Bulls beat Heat to clinch Central Division; Spurs beat Grizzlies behind Tim Duncan of old

April is supposed to be the time of the NBA season when the best teams gear up for the playoffs and head into it playing their absolute best basketball.

The Heat must have missed that memo. And the Bulls’ starters, too.

With the NBA regular season slowly but surely winding down, two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference are heading into the postseason with plenty of uncertainty and several important questions to still resolve.

For the Chicago Bulls, the team with the best record in the league, it was another night of struggles for the oft-injured Derrick Rose and his equally fragile and supposed second scoring option in Richard Hamilton.

Will Rose, who had the lowest-scoring game of his career Thursday night in Chicago’s overtime victory over Miami, get to full strength and regain his touch before the playoffs?

Can he gel with Hamilton in time, and will they finally play more than five consecutive games together?

Can the bench continue to bail out the starters come playoff time?

This is a league dominated by stars and in order for the Bulls to win when it matters, the stars will have to show up.

In the meantime, they can enjoy yet another regular season victory that helped clinch their division.

From K.C. Johnson of Chicago Tribune: “The Bulls aren’t in the Finals yet, merely clinching their second straight Central Division title and ninth in franchise history Thursday night with a 96-86 overtime victory over the Heat at a raucous United Center. But they took a strong step to securing the No. 1 overall playoff seed and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, moving four games ahead of the Heat — and three in the loss column — with just seven games remaining. And they did so with Rose failing to score in the first half for the first time in his professional career, scoring a career-low two points on 1-for-13 shooting and sitting down the stretch in favor of C.J. Watson. Carlos Boozer’s 19 points and 11 rebounds led a balanced effort that featured 17 points from Kyle Korver and 16 from Watson, whose 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left forced overtime. “I’m not worried about my stats or anything,” Rose said. “I’m just trying to get my timing back before the playoffs start. Could I make up excuses? Yeah. But you know me; I’m not going to. My shot wasn’t falling. Shots I usually hit I wasn’t hitting. My teammates had my back. And I’m happy I have them on my team.”

For the Miami Heat,  now trailing Chicago by four games, they more or less relinquished any chance they may have had of overtaking the Bulls in the standings.

More importantly, the team has lost three of their last four games, all against teams peaking just in time for the playoffs.

Looking at the bigger picture, they have lost six of the last 11 games, and dropped the last eight of 11 games on the road.

Has the team gone into a state of boredom at the worst possible time?

Is Eric Spoelstra at a loss for answers as he tinkers with his lineup so late into the season?

The team has allowed an average of 102.6 points in its recent three losses, with two of them coming on their home floor.

That from a team that had previously lost two home games throughout the entire season.

From Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com: “There were plenty of fingers to point. James missed a free throw with 11 seconds left that could’ve made it a four-point game and ended it. It erased the drama of the 3-pointer he’d made to give the Heat the lead with less than a minutes to play. Wade missed a shot at the fourth-quarter buzzer and then both of his shots in overtime. Bosh missed two shots in overtime and had a costly turnover. Shane Battier, it appeared, was the guilty party that lost Watson on the tying 3-pointer when he and James mishandled a switch on a screen. But it wasn’t about a search for goats. It was about how the Bulls’ overall team depth had beaten the Heat’s star power. That is not how the Heat planned it to go and not something they simply can afford if these teams meet in the conference finals. If that matchup takes place, it is safe to assume that Rose will not be such a non-factor. It was a missed opportunity and a mental blow as the Heat now know they’d have to start the conference finals in Chicago and play a Game 7 there if it reaches such a point. “We’ve got to trust our bench a little more, we’ve got to give those guys an opportunity,” said Wade, who had 21 points. “I thought [Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau] did a good job trusting those guys no matter what they did. He trusted them all to the end. … We need to give [the bench] some confidence. We’re going to need them.”

With Rose playing possibly the worst game of his career, this was a game the Heat should have won. LeBron James, once again, had the chance to be the hero after hitting a clutch 3-pointer to put his team up by two with 49.3 seconds remaining in the game, but missed a free throw that would have iced the game.

It marked the second time they suffered a defeat not to the likes of Rose, but reserves such as John Lucas III and, this time, C.J. Watson who tied the game with a 3-pointer to send it to overtime.

From Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald: “With Rose watching from the bench, the Bulls outscored the Heat 12-2 in overtime… Rose played but a few minutes in the second half due to an ankle injury and finished with two points on 1 of 13 shooting from the field. In his place, the Bulls’ bench outscored the Heat’s reserves 47-7. The Heat is 13-10 since the All-Star break and just 1-8 since then on the road against teams in the playoff hunt… LeBron James was fighting back his emotions after the game, clearly shaken by the loss. “It hurts,” James said. “As a team, we felt like we played well. We gave ourselves a chance to win…but they pretty much dominated the overtime.”… James finished with 30 points on 11 of 24 shooting to go along with six rebounds and five assists. Wade had 21 points on 10 of 21 shooting. Bosh had 20 points and eight rebounds.”

A team that has very little to answer heading into the playoffs is the Spurs, who got back on track from a two-game skid against the red-hot Grizzlies.

An old Tim Duncan looked like the Tim Duncan of old, much like the old days when he was the franchise player that guided the team to four championships.

From Jeff McDonald of San Antonio Express-News: “Time after time, the Spurs came down the floor in the second half Thursday and pulled out a playbook page from their past. On five consecutive occasions during a rugged 107-97 victory over Memphis at the AT&T Center, the Spurs cleared out for Tim Duncan on the low block and let him go to work. The play is called “four down.” And Duncan could scarcely recall the last time he’d seen such a steady diet of it. “It’s been forever,” he said. “Since the old days.” Fueled in part by “four down,” Duncan matched a season high with 28 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and added a pair of blocks for good measure, at times simply willing the Spurs to win over the Grizzlies and steering them clear of a three-game losing streak… This is the Duncan the Grizzlies did not see in last season’s playoffs. Playing on a chronically sore knee and recently sprained ankle, he averaged a meager 12.7 points and was often exposed defensively in the six-game series. He’s turned back the clock and Thursday, he flipped back the pages of the Spurs’ playbook. “He was a monster,” Popovich said.”

If Duncan is capable of turning back the clock to this magnitude, San Antonio may be the most dangerous team heading into the playoffs, especially with all of their players healthy and fresh, thanks to the tactics of Gregg Popovich.

Meanwhile, the Clippers finally solved the Timberwolves, winning for the first time in this season’s clashes between the teams.

Though Chris Paul was quiet after stealing the show in the previous game against the Thunder, Blake Griffin stepped up to help prevent a “letdown” game.

From Broderick Turner of Los Angeles Times: “For the first time in four games this season, the Clippers defeated the Timberwolves, 95-82, Thursday night at the Target Center. The Clippers got to within one game of the Lakers for third place in the Western Conference and moved 1 1/2 games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies for the fourth spot… Blake Griffin was the man this time, on defense and offense. Griffin had 19 points on nine-for-16 shooting, 13 rebounds and five assists. He also had one blocked shot and his usual variety of dunks off lobs. Perhaps more important, Griffin took two charges in the fourth quarter, both after he picked up his fourth foul… Caron Butler did his thing too, scoring 17 points on six-for-13 shooting. He was five for eight from three-point range, the five baskets tying his career high. Mo Williams, out the last 11 games because of a sprained left big toe, came back strong with 14 points and five assists. And then there were the defense and rebounding of DeAndre Jordan, who had 12 rebounds and three blocked shots.”

Already playing without two starters in Ricky Rubio (knee surgery) and Luke Ridnour (ankle), Minnesota also missed Kevin Love who sat out due to suffering a concussion and a strained neck in the previous game. Losers of eight straight, they were officially eliminated from playoff contention.

Elsewhere…

  • Playing consecutive games against California’s worst teams helped Dallas get back on track as they followed a win against the Kings with another against the Warriors 112-103, moving them 1/2 game ahead of Denver and Houston for the sixth seed. Dirk Nowitzki led all scorers with 27 points, Jason Kidd narrowly missed a triple-double with nine points, 10 rebounds and 12 assists, and Brandan Wright and Jason Terry led four bench players in double figures with 16 points apiece.
  • Everyone in the league is picking on the Bobcats these days, and the Pistons were no different as they rolled past Charlotte 109-85 to snap a three-game losing skid. Greg Monroe had a game-high 25 points, 11 rebounds and four assists while Brandon Knight added 21 points and seven assists. The Bobcats have now lost 14 consecutive games. They will play the remainder of the season without the oft-injured Corey Maggette due to a strained Achilles.

James Park is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on twitter @nbatupark.

 

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