With Derrick Rose out of the fold for the Chicago Bulls, plenty of viewers believed that Wednesday night’s game against the Miami Heat, matching up the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, had lost its luster and ability – for one side or the other – to send a booming message with just over a month left in the regular season.
Of course, tell that to the Bulls, who badly wanted to win in order to exact some revenge for their 97-93 loss to the Heat on Jan. 29 in Miami. Minus their MVP or not, the Bulls believe that they have enough talent to beat any team in the league on any given night – a mantra coach Tom Thibodeau has preached time and time again over the course of the campaign. But it was clear that the Bulls would need some heroics Wednesday, because while they had been 7-3 without Rose this season, the Heat obviously presented a much greater challenge than every other team Thibodeau’s bunch faced during that span.
On national TV this night, John Lucas III was determined to make sure that he fulfilled the promise he made to Rose before the game. Both players are partners during practices and have lockers located next to each other. Rose missed his 11th game of the season against the Heat due to a sore groin but still delivered a critical assist.
“I was focused from the jump,” Lucas told reporters after the game. “As soon as that ball went up in the air on the jump ball, I was tuned in to the game. Derrick had a little talk with me before the game and was like, ‘It’s time for you to step up.’ And I told him, ‘I got [you].’”
The seldom-used point guard followed through on his promise with flying colors, dropping a team-high 24 points and three rebounds while shooting 9-for-12 from the field and 3-for-5 from three-point range in 27 minutes of action as the Bulls pulled off a stunning win over the Heat, 106-102.
For the Bulls, the well-liked Lucas was the ring leader all night – as starter C.J. Watson played just 21 minutes and was dealing with an ankle injury – whether the 29-year-old served as a vocal leader and primary option offensively or provided full-court pressure on defense.
“John can score, man,” Bulls forward Luol Deng said. “When he was in there, we realized it early in the game and Coach ran some good sets for him. And he made some big shots for us.”
Added Thibodeau: “I think you guys have been around him to know how hard he works and how he prepares himself.”
Indeed, Lucas hit plenty of big-time shots en route to admittedly the best performance of his NBA career. The 5-foot-11 product struggled mightily the last time the Bulls took on the Heat, a contest in which he played only three minutes and was dunked on by James in well-documented fashion.
This time, it was Lucas who had the last laugh, pouring in 11 fourth-quarter points, including a memorable 10-foot fadeaway jumper over LeBron James. The Heat’s star forward defended a Bulls point guard in crunch time Wednesday, a challenge that is accepted by Rose under normal circumstances – and it was none other than Lucas. Given the fact that James has nine inches on him, Lucas, whom the Heat trapped much more in the second half, put up a high-arching shot that swished through the net to send the United Center’s announced crowd of 23,028 into a frenzy.
“My father [John Lucas] always tells me if you can see the rim and your shoulders are squared, you always have a good chance of making the shot,” Lucas told the assembled media. “I just always work on off-balance shots because of my size. I’m always going to have somebody taller than me guarding me, so I’m going to have to get it over them.”
Lucas capped off his special night by knocking down two free throws to give the Bulls a four-point lead they wouldn’t relinquish. When Lucas went to the charity stripe with six seconds left Wednesday, a lot of fans remembered last season’s game against the Denver Nuggets when Lucas missed a pair of critical free throws. But that didn’t cross Lucas’ mind; the fourth-year veteran has limitless confidence in himself. In his mind, every shot he attempts will go in.
The Bulls were well aware that they were the underdogs. There’s no question that they faced a tall order in the Heat’s Big Three of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who combined for a whopping 71 points but didn’t get much help from the supporting cast, which was in stark contrast to the all-around efforts that the Bulls received. The Heat’s duo at point guard, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, combined for just seven points on 2-for-9 shooting.
The Bulls’ bench outscored the Heat’s 56-15, as Kyle Korver posted 12 points and Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler had eight apiece. The Bulls also crushed the Heat on the glass, outrebounding the visitors 50-34. While fans around the league may have doubted whether Chicago, minus Rose, could get past Miami, the Bulls’ trust in their roster and game plan didn’t waver.
“We let our guards down, I think, to a certain effect that you see D. Rose is out,” James told reporters. “Everybody’s in the NBA for a reason. You can’t just disrespect guys. They took advantage of that.”
Whatever the Bulls lacked in talent, they made up for with inspired, tenacious and high-energy basketball.
“We believed that this morning. It’s what our team has done all year,” Thibodeau said. “I think the guys that we have on our team are the right guys. They have the right attitude, the right approach, and there’s a belief that we can win. [When] we’ve had guys out, the next guy steps up and gets the job done.”
Amid the doubters, the Bulls notched an impressive, yet improbable, win over a team that many believe they will face again deep into this season’s playoffs. While Rose sported a flashy suit from the sideline, the Bulls scratched and clawed and navigated past all the cynics – very much similar to Lucas’ entire professional career.
“We got heart, and we’ve got our captain’s back,” Lucas said. “He went down and we said we got it. Everybody’s here for a reason. Like Thibs says, it’s not an accident that you’re on this team. You’re a professional so you're going to have to play professionally and you’ve got to step up.”