With Derrick Rose back, as expected, from a one-game absence due to a sprained right ankle, the Chicago Bulls pulled out a thrilling 96-86 overtime victory over Eastern Conference rival Miami Heat on Thursday night at the United Center. The Bulls improved to 45-14 this season, which remained good for the best record in the NBA and moved them one step closer to locking up the top seed in the East.
The Bulls had five players in double figures against the Heat (40-17). As has been the reoccurring theme for Chicago throughout the season, the “Bench Mob” stepped up big and gave coach Tom Thibodeau a major lift all night. With Rose ineffective from the outset – the Bulls’ guard had a career-low two points on 1-for-13 shooting in 25 minutes – C.J. Watson dropped 16 points and nine assists and drained the game-tying three-pointer in regulation and another clutch jumper in the extra period. Carlos Boozer put up 19 points and 11 rebounds, giving the Bulls a consistent offensive option for the most part. Kyle Korver poured in 17 points on five three-pointers, while Luol Deng found his groove as the contest wore on and ended up with 16 points and five assists.
Facing a non-traditional lineup for the fourth straight game, as the Heat started Udonis Haslem at center in place of Ronny Turiaf, the Bulls got off to a sluggish start again. Their offense was stagnant and struggled to react to the Heat’s blitzes on defense, committing turnovers and settling for outside jumpers. Trailing by as many as nine points in the first quarter, Thibodeau went to his bench earlier than usual and it worked just as he had hoped. The Bulls closed on a 6-0 run to trail 22-19 through one frame of play. All of that energy carried over into the second quarter, which the home squad began with a 13-4 stretch. But it was all Heat after that, as they finished the first half on a 15-4 run behind a flurry by LeBron James, who had eight of those points, to take a 41-36 lead at intermission. The Bulls clearly played much better – on both ends of the court – when Rose was on the sideline in the first half, due, in large part, to crisp ball movement and high-activity basketball.
The Heat built on their first-half surge in the third quarter when they took a double-digit lead, but the Bulls responded with another solid finish – this time, an 8-2 run to end the frame to get within 62-60 heading into the fourth quarter. The Bulls were up 81-76 with 2 minutes, 2 seconds remaining in the fourth, but that’s when the Heat’s two superstars, James and Dwyane Wade (21 points), took over. Wade scored 10 straight points for the Heat while James added a three-pointer as Miami went on a furious run. But James missed the first of two free throws with about 11 seconds left, which set up Watson’s heroics. The backup point guard connected on a three-pointer over Wade to tie the game up at 84 and send it into overtime – where the Bulls dominated from start to finish, outscoring the Heat 12-2.
There’s no question that both teams badly wanted to win this one. The game was physical, contained plenty of big shots, back and forth, and had all the makings of a future, almost inevitable, playoff series. The fact that the Bulls were able to earn this win, on national TV, with Rose, Boozer and Joakim Noah (five points, four rebounds) all sitting out large stretches of the fourth quarter and overtime, speaks volumes on not only the sensational coaching job by Thibodeau – as usual – but also the high-effort performance out of the Bench Mob, a group who combined for 47 points, 21 rebounds, 13 assists and a plus-minus of plus-113. Watson led the reserves, with a whopping plus-38. It took a lot of guts for Thibodeau to bench Rose for the final 5 minutes, 49 seconds of the game – critical moments when the reigning league MVP typically shines in grand fashion – but the veteran coach made the right call, riding the hot hand in Watson and the rest of the bench players, such as Taj Gibson (11 points, five rebounds) Omer Asik (eight rebounds).
Sure, the Heat have all the league’s best “Big Three” in the NBA. But on this night the Bulls showed exactly why Chicago fans believe the Bulls are the best team in the league – and the squad most likely to win a title. They played a complete team game, as even though several key players were not able to produce as they would have liked, other men stepped up, per usual when it comes to this bunch.
Next up, the Bulls have two days off before looking to sweep the season series from the Detroit Pistons (22-36) for the third straight season on Sunday night at The Palace of Auburn Hills.