CHICAGO — It’s impossible to watch a Bulls-Heat game without daydreaming about an Eastern Conference Finals rematch. Ever since the two teams played that five-game series a year ago, it has to be the first thought that comes to mind whenever they’re on the same court.
The media treats it that way, the United Center on Wednesday night had a postseason buzz, and if you were to give a dose of truth serum to players from both teams, you’d surely get them to share those very sentiments.
You didn’t need a sports shrink to read between the lines from the jargon and body language that came from the Bulls’ locker room on Wednesday after they handled the Heat, 106-102, in their second meeting of the season. Let’s just say there were plenty of wide smiles, cheerful chatter and emotions that seemed to be reined in.
“You know, it’s a big game, it’s a big game,” Luol Deng said. “I’m not going to tell you it’s not.”
“I think the city of Chicago wanted this matchup more than we did,” Taj Gibson said. “They were amped up all week even before we played the Heat. They brought a lot of loudness to the game.”
Derrick Rose missing this game with a groin injury changed everything.
Had he played, win or lose, this game would have been put under the microscope for the next 48 hours. But without him, as was the case, it was probably a big story only if the Bulls won, which they did, because they had to overcome adversity to do it, and who doesn’t love a feel-good story? Had the Bulls lost without Rose? Well, I’ll argue that they would have gotten a free pass. The results would have read “inconclusive” – Rose injured, Deng coming back from injury, too many injuries, it’s only the regular season, yada yada.
So let’s be honest: this game didn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know about the Bulls-Heat matchup, nor was it revelant to what’s ahead should they appease the ratings gods with a postseason rematch. Because really, come postseason, John Lucas III probably will remain glued to the bench, the rotation will be shortened and the Bench Mob’s impact for the Bulls will have to be done in shorter spurts of playing time.
Lucas stole the headlines on this night, the son of a former NBA player who’s been cut from his share of teams (including Miami) and has seemed to have carved himself a nice role with the Bulls. He’s animated, passionate, undersized and extremely confident. His 24 points off the bench paced Chicago, a performance Joakim Noah deemed was “tough” and possessed plenty of “swag,” which really was emblematic of the way the entire reserve unit performed.
But if you must take something from the second of four regular season meetings between Chicago and Miami it should be that the Bulls have the superior bench. The Bulls’ subs outscored the Heat’s, 56-15, while shooting 18-of-33 from the field. Another key stat from the win: Chicago’s 21-7 advantage in second-chance points.
But back to the bench. If you remember, way back when I wrote about the Bulls being better suited to beat the Heat this postseason because I think it has the deeper bench. While Wednesday was just one game, it backed up my belief. Omer Asik was active on the offensive glass. Kyle Korver was being Kyle Korver, draining a pair of threes. Gibson brought the high energy. Rookie Jimmy Butler played meaningful minutes and didn’t turn the ball over when he touched it. Again, when the playoffs get here there’s a good chance Lucas and Butler won’t see the court. C.J. Watson will be coming off the bench and presumably so will Ronnie Brewer, only if Richard Hamilton can get healthy.
The stats geeks would have you believe it’s not like the Bulls have a sizable advantage over the Heat when it comes to the reserves.
According to hoopsstats.com, the Bulls rank 23rd in bench scoring at 28 points a game while Miami is 26th with 25.2 points a game. I just think they have such a comfort level, such high expectations of themselves and have bought into the team concept, that intangibles like those might set them apart. Whether the Bulls are shorthanded or full strength, the bench comes with the same mentality and energy level.
“Guys on our team are the right guys,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “They have the right attitude and the right approach and there is a belief that we can win when we’ve had guys out because the next guy steps up and does the job.”
If that doesn’t make you think about how messed up the Bulls could be if management pulls off some blockbuster trade for, say, Pau Gasol, then you’re not looking at the big picture. I really think in the short term it would screw this team up.
But back to reality. I can’t imagine that a win like Wednesday’s, even without Rose, will give the Bulls more confidence because they have enough as it is. Winning a game like this simply feels good. Noah might have said it best: it’s okay to get excited but not overexcited.
“The beauty of sports, man,” Joakim Noah said in describing the total team effort. “You guys would have never thought, man….But we believe in each other. That’s why it feels so good. Nobody would have ever thought we’d win a game like this, especially without Derrick. I’m not going to lie – it feels great.”
Here’s a recap of what else went on in the NBA last night:
- Dwight Howard said he is staying in Orlando for this season and next season — a stunning development that could have all sorts of trickle down effects throughout today in the hours leading up to the 3 p.m. EST NBA trade deadline. Howard made his comments to Jarrod Rudolph of RealGM.com, and nominations for scoop of the year are now closed. Take a bow, Jarrod. On the court, it was not a good night for the Magic as they played one of their worst defensive games of the season in losing 122-11 to the San Antonio Spurs. Tony Parker had 31 points and 12 assists, and Tim Duncan had 21 points and 13 rebounds. Parker, averaging 29.8 points in his last four games, was serenaded by chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” in the closing minutes.
- Mike Woodson won by 42 points in his debut as head coach of the New York Knicks following the
firingresignation of Mike D’Antoni. Carmelo Anthony, who denied wanting a trade or having friction with D’Antoni earlier in the day, had 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting and tied a season high with seven assists. Amare Stoudemire finished with 17 points and shot 8-of-10 before both stars sat out the fourth quarter. The Knick had their highest point total of the season, getting 23 points from J.R. Smith and 20 from Steve Novak. They made a season-high 19 3-pointers, one off the franchise record. As for the chances that Phil Jackson will eventually coach the Knicks, read Mark Heisler’s take. He is tight with the Zen Master.
- For the second consecutive night, the Los Angeles Lakers climbed out of a double-digit hole in the second half to force an extra period. On Tuesday night, they came back from 17 down to win at Memphis in double overtime. They also trailed New Orleans by as many as 17 late in the second quarter and 15 in the second half, but Kobe Bryant scored 33 and Andrew Bynum had 25 points and 18 rebounds in a 107-101 victory.
- Kevin Garnett scored 12 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, including a tiebreaking jumper with 5.1 seconds left that led the Celtics to a 105-103 victory over the Golden State Warriors. Rajon Rondo had 14 assists for the Celtics, who have won eight out of 10 following a five-game losing streak.
- In a matchup of teams vying for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Drew Gooden had 15 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists for his second career triple-double — getting it before the third quarter was complete — as Milwaukee defeated Cleveland 115-105. The Bucks, who had 38 assists — the most by any team in a game this season — have won four straight. Monta Ellis will likely make his Milwaukee debut in — of all places — Oakland on Friday night.
- Mo Williams scored 25 points and Eric Bledsoe added 14 on a relatively quiet night by Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, leading the Clippers to a 96-82 victory over the Hawks. Atlanta finished 2-4 on its longest road trip of the season.
- Indiana shot a season-best 57 percent from the field and outrebounded the 76ers 37-26 in a surprisingly easy 111-94 victory over Philadelphia. ”This game had more meaning than probably most people realized,” said Danny Granger of the Pacers, who became only the seventh team to reach 100 points against the Sixers this season.
- Rodney Stuckey scored 35 points and Greg Monroe matched his career high with 32 for the Pistons, who had a season-high point total in a 124-112 victory over Sacramento. Despite opening 4-20, The Pistons (16-27) are only three games out of the eighth and last playoff spot in the East.
- Look who is rising in the West. It’s the Phoenix Suns, who tied the Utah Jazz in the standings (20-22) with a 120-111 victory. Phoenix has won six of its last seven games at home and in each of those games, the Suns trailed by double digits before coming back.In what may have been his last game for the Rockets, Luis Scola had 23 points in a 107-87 romp over Charlotte. Scola expects the team to make a deal of some kind before the deadline. ”I think I’m going to be here,” he said. “I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
- Kris Humphries had 16 points and a career-high 21 rebounds and Gerald Green matched his season high by scoring 20 of his 26 points in the second half as the Nets defeated Toronto 98-84. Question of the day for the Nets: What will they do with Deron Williams now that Howard has committed to the Magic for this year and next? Should help make for an interesting day.
Chris Silva, former Pistons beat writer for the Detroit Free Press and Kevin Durant’s de facto biographer for thunder.nba.com, covers the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter at @silvawriter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.