It is seemingly common knowledge around the NBA that when the postseason rolls around, playoff teams will shorten their rotations by increasing the starters’ minutes and reducing the reserves’ time.
However, the Chicago Bulls don’t appear ready to be sucked into that belief, as their bench players have repeatedly shown confidence and have proven over the course of this season that, yes, they can handle heavy minutes and put up a big-time performance on the big stage, which Thursday night’s nationally televised game against the Miami Heat certainly provided.
If there is one thing Bulls fans have learned about Tom Thibodeau over the past year and a half, it’s the fact that the veteran coach does not listen to outsiders and will do whatever he can control to win, whether that’s playing the starters a lot of minutes or riding the self-proclaimed “Bench Mob.”
On full display Thursday was Thibodeau’s mastery in an impressive 96-86 overtime win over the Heat in front of a raucous sellout crowd at the United Center. As usual, he drained his throat, constantly giving directions to his players on both ends of the court as if he were both an offensive and a defensive coordinator, and recognized which players were playing well and those who were not.
Derrick Rose returned from a one-game absence but still looked hampered by rust due to the groin and ankle injuries that had sidelined him for 13 of the last 14 contests. He played tentative, attempting just three shots at the basket – none of which had much of a chance to go in – and had the worst scoring effort of his four-year NBA career, pouring in a career-low two points on 1-for-13 shooting in just 25 minutes. Rose’s lone basket was a 20-foot jumper at the 7 minute, 1 second mark of the third quarter, and he promptly pointed up at the sky.
While many squads around the league would collapse when the star struggles, the Bulls are not wired like that. They represent a resilient team that has found a way to step up time and time again this season – which is a testament to Thibodeau and the coaching staff.
The Heat received a combined 71 points, 19 rebounds and 11 assists from the big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. No Bull reached the 20-point plateau, while three Heat did.
Yet, it was the Bulls’ team-oriented, depth-reliant style that proved too much for the Heat to overcome in the 53-minute affair – especially Chicago’s bench players, who combined for 47 points, 21 rebounds and 13 assists. For the second straight game against their primary Eastern Conference rival, the Bulls got little to nothing out of Rose – who sat out a March 14 106-102 win over the Heat – but still managed to pull out a victory in grand fashion.
Back on March 14, it was John Lucas III who supplied the heroics, dropping 24 points. On Thursday evening, C.J. Watson did the best impersonation of his fellow point guard, connecting on a game-tying step-back three-pointer over the Heat’s second superstar, Wade, that sent the game into overtime, 84 all.
Rose joked after the game that he has watched Watson, who finished with 16 points and nine assists in 27 minutes, make that shot a lot during practices. But Rose knows that none of those mattered as much as Thursday’s clutch three-pointer, which came off a broken play where Kyle Korver was trapped and forced to pass it to Carlos Boozer, who then alertly found Watson in the right corner.
“I just wanted to go in, wanted to be aggressive. I guess [Rose] is right, I do shoot those threes all the time in practice, and they go in. So it’s not really surprising,” Watson told reporters with a laugh.
Last season, the Bulls swept the Heat in the regular season, a result that didn’t matter much in the playoffs when Miami pulled out a five-game series victory in the Eastern Conference finals. Now, Chicago has taken two of three matchups from the Heat, virtually locking up the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference on this night, with another tilt looming next Thursday.
It’s clear that Chicago is beating the Heat much differently this year than they did last, when it was all about Rose, all the time. As of right now, the Bulls’ confidence is soaring; they fully believe they can beat the Heat no matter who is in the lineup, a notion no one would have bought a year ago.
“They give us great flexibility, because you can start them, you can bring them in off the bench,” Thibodeau said of his bench. “Now, everyone’s going back to their custom roles, so that’s not a big adjustment for the bench guys.
“We’ll get more toward our normal rotation as Derrick will get better and better. Rip [Hamilton] is coming along; each game he’s getting more comfortable. But you can’t say enough about the bench and the job those guys have done for us all year.”
Another key contributor off the bench was Taj Gibson, who posted 11 points and five rebounds to go along with an emphatic two-handed slam and a nifty, spinning post-up move on James in the second half. He provided a huge lift before fouling out late in the extra period, and as much as the Bulls wanted to downplay the contest against the defending East champion, Gibson and his teammates knew Thursday’s game wasn’t just another one on the calendar and that it gave Chicago an opportunity to send a message with two weeks remaining in the season.
“It’s one of the biggest games around,” Gibson told the assembled media. “That’s one of our rivals. They knocked us off in the playoffs last year; a lot of emotions. Just knowing how hard we work every day in practice and how much effort we put every day in practice, it’s joy, it’s a lot of joy. You see guys stepping up big, Omer [Asik] … that’s the whole thing that I was so excited about.”
But will Thibodeau, as strong-willed as he is, have the guts – it took a lot against the Heat, especially since he benched Rose for the final 5 minutes, 49 seconds of the game – to ride with his second unit in the playoffs like the way he did Thursday night?
Obviously, the Bulls’ stellar bench production has been a reoccurring theme this season. From Watson to Ronnie Brewer, the reserves have all improved their game since the last campaign and it’s clear that Thibodeau has relied heavily on game-to-game activity.
Facing a team with three All-Stars, Thibodeau didn’t turn to a hobbled Rose to bail the Bulls out down the stretch – as Rose did with regularity a season ago, when the knock on Chicago was that its 6-foot-3 point guard had too much pressure and needed relief. Instead, Thibodeau put all of his faith in the Bench Mob, players who have continually shown the reigning Coach of the Year that they have earned the right to receive more minutes when it matters most.
“It feels great,” Watson said. “We played great without our best player and just played defense in the overtime, and that’s what I really think shut them down.”
“I thought it was a good win because you’re measuring yourself,” Thibodeau admitted. “It gives you a baseline. … They’re a great team, and when you think about the last two years so many [games] have come down to exactly like what happened tonight, the last possession, the hustle play. And usually that’s what determines the outcome.”
After watching his nearly Rose-less team best the Heat’s star trio, Thibodeau could be questioning what many believe is common knowledge, if he hasn’t already. Once again, the Bulls’ cast of selfless, high-character reserves stepped into the spotlight and took another step toward bucking the playoff trend.