Playing without reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose (groin), the Chicago Bulls pulled off an improbable 106-102 victory over the Miami Heat on Wednesday night at the United Center. The Bulls improved to 36-9, 18-3 at home, this season, good for the best record in the league.
The Bulls placed six players in double figures against their Eastern Conference rival Heat (31-11). John Lucas III had the best performance of his career, given the circumstances and big, national TV stage, dropping a team-high 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting, including 3-for-5 from three-point range. The 5-foot-11 point guard has stepped up all season and Wednesday evening was no different. Lucas scored 11 fourth-quarter points and his offensive game was clicking so well that Heat star LeBron James defended him in crunch time. Joakim Noah put up 14 points and six rebounds, while Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver scored 12 apiece. Luol Deng missed 9-of-13 shots but drained three points and ended up with 11 points to go along with solid defense on James.
Although the Bulls, for the most part, down played the game, there's no question that they had a little extra juice for this one. It was evident early as several Bulls players spent time arguing with the officials -- most notably Deng, who picked up a technical following his offensive foul. From the outset, it was clear that the Heat's offensive attack would center around James and Dwyane Wade, and although that is normally the case, the duo didn't have much help from their supporting cast. The Heat took a 23-19 lead through one quarter of play -- but the Bulls responded with a frantic run.
The Bulls' reserves picked up right where they left off on Monday, thoroughly outplaying and outworking the visitors in the second quarter. Coach Tom Thibodeau rode a lineup of Lucas, Korver, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik to start the second and that group went on an 18-5 run to give the Bulls a 37-28 lead almost midway through the frame. Moments later, Thibodeau brought back four of his five starters -- Deng, Noah, Brewer and Carlos Boozer -- to join Lucas and Deng promptly drained a three-pointer. Then, with the Bulls up 42-32, Lucas scored eight points in a row on three long jumpers, two of which three-pointers, to give the home team its largest lead of the first half, 50-34. The Heat closed the final two minutes of the period on an 8-2 run, but the Bulls took a 53-42 lead at intermission, which earned Lucas, the key first-half contributor, a halftime interview by ESPN.
The Heat made several rallies in the second half, but the Bulls had an answer for each one. While Wade (36 points, seven rebounds) and James (35 points, five rebounds) were a two-man wrecking crew, Thibodeau's bunch received strong efforts from the entire team. The Bulls' major advantages over the Heat, size and depth, were on display all night. Chicago's "Bench Mob" poured in 56 points to go along with 21 rebounds. The Bulls outrebounded the Heat 50-34 for the game, as Miami's starting frontcourt combined for just 12 boards.
It has been a reoccurring theme throughout the campaign: No matter which player -- or, in this case, players, with Rip Hamilton missed his sixth straight game -- sits out, the Bulls have all the confidence in the world that they can beat any given opponent on any given night. Thibodeau has established that mantra over the past year and a half and his players have bought in 100 percent on both ends of the court. Without their star, their primary leader and scorer, Bulls players stepped up, highlighted by Lucas' career night. Every player who entered the game got on the scoreboard and snatched a rebound.
It remains to be seen how Wednesday night's outing will impact the future meetings between the two powerhouse teams. But the Bulls are taking it one day at a time, although they badly wanted to defeat the Heat on this evening. The win will go a long way for their confidence, which has seemingly grown on a nightly basis during this condensed season.
Next up, the Bulls have a day off Thursday before facing the Portland Trail Blazers (20-23), who have lost eight of their last 11 games, on Friday night at the United Center.