The Bulls made a loud argument, screaming they're a top-two team in the East taking the third and final game of their season series with the Heat 87-86.
The Bulls' 87-86 win over the Heat in Miami on Sunday completed a three-game season series sweep and had their opponents crying in the locker room.... Yes, seriously. Pussies.
The win extended the Bulls lead over the Heat for the second seed in the East effectively to 2.5 games. "In the end, it comes down to who plays the best ball and who stays healthy," Tom Thibodeau said after the game, singling out the Heat and Celtics, when asked about his team "going through" teams which potentially pose a threat in the postseason.
It was pretty much the same ol' game the Bulls threw at them in the prior two meetings: quick ball movement, aggressive risk-taking while trusting board crashers, and tight defensive rotations to force low-percentage isolation. The Bulls were sloppy with the ball, again, and the Heat made them pay in transition, again. But, again, the Bulls tightened up, controlled the pace, and forced Miami to play their weakest offense -- halfcourt sets.
The two teams were tight in the end and the Heat couldn't convert a game-winning possession with the ball in their hands in the final seconds, again. What was different was the Heat not needing a three with the ball in LeBron James' hands. Easily, one of the most unstoppable basketball players with the ball in his hands ran an isolation set to beat a man one-on-one, taking the ball to the hole. But it wasn't Luol Deng covering him on the perimeter.
Thibs took what looked like a genius risk that paid off. He assigned his best defensive player to beat LeBron one-on-one and proved that great defense will likely come out on top over great offense. LeBron made a move, drove hard, got to a high-percentage spot on the floor, but the defender stayed in front of him and contested the close shot as well as any basketball could. The risk was who that player was: Joakim Noah.
Thibs called it a "big time play at the end" after the game. You know how the bigger the mental move, the more gratifying it is when that decision results in success? This is Thibs after the buzzer (h/t: BullsBlogger):
Derrick Rose led all scorers with 27 points on 12-for-23 shooting, but bricked all three of his threes. He only got to the line to shoot 3-for-3, had only five assists to go with his three early turnovers, but went on endgame scoring runs like we've seen all season to make a stellar argument as a serious MVP candidate against a very strong Heat defense.
LeBron James played another very strong game, leading the Heat with 26 points on 10-for-18 shooting to go with a team-high eight rebounds and six assists. Only two turnovers to go with two steals. He was well denied off the ball by Luol Deng late to be held to only nine second-half-points. Dwyane Wade was an assassin, but not efficient enough, despite the highlight reel. He finished with only 20 points on 8-for-19 shooting to go with seven (SEVEN!) turnovers and an embarrassing second half. Chris Bosh rebounded from his embarrassingly historic 1-for-18 shooting night less than weeks ago in Chicago to finish with 23 point on 9-for-14 shooting, but only five rebounds and was denied very well by Noah in the second half.
"When James and Wade went cold for the Heat. They were unstoppable in the
first half, combining for 47 points," Shandel Richardson wrote at NBA.com. "They scored just 10 points after
intermission, allowing the Magic the opportunity to make a run."
Thibs described the match as a "grind game" where they fell behind and had to win with aggressiveness. He assigned Noah to LeBron with the intention to switch instead of trap in the case of a pick n' roll. (Genius.) He compliment Rose's decision-making and reads with the ball, hung on the fact the Bulls "shared the ball" and "played a lot harder defensively in the second half," and called Deng "the glue of our team":
I'm not one for mystical, magic moments that change the game, but I was pretty convinced the Bulls would win this game and decided I'd be heavily disappointed if I were wrong after this:
- The Bulls are an NBA-best 26-2 holding their opponents under 90 points. Having done so 28 times is also tops in the NBA.
- In a tale of two halves, the numbers ended pretty even. But the Bulls took better care of the basketball in the second half after ten turnover in the first to better control the pace. The defensive stops became more valuable with their offensive rebounds and converted possessions. After being down 49-40 at halftime, the Bulls dominated the third to hold the Heat to only 16 points and cut the deficit to a 65-63 Miami lead. The 24-21 fourth was all that was needed for the win.
- The Heat found that rebounding badly, no halfcourt offense, and coughing up the rock doesn't make up for shooting a high percentage. They shot a 48.5% (33-for-68) and 3-for-9 on three for a respectable .507 eFG%. But they were out-rebounded 36-30 by the Bulls, who scored 15 second-chance-points on 10 offensive rebounds, making up for shooting only 45.9% (34-for-74) from the field and 3-for-14 on threes for a bad .480 eFG%.
The Bulls turned the ball over 15 times, but only five times in the second half, giving up 19 points off turnovers. But the Heat turned the ball over 16 times to also give up 19. Bricking shots and coughing up the rock could've easily cost the Bulls this game.
- Miami's bench is an abomination. The Bulls bench didn't contribute many points on the board, but Thibs rotated to maximize starters on the floor, as the Heat play their starters for so many minutes. The Bulls bench outscored the Heat's 16-6. Hell, the Bulls' 'Big Four' (Rose, Noah, Deng, Carlos Boozer) were only outscored the Miami's 'Big Three' 69-68.
- Boozer's being lazy. It's offensive to basketball that he wasn't helping on dribble drives and settling for jumpshots when Bosh played him tight with the ball. He finished with only 12 points on a terrible 6-for-15 shooting, but game-highs in offensive and total rebounds with four of his boards coming off the offensive glass. His lack of aggressiveness had him bricking 5-of-7 jumpers and not getting to the FT line once.
- I'm done with Keith Bogans on Wade. I really like Bogans' defense, but Ronnie Brewer is really the only Bull who can take Wade one-on-one and that's been proven in all three meetings this season.
- I really like Deng's all-around game. LeBron's a hell of a defensive assignment and he took a lot of possessions off on the offensive end to conserve energy for defense. This is what we want in games like this. In transition and when Deng had the ball in his hands later in the shot clock, he answered the call many times to drop 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting, shooting all four of his FTs in the final two Bulls possessions, hitting three for the win. So, yes, Deng hit the game-winner against the Heat, again.
- The paint belonged to Noah. The Heat were held to 11-for-19 on layups, largely because of Noah's paint-denial. He only had eight rebounds in 35:29 of PT, but it was a low-possession game and he spent the second half on Bosh who lives in the 10-to-18 foot zone.
- C.J. Watson was a solid basketballer out there. He had Mike Bibby on rollerblades, drew attention with his ball handling and found teammates for four assists with zero turnovers in only 9:39 of PT.
- Taj Gibson was pretty unstoppable. I'm serious. He had eight pretty easy points on 2-for-3 shooting and drew contact partnering up well in the pick n' roll to go a perfect 4-for-4 on FTs. Only two rebounds, but like Noah, was assigned to Bosh.
Lost in the shuffle of emotions is that the Bulls closed this five-game road trip 4-1 to improve their record away from home to 17-14. The season-long struggle away from the United Center raised some of the most valid skepticism of this team and they're closing the gap between that and being accepted as a valid title contender.
Unfortunately, this game is the front-end of a back-to-back, but fortunately, Sunday was an afternoon game. Therefore, the Bulls have more time than normally to get back to Chicago to play the Hornets (36-28) on Monday.
Stats via CBSSports.com.