Bulls bench again outscored the opposition. It also seemed ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy wasn’t again condemning the Bulls for changing their bench from last season, as he does often on Bulls broadcasts, while Gibson added six points, five rebounds and five assists and Butler stepped seamlessly into the starting lineup with 17 points in more than 43 minutes.

“We have guys down and a lot of guys banged up,” said Gibson. “We wanted to come out and make a statement and try to play tough. It’s two physical teams. There was a lot of physicality down there. I’m happy we were able to withstand it. It says we have a good team. It’s all about what we think in the locker room. A lot of people kind of write us off every other day. But we just stick to our principles and do what we have to do. Like Thibs says, it’s all about who is ready to play, and we came out ready to play. We didn’t really like the way they beat us on our home court last time. We wanted to dig in and come up with a strong defensive effort and it showed. We wanted to go out there and play our own game. Once the game came, guys were just amped. We knew what we had to do. There was no talking. Guys just understood to go out and play hard and take hard fouls. It’s playoff basketball. Every time we play that team, we try to send a message. They sent the same message last time we played them, so we are going to keep pushing.”

Nate Robinson

The Bulls kept it up in the second quarter as the feeling often about Miami is they come out somewhat casually and size up an opponent and then come on strong as they trailed by double digits seven times in the streak and by 27 against Cleveland. But Spoelstra knew better and was furious in the between quarters TV interview about the Heat not coming into the game as hard as the Bulls.

“The last few games we were hanging on,” said Spoelstra. “When you run up against a team like this one who is very good, they will not let you get away with that. We were much more competitive in the second half. It became make or miss in the fourth quarter and we couldn’t get the necessary stops we needed to. In the last handful of games, those shots were going down and maybe that masked a few things going down the stretch.”

Robinson continued to score and the Bulls held a 55-46 lead at halftime while James had 18. But Miami came out with a pair of dunks to open the third quarter on Bulls miscues and began to pressure, overplaying the passing lanes, denying, fronting and helping on the backside, all the defensive pressure they can call upon for periods to pull out wins. It seemed to be the case again on a rare Miami possession with three offensive chances led to a Battier three and 59-58 Miami lead with 4:30 left in the third quarter.

But the Bulls didn’t back off or back down.

Coming out of a timeout, the Bulls got Boozer space in the lane and he drove and scored as Miami remains weak at the rim with no real shotblockers other than James and Wade from behind in the open court. Then there was one of the big momentum play turners for the Bulls as after a James miss, Deng ran out and got a lob up to Butler for a one handed slam over Bosh for a 64-61 Bulls lead.

It was the sort of play crucial at the time to get the frenzied crowd in a frenzy once again.

“It was a big play,” agreed Butler. “When Lu had it I knew he was going up there. I was glad to get him the assist.”

Likewise enjoying the moments, Robinson added, “We had fun out there. The substitutes came in and did what we could, tried to contribute to the team. I told Jimmy to ask Chris Bosh to sign the poster. He probably won’t do it.”

The Bulls then led 69-68 going into the fourth quarter after a nice Gibson fake handoff and pass to Boozer for a score and three point play. That’s when I then thought Spoelstra made the first of his two big fourth quarter mistakes that cost his team.

He sat James to open the fourth quarter even as Deng stayed in. You figure in this kind of game James wouldn’t tire. But the Bulls took advantage with a 6-1 start to the fourth that gave the Bulls the room to keep Miami forcing to score.

The Heat then put James on Hinrich, a curious move as Hinrich isn’t a big scorer and isn’t a sole playmaker like a Chris Paul. That left Wade to trial Deng, and Deng is just too clever moving, getting open over the right side for threes that stretched the Bulls lead to 78-73 with 7:24 left and then 83-75 with 6:08 left. Plus, Deng was also able to suck the defense in with Wade on him, allowing Hinrich room to find Butler for a three that gave the Bulls an 86-78 lead with 5:34 remaining after a Wade three point play. Wade did have 18, but few at crucial moments.

Then came the big plays to win and they were made by a guard and forward, but not by Wade and James but Hinrich and Boozer.

First with the Bulls hanging on to a 92-85 lead and the Heat driving after that LeBron flagrant, Bosh got a James miss with 2:41 left. But Hinrich came up behind and ripped the ball away. No fear.

“I thought it was the biggest play of the game,” said Deng. “We needed a stop and Bosh had gotten a huge rebound. That’s Kirk. He does things that might not come up as stats but his teammates appreciate; he gives himself up to make plays.”

Hinrich then found Gibson for a jumper, and later with Miami within 94-89 on an Allen score with 1:22 left, Robinson missed. But Boozer cleared out Bosh for the rebound and putback, a 96-89 lead with under a minute left and game.

“I was able to wedge Chris under and got the ball,” said Boozer.

Yes, Bosh, who did have 21 points, also got just about everything but a wedgie.

“We knew it would be a physical game,” said James. “Against the Bulls we know that. It’s not something that caught us by surprise or caught us off guard.”

So, yes, to be continued as the Bulls win streak is now three.

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