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Bulls leave Miami out in the cold
by Sam Smith
Posted on Dec 6
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Luol Deng was sitting back in his locker stall late Thursday following the Bulls’ overpowering 107-87 victory over the Miami Heat, a smile seemingly of both satisfaction and relief washing over his sharp features.
Deng had scored 20 points, his sixth consecutive game of at least 20 points and eighth in the last 10. Carlos Boozer led the Bulls with 27 points, oh so sweet for Boozer as he makes his off season home in Miami and where his children live.
Taj Gibson had a powerful 19 points off the bench and Kirk Hinrich added 13 points and seven assists along with the obligatory tussle and technical fouls, a bit too much of Hinrich’s defense for Norris Cole. Like Cole was saying, you don’t stay that close without dating.
The Bulls, 8-9, made 10 of 19 three pointers and perhaps, more importantly, held sharp shooting Miami to six of 22 threes. And most impressively, the Bulls scared the 14-5 Heat off the boards with a 49-27 pounding, 27-9 in the first half as the Bulls breezed out to a 58-44 halftime lead and remained double digits ahead the rest of the game.
And then there was Joakim Noah, all flailing arms and elbows and legs, all over the Heat with 17 points and 15 rebounds, pounding his chest, screaming encouragement, unholstering his pantomime pistols.
“If we played Miami 82 times a season,” Deng said with a smile, “Jo would probably be the best player in the league. He loves playing against them. We all do. We get up for them. He did a great job setting the tone. From this morning he was up on everyone playing hard. During the game he was reminding everyone to keep playing hard and that’s what we need from him. And when he does that we feed off his energy. We need that.”
The Bulls’ emotional leader has often been missing of late, along with a lot of the emotion and passion which for the past few years mostly without Derrick Rose has enabled the Bulls to surprise the NBA, become more than the sum of their parts, be a model of commitment to the game while also a tough opponent.
Those Bulls were back in the United Center again in their best game of the season just about everywhere on the court, holding the two-time champion Heat to 41.6 percent shooting while shooting 50 percent on their own, 24-6 in second chance points, 44-34 in the paint, Noah with more rebounds than the entire Heat starting lineup.
“It never let up tonight,” agreed Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “They pounded us the entire night. We were just not able to overcome their physicality. Give them credit; they deserved it. We have to be much tougher. We have to be more like them and attack the glass.”
Perhaps, as someone said, the Bulls need to imagine all their opponents are wearing Miami uniforms.
“This is the best we’ve played all around and for as long a stretch,” said Hinrich, who had seven of the Bulls 24 assists on their 37 field goals. “We never really took our foot off the gas pedal. I think it was our most consistent defensive game, our most consistent rebounding game, our most consistent game moving the ball and making it hop. When we do that everyone asks how the threes are made. Those things go hand in hand. That’s who we are.”
The Bulls have had more regular season success against Miami than anyone in the NBA since the Heat rebuilt their team in the summer of 2010. They’ve dented Miami’s aura, and the Heat players didn’t much like it. The Bulls players, as well, didn’t much care for the perceived arrogance of the Heat players. Though you get to be like that when you win. And Miami has. So the games have become intense, especially with Miami turning around the success rate in the playoffs, when it counted most.
So the Bulls take what they can, especially Noah.
“The people in the city, there’s something when Miami comes to town,” said Noah. “You wake up in the morning you feel it, the people in the city they don’t like the Miami Heat. We don’t like the Miami Heat. It always feels good to beat them.
“Lot of battles, lot of scars, lot of tough losses,” Noah added. “Lot of seasons ending because of them.
Our team needed it.”
But more than to just defeat Miami.
They needed to be the Bulls again, the punishing rebounding team, all over the court helping and recovering, physically confronting ball handlers, out on the perimeter closing out on long distance shooters, working harder than the other guy who thinks he’s working hard.
“To see a win like this is good for the team moving forward, helps everyone’s confidence,” said Deng. “Tonight was a great 48 minutes. It reminds everyone to believe in what we are doing.”
The issue is doing it often enough.
The Bulls have had periods of success these last few weeks since Rose’s knee injury that put him out for the season. Rose met reporters earlier Thursday before the national TNT game (coverage here and here). Teammates said it was good just to have him around again as he was in the trainers room — his home away from home — during and after the morning shootaround in the United Center.
“When that happened to Derrick, some people may not understand, but we are a family here,” explained Gibson. “When that happened again it was mind bending. You were like, ‘Man, we got to really gather again.’ It was tough, on the road, got to figure out new ways. But it’s great to see him back in the training room, feeling better, telling us it’s going to be good. I think that’s been a big boost just having our teammate back around us. Guys stepped up.”
It’s been much discussed, but it’s difficult to understand the impact Rose’s knee injury had on his teammates unless you are with them. They knew how hard last season was without Rose, but there was the vision of his return. And then it occurs yet again, but this time with change for the roster hanging over everyone. Could they go through it again? They knew what they had to do. But it was becoming difficult to maintain that edge and energy entire games. It was becoming the difference in these long games between a win and a loss, one shot in a triple overtime game. Or against Utah or Cleveland.
“Jo told me in the locker room, ‘I’ve got to get the energy back up,’“ related Gibson. “Lately he’s been playing with a lot of energy, getting back to his yelling ways. We’re going to need that in a lot of games.”
They got that from Noah, who is slowly becoming Joakim again, also 19 points and 10 rebounds in the triple overtime loss Monday. His 15 rebounds Thursday tied a season high from the New York first home game of the season. No one wants to make excuses. But in many respects the Bulls rise and fall on Noah’s enthusiasm, the way he badgers them through games and frustrates opponents. It has come on in segments and sequences the last few weeks as Noah battled his own resolve.
“For me it’s really hard to play without Derrick,” Noah conceded. “I want to win with Derrick Rose. What Derrick represents to this city; there’s not a lot of players who have that. He brings a lot of hope to the city. I feel really privileged to play in that position. Him going down, it was really hard for me, hard for us. We have to move on and it’s not easy. I think we’re capable. We’ve just got to keep it up.”
That is what the NBA season is about and they know it. After all, it’s hardly like this is the first time.
“The NBA is up and down,” said Gibson. “You’ve got to keep pushing through the haymakers.”
The Bulls did that Thursday about as well as they can.
Yes, Dwyane Wade and Chris Andersen were out for Miami. But no one makes injury excuses playing the Bulls.
LeBron James, who led Miami with 21 points, rumbled down court the first two Miami possessions for driving layups that had Bulls defenders sprawled out on the court. But as the Bulls responded, it was as if James kept turning around to signal his teammates to join him and there was no one there.
The Bulls made their first six three pointers into midway through the second quarter, going ahead 29-20 after one quarter behind 10 points from Boozer and seven Noah rebounds to four for the entire Miami team.
“We have never been a great rebounding team,” noted James. “We just have to go out and get them. It is a group thing for our team. We don’t have a Love, Noah or Howard who is going to go out and get 15 for you.”
Late in the second quarter the Bulls were ahead by 19, and then they opened the second half, a worrisome time in some recent games, with a 14-3 run to basically take everything out of Miami.
“We’ve run the gamut this year,” noted Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “We’ve started fast, we’ve started slowly, we’ve ended quarters poorly, we haven’t played tough with a lead. One win doesn’t solve all our issues.”
The Heat made one little threat in the fourth quarter, cutting the deficit to 93-81 with about six minutes left. Then Gibson, who has been the team’s most physical player and averaging 21.5 points and eight rebounds the last four games, made a baseline jumper and then smothered Udonis Haslem with a block. And then on the next possession, Gibson snatched a rebound away from three Heat players trying to go back up with a Rashard Lewis miss. Deng then made a three to effectively end what little suspense there was in the game.
“Thibs said you guys have been playing great offense,” related Gibson. “He said, ‘I know it’s hard that your work is not being rewarded now. But it’s going to happen. Keep digging.’ We really believe in him. We keep digging. We have guys who are not going to lay down.”
That will be the test for this Bulls team still minus Jimmy Butler with his turf toe and not close to returning, apparently.
They know the formula: Defense, rebounding, effort and energy. It’s easier to summon that when the opponent is your tormentor and has the acclaim and success you desire. It’s another to have it in Milwaukee or Memphis. But that’s the test for a pro. The Bulls showed the national TV crowd Thursday and showed themselves they still are capable.
But true greatness is consistency, and that’s the demand of the road ahead.