Bulls extinguish Heat in overtime


Mar 9

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Joakim Noah isn’t the best player in the NBA. We know that. Nobody is saying he is. But what exactly is a Most Valuable Player? Someone whose passion, enthusiasm and model inspires an entire team, if not a city? Someone whose will, desire and determination helps a team become more than it is supposed to be and perhaps eventually as much as it hopes to become? There are others more talented, though arguably no one more valuable.

“This is what you play basketball for,” said an ebullient Noah after the Bulls’ thrilling 95-88 overtime victory Sunday over the Miami Heat. “I’m loving it; I’m having a great time. I’m having a blast out there. Beating Miami. I don’t care if it’s regular season; it’s always special.”

It’s games like Sunday’s on national ABC-TV that make the NBA special, make sports special, to see players compete at that level with that frenzy, straining and stretching the limits of their resolve and commitment to achieve just that much more for victory.

It hardly was Noah alone even with his 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocked shots.

Jimmy Butler with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four steals had one for the ages, a strip of a driving LeBron James taking the ball to the basket with one second left in regulation in a tie game and knocking the ball away from a stunned James.

There was D.J. Augustin, flummoxed as badly as he’s ever been the last time the Bulls played the Heat, in a Feb. 23 loss in Miami when he shot zero for 10 and what began a four-game slump in which he shot 19 percent. Augustin led the Bulls with 22 points, including the three-pointer that started a fourth quarter comeback from 11 behind and the three-pointer to open the overtime after which the Bulls never trailed. Augustin is averaging 20.2 points and shooting 52 percent the five games since.

There was Taj Gibson, so sick with food poisoning he hasn’t eaten in three days, but getting seven points and 10 rebounds, including an offensive rebound over everyone that led to the Augustin overtime three and a violent slam dunk that gave the Bulls an 84-82 lead with 2:08 left in overtime.

There was Kirk Hinrich with 11 points, including an unlikely running left handed layup off a Noah handoff that tied the game at 86 with 20.1 seconds left in regulation leading to the Butler defensive play.

“I’m proud of my teammates,” said Noah, who was in special form with a running, challenging dialogue with Miami players, regularly urging on the tumultuous crowd that included his tennis champion father, Yannick. “That’s what it’s all about, competing, and I feel we’re competing every night and giving everything we’ve got. Even when things were not going our way we kept fighting.”

It’s once again what is making this a special, if not ultimately ideal, season for the Bulls. One of the postgame story lines among some media members was that the Bulls can beat Miami now, but what about in the playoffs? Maybe the Bulls won’t. Maybe they won’t even get that far.

But that misses the point about what is wonderful about these kinds of games and why it is both lesson and challenge.

There is always something worth playing for and doing in sports and in life. And the better you do it, the better it makes you. And to do it in front of a national audience and a thrilled home crowd both makes a statement of who you are and what you also can become.

“In the NBA you got to keep going forward, hope for the best,” said Gibson. “We (do) think all the time, ‘What if? What if? What if we always had guys healthy. Or the same unit we had a couple of years before. What if we had this piece here?’ You can’t look at it like that. You have to look at it like who’s out there, who we have on the bench, who we got and we’re going to roll.

“We look at ourselves, blue collar, we work hard,” said Gibson. “We don’t ever boast. We do our job; a win is a win. When we see them we see everything we want. They got the rings, the trophies. We work hard and we haven’t gotten it yet. That’s what happens. This is what this league is about, the underdog going after the champs. That’s what we’re here for.”

It’s a terrific lesson for anyone.

It’s not only about one winner and everyone else a loser. It’s not about striking it rich every day. There’s great dignity and satisfaction in doing your best and performing your hardest and you can achieve wonderful moments and special victories. They are not the ultimate successes. But if you look at it that way not only are you missing the point, but you are missing this wonderful trip through life.

And when you win, it at least shows you the impossible is not always so.

“It’s a good win,” said Butler, “gives us confidence we can beat them. But like Thibs said, ‘You can’t go around them. You’re going to have to go through them.’”

In some respects, every basketball season is another life. And this one for the Bulls is again bringing surprise and satisfaction in some of the most unusual places.

“This is what you play basketball for,” said an ebullient Noah after the Bulls’ thrilling 95-88 overtime victory Sunday over the Miami Heat.

“This is what you play basketball for,” said an ebullient Noah after the Bulls’ thrilling 95-88 overtime victory Sunday over the Miami Heat.

It was so again Sunday as the Bulls moved to 35-28 while Miami lost its third straight and fell to 43-17. Dwyane Wade led Miami with 25 points, though he was zero for five in the fourth quarter and overtime. All that rest all season is keeping his knees in better condition. But without the regular play how much will he have left for the late and tough playoff games?

Chris Andersen gave the Heat a lift off the bench with 13 rebounds. But he also faded late as the Bulls pushed he and Greg Oden, the latter with a cameo nine minutes, away with a game changing 27-6 margin in second chance points.

“Second chance they pummeled us,” agreed Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “Not only did they get the offensive rebounds, but every single time they got one they scored. They grinded us the way they do. You have to give them credit for that defense. We coughed it up far too many times. We’re not that good to give up that many possessions combined on both ends of the court. Surprisingly, we still had a chance to win at the end.”

The Heat, obviously, is very good. James had 17 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, which is a poor game for just him. He also seems a bit worn down since his phenomenal 61-point game last week. In his last three games in which he is shooting three of 27 on outside shots, according to ESPN statistics, James hasn’t reached a total of 61 points.

But Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau also made two terrific, albeit subtle, adjustments, to change the landscape from the big Miami win in late February.

The Heat is the best team in the league trapping the pick and roll, which is the Bulls primary offense. That defensive pressure on the pick and roll back then smothered Augustin and effectively thwarted the Bulls offense. But Thibodeau changed both the angle of the screen and, more importantly, spread it out some. The result is the Heat big man defender was not able to push out the Bulls guard. It left open better passing lanes and the result was much better ball movement with 25 assists and a 27-point fourth quarter. The Bulls also went away from the pick and roll more often to allow Noah to make plays out of the high post.

Also, on defense the Bulls changed their look for James.

Butler had the point of the defense as Luol Deng always did. And Butler did a terrific job to the point he’ll have to be in the all-defensive team conversation after defending James that way on national TV. Few can play James like that. But the crucial part was the hard show and hedge the Bulls backline defenders added. So when James came off the screen, there always was someone jumping out to him. The Bulls don’t use those tactics quite as much, preferring to stay with their man to prevent against the three-point shooting, which is vital in Miami’s game. But the Bulls also were coming late on the help to try to get to James as he was making his move and thus too late to set up the pass. It’s also effort as you have to recover quickly enough and the Bulls defenders did with Miami seven of 20 on threes (the Bulls were seven of 19).

But you can have all the strategy that will work. The people have to make it happen.

“Often times that is the difference in the game,” Thibodeau said about the relentless effort of the players. “More often that you think it’s a loose ball, a scramble play, an offensive rebound; you have to make as many of those to go your way as possible. The big thing was to have the resolve and not break when you are down 10, 12 and they are coming at you.”

It was that way in a usual and unusual start, a noon game on the first day after the Daylight Savings time change.

The Bulls took a 21-19 lead after one quarter in not so much of a display of what was to come.

Augustin led the Bulls with 22 points, including the three-pointer that started a fourth quarter comeback from 11 behind and the three-pointer to open the overtime after which the Bulls never trailed.

Augustin led the Bulls with 22 points, including the three-pointer that started a fourth quarter comeback from 11 behind and the three-pointer to open the overtime after which the Bulls never trailed.

Wade was very good with 10 points as he got Mike Dunleavy in quick foul trouble and the Bulls went to Tony Snell for a bit. Though it would mostly be the Sometimes Magnificent Seven most of the way.

Noah plays Chris Bosh against Miami’s smaller alignment. Bosh was quiet with 15 points and some early foul trouble as well. So that also gave Noah the chance to come off to help, Miami lurching away from the paint with their effective field goal percentage, according to the ESPN stats, lowest of the season.

Miami used a 15-0 second quarter run to take a 43-37 lead at halftime in a symptom of what’s happened in these Bulls/Heat games this season. Miami has had a big second or third quarter and the Bulls have faded in the two losses. Though the Heat was inching ahead, the Bulls punched back, almost literally, in that second quarter.

Butler dislodged a potential James layup on a full court pass late in the second quarter. Both went to the floor for the ball and ended up in a wrestling hold, rolling around on the baseline with both getting technicals.

James wrestling Butler down, but Butler accidentally swung his foot and it hit James in the face. James pushed back, but so did Butler. Referee Tony Brothers got between them. It was no big deal, except perhaps symbolically. Noah understood and got in Butler’s face to basically endorse the stand.

“Whatever happened, happened,” said Butler. “Just two competitors going at it, one trying not to give an edge. I don’t back down. Let’s just put it like that.”

It’s been the business card of the Bulls these last several years, in raised letters, really.

The Heat continued to come hard in the third quarter. Butler found his offense after a tough first half working against James. And then when James rested, Butler defended Wade. That’s Butler’s version of rest.

Still, the Heat seemed in control leading 67-59 after three and opening the fourth quarter with a 7-3 run to make it 74-62 after an Augustin turnover turned into one of those big LeBron slams.

But there was no door being slammed shut on these Bulls as you still could see Miami really wanting to do all it could to shut up some Bulls.

“He (Noah) was talking trash to them the whole night,” laughed Gibson. “Letting them know he’s going after every rebound, he’s going to score every time he gets it. He was really telling them everything he was going to do. Jo feels how we feel. He’s just vocal about it. A lot of us are not real vocal. We like to show our games on the court. Joakim, he’s all in New York. He’s going to tell you. I saw him right in front (of their bench) on the foul line, talking trash to all of them to their face, ‘Yeah not in here tonight. It’s not going down.’ Getting them mad.”

And then it was the Bulls with a 13-0 run to take a 75-74 lead, Noah helping all over the court, gesturing into the crowd on key stops in timeouts, the home fans roaring approval, the United Center rocking to the music of the Bulls’ rhythms.

There was Noah with a right handed driving layup, fooling them as usually he goes left; there was Gibson slamming after Noah taking an inbounds with a tick left on the clock and scoring; Hinrich saving the game with the who-knew-he-had-a-left-hand layup, and then the Butler strip. You don’t see many better.

Everyone was standing by now with 20.1 left, 86-86 and James against the world. LeBron was dribbling on top, taking the clock down to win another one and do his little strut. There would be no Miami chest beating this time, though they’ve deservedly done their share.

James finally went in, the play working as James ball faked Noah out of the paint to cover Bosh in the right corner. Then it was LeBron and Jimmy. As James came up with the ball to finish the Bulls, Butler finished the play, knocking the ball away.

“I feel like if you bring the ball down, to get it (back) up to the rim you have to bring the ball up,” said Butler. “At some point in time I’m going to hit the ball.”

Simple as that, but a heck of a play, one rarely seen or carried out on James. James would not have a free throw attempt in the game for the first time in more than four years, a slick combination of Butler’s athletic position defense and the backside help and closing down the lane the Bulls did so well.

“It was a great strip,” Wade said. “When you watch it on instant replay, he got it in there. We got the best player in the game driving to the bucket for the last shot and Jimmy Butler did a great job of stripping him. But we couldn’t have asked for anything better at that point.”

It even drove James to rhetorical flamboyance.

“I dropped the ball. It’s like a double entendre,” said James. “I actually dropped the ball, but I dropped the ball (for) my team. That’s a great play. I give a lot of credit to Jimmy. He got his hand on the ball, but I had the lane. I had the layup.”

Like him or not, James has been a classy competitor.

Then it was all Bulls with yet another memorable Noah sequence when he tipped out a Gibson miss for a Butler score to make it 91-86 Bulls in overtime, then rebounded another Gibson miss for a 93-86 Bulls lead with 1:53 left and then on the next Heat possession blocked a Mario Chalmers shot to continue his domination of the fourth quarter and overtime with 10 points, six rebounds and four blocks in that 17-minute stretch.

“He’s an emotional guy,” agreed Thibodeau. “You can say, ‘Rah rah;’ that’s good. But it’s more the effort type plays that fire everyone else. You see a guy dive for a loose ball or you see a guy make a multiple effort play, help recover, block a shot chase it down, dive out of bounds. And then he comes up with it. To me, it’s all those actions which unite and inspire the team. That’s what gets your team fired up and he’s been doing it all year and he keeps getting better and better. I think he’s growing as leader. But the important thing is what he is doing on the floor because what he does makes all his teammates better.”

And perhaps some day able to celebrate as Noah would prefer.

“I can’t wait until the little homie (Derrick Rose) comes back,” Noah was saying after a long shower and song. “Because we know we have another level. We’re a hungry group. That’s all I want. I want everybody in this locker room when you wear a Bulls jersey, we’re going for one thing and that’s the championship one day. One day I want to party in Chicago and see what that feels like. One day.”

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