Thursday, March 15, 2012

No Rose, No Problem, as the Heated Rivalry Continues

Whew. Now that was a game. In their second matchup of the season, the Bulls took down the Miami Heat minus the MVP, Derrick Rose, in what emphasized every aspect that makes the Bulls, as Luol Deng says, a "real team." The team defense was outstanding, there were contributions from many different people, and the bench as a whole dominated. The Bulls were able to survive some horrible officiating, and the UC was rocking with an atmosphere more akin to a playoff game than a game in the middle of the season.

Where do we start? I wouldn't be the only one to think that once Derrick Rose was ruled out for the game it would be a struggle just to keep the game close. But you know what? The Bulls and Tom Thibodeau used that to their advantage, showing that they are in fact a real team. They can withstand the loss of their MVP and beat one of the best teams in the league. They did this by playing fundamental basketball, limiting turnovers, and playing suffocating team defense. It was the defense that sparked the Bulls in the beginning, as you could see that that the Bulls came out with something to prove. The entire team played with an intensity that speaks of the depth and character of the Bulls under Tom Thibodeau. Fortunately, the Bulls were able to keep up that attitude, due in no small part to the contributions of the bench.

John Lucas III, dropping one against LBJ
The bench contributed 56 out of the 106 points scored by the Bulls. 24 of these points came from John Lucas III, who absolutely lit up the raucous United Center tonight. He kept pouring it in, dropping those points in huge baskets in only 27 minutes, each time feeding off the crazy frenzied energy of the United Center crowd. I especially loved his open court taking of a charge from LeBron James. The best part was at the end of the game when Miami switched LeBron James to defend Lucas. Lucas promptly took the ball to the hole and hit a slick fadeaway jumper. He played a special game tonight, and his contributions both tonight and this season have been enormous. He's been ready to go whenever he's been called upon, just like the rest of the Bulls team as the injuries have piled up. Lucas and the rest of the bench are the most underrated aspect of the Bulls' overall success, but don't let that fool you. They, and the entire Bulls team, know how important they are. It's why Thibodeau has no problem going forward with them and its why the Bulls haven't skipped a beat with all of the injuries. The Bulls still have the best record in the NBA.

Taj set the tone on the boards
Besides Lucas, the contribution of Taj Gibson cannot be underestimated. He seems to get up for these games against Miami, and he surely let his presence be known with great rebounding, a huge block on Dwyane Wade, and a thunderous dunk that nearly brought the house down. Taj is really stepping up lately, especially with his energy and rebounding. Against the Knicks on Monday and again against Miami tonight, Taj showed what a difference maker he can be on the glass. Really, Thibodeau is going to have to think hard about going with Taj for a large chunk of time if the Bulls get Miami in the playoffs, because Carlos Boozer, the starter, was horrid. He chipped in a big 8 rebounds, but only 2 points. That's unacceptable. He's going to have to get better in big games. Again, and this is a continuing problem with Boozer, no one cares if you drop a 26 and 14 against Washington. We need the offense you were signed for against teams like Miami. Still, with Taj crashing the boards on both sides of the ball and playing great defense, the Bulls were able to play the style Thibodeau loves and pull out the game.

Thibs' impact cannot be understated
That's an important factor that can't be talked about enough. Take a step back and realize something. We didn't have the MVP, and the Bulls still took down the Heat. This is almost completely due to the mentality and culture that's been instilled under Thibs. He emphasizes the "next man in" approach, maintaining the philosophy that whoever is on the court, his teams will play hard, they will defend, they will execute with focus, and they will rebound. Lucas, Gibson, and the rest of the Bulls showed tonight that everyone on the team is completely bought into that approach. Really, they're a true "team" of players. You hear LeBron James after the game talking about how they let their guard down because D Rose was out. Think that would happen on the Bulls with their attitude and mentality? It's that kind of mentality that carries a team through the depths of a regular season, and into the battle that is the playoffs. I know I'm biased, but this Bulls team is special. I'll take them over anyone else out there all day, every day. At least over a LeBron James "led" team where he drops a grand total of 2 points in the fourth quarter.

The Bulls also received great play from other players, emphasizing again the team effort tonight. Kyle Korver hit some big shots, especially hitting clutch free throws down the stretch. Jimmy Butler continues to show why some (including myself) have called for him to get more minutes all season. He plays great defense and shows an aggressiveness on offense that will only make his game better once his shot comes around. You just watch Butler play and you don't think you're watching a rookie. Ronnie Brewer played a great game, once again with his excellent defense but also with his aggressive offensive rebounding and smart offensive play. And of course, there's the defensive stalwart Joakim Noah, who always brings the energy but seemed to feed off the crazy atmosphere of the crowd tonight. He had some big rebounds of course, but everything pales in comparison to his dunk over Joel Anthony that drew a "he didn't come for the massage, he came for the facial!!" comment from Stacey King. Funny how that play also illustrates what Chicago fans don't like about Miami. The play started with Noah blocking a D Wade shot cleanly, and instead of D Wade getting back on defense he waits back to complain to the refs. That's what we're talking about here.

In the end, this was nothing less than a huge statement game from the Bulls as a team. The team felt disrespected that they were instantly written off when it was announced that D Rose wasn't going to play, when in reality the team lost no confidence or swagger, and probably fed off the crowd to create even more energy. In essence, the absence of Derrick Rose only served to heighten the battle of identities between the Bulls and Heat. This was a victory by a real team over three superstars and their support.  The Bulls truly showed that they're a real complete team. Of course, this is just one game. We still have two left against Miami, and a whole regular season and playoffs to play. But if nothing else, it was a great game to watch and gets us Bulls fans amped for the rest of the season. This was one for the good guys.