Since the NBA All-Star break, the Chicago Bulls are 17-6. They are 2nd in most wins since the break to the Boston Celtics but have a better win percentage having played fewer games (Bulls – 73.9%, Celtics – 73.1%). On the season, the Bulls own the league’s best overall record at 44-14 over the Oklahoma City Thunder (42-16) and tonight’s opponent, the Miami Heat (40-16). Going into the All-Star break, the Heat were riding a high on an 8 game win streak, but since then are just 13-9 with 7 of their losses coming on the road. However, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau understands that regular-season records are thrown out the window as soon as the playoffs start at the very end of April. “They’re the Eastern Conference champions so we’re chasing them,” Thibodeau said of the Heat to reporters yesterday. “That’s the way we’re looking at it. That’s the reality of it.”
As soon as I read that quote from KC Johnson in the Chicago Tribune, I applauded Thibodeau for the sentiment. That IS the reality of it. The Bulls have been extremely impressive all season long, having maintained the best record in the NBA and winning 16 of the 23 games the reigning MVP, Derrick Rose, has missed due to injury. They even beat the Heat in their last meeting without Rose thanks to the gutsy performance of third-string point guard John Lucas III. And even though the Heat appear to just be coasting with a .500 record in their last 10 games, Thibodeau feels otherwise. “I don’t see that. When I watch them play, I see how hard they play all the time. They have had a great season and are playing great basketball,” said Thibodeau. “They’re a well balanced team. You have to play extremely well to beat them.”
You have to admire Thibodeau for keeping his team in perspective despite their regular season success. The Bulls were in a similar position last season. They won every meeting they had in the regular season against the Heat, earned the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but were dismissed in 5 games in the conference championship. While I still think that it would have been a whole different series had Kyle Korver shown up and if Luol Deng had anything left in the tank, it was what it was. The Heat still have Lebron James who shut down Rose one-on-one in the conference championship and has one of his best stat lines in his career for this season (26.9 points per game, 6.4 assists, 7.9 total rebounds) playing the fewest minutes he’s ever played per game (37.7 min).
In no way does that mean the Bulls can’t win. The current roster can now say that nearly all of them (minus Jimmy Butler) have playoff experience and are battle tested having gone so deep last year. They are also a team that thrives on playing under the radar. If you had your TV on or were scrolling Twitter April 4th, you heard the “experts” and their mothers telling you that the Heat vs. Thunder matchup was for sure an NBA Finals preview. You can only imagine what was going through the minds of Rose, Joakim Noah, and Thibodeau when they heard that; more motivation to continue playing better.
Thibodeau’s brand of basketball not only has the Bulls with the best record in the league, but they are also 2nd in scoring defense, 1st in rebounds, and 4th in 3-point percentage. The Heat are 8th, 20th, and 7th respectfully in all the mentioned categories while also 4th in offensive scoring and 2nd in field goal percentage. Although a lot of the Heat’s production comes from their “Big 3” starters, the Bulls’ bench will always be an x-factor holding opponents to just 38% shooting while the Bulls starters are off the court. The Heat’s Big 3 vs. the Bulls’ depth will be a conversation for a later date, likely in the playoffs.
For now, the Bulls will treat tonight’s matchup as another opportunity to find continuity with their starting 5 should Rose upgrade from “game-time decision” status. We as basketball fans get to enjoy another battle between the two best teams in the East. Is it likely the Bulls will clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs? Barring a disastrous losing streak, it’s safe to assume so. The outcome of tonight’s game hardly matters, and Thibodeau apparently understands that best. The only thing that matters is advancing to NBA Finals with the Heat still being the biggest obstacle and that is something fans should understand as well.
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