Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Streak Stops Here

When the Bulls jumped out to a big first quarter lead, I knew last night's game was actually going to be a battle. I had questioned coming into the game how the Bulls would compete with a Miami Heat team on a 27 game winning streak without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Rip Hamilton, or even Marco Belinelli. We had seen this Bulls team go through some struggles without those guys, falling into lulls where they couldn't score and the shortened bench became too much for them to overcome. But last night, we saw the Bulls as we remember them so well from the past few years, even without the star players. It was a total team effort, getting contributions from all over the roster, combined with the mentality that Tom Thibodeau has instilled in this team, that led to the incredible, heart-pounding win over Miami to end their streak.
The game had all the makings of a late round playoff game. There was the electric crowd, the physical play, the tough defense, and the clutch plays down the stretch. It may have only been a game on March 27th between the undisputed top seed in the Eastern Conference and a team struggling to stay afloat under a myriad of crippling injuries, but the true rivalry (yeah, it's a real rivalry) between these teams made it feel like so much more. In that same vein, we saw just why certain people cannot stand LeBron James and this Miami team. What we also saw last night was a microcosm of the Tom Thibodeau era, a performance by this Bulls team that could spur and propel them into the rest of the season. It could very well end up making Derrick Rose's decision of whether to play this year that much tougher.

I have to start with the crowd. Bulls fans are a loyal bunch; we haven't stopped watching or rooting hard for this team the entire season, even without Rose. The United Center is still packed and sold out each night as the Bulls look to continue their streak of leading the NBA in attendance. Last night, we saw why even Bill Simmons was taken aback with the fans. Chicago is a basketball city. It's also a hockey city, a football city, and a baseball city. This is just a damn good sports town, and we go hard for our teams. Against Miami last night, the crowd was in it from the very start and visibly made a difference. An electric crowd helps create momentum and an atmosphere that motivates and drives the players. It helps get into the other team's heads, and can create the right amount of momentum at the right time. The Bulls couldn't have asked for anything more from the crowd at the UC last night.

Deng led the Bulls on both ends
Although last night was a team win more than anything, especially considering our best players were out, it's hard to overlook the individual contributions that made it happen. Carlos Boozer had an absolutely monster game last night, dropping 21 and 17 to help the scoring load and compensate for the lost rebounding from Noah's absence. Luol Deng had an incredible game, not only contributing 28 points but getting a defensive stop or a big basket when it counted. He's had a solid, regular All-Star caliber year that has somehow flown under the radar, but what he brings to the Bulls on a game by game basis is steady veteran play. You know going into each game that you're going to get 40 minutes, solid play, great defense, and few mistakes. His defensive performance on James is top notch each time the two teams play as well. 

The Bulls like to switch Deng and Jimmy Butler off on James, providing an effective duo to defend James unlike any other team in the league. Butler had a great game as a fill in starter, including an absolutely monster dunk that put Chris Bosh on a poster. I think the future is incredibly bright with him. If he develops a solid jumper he could be the shooting guard of the future or the first guy off the bench. Either way, the Bulls have to be pleased with his progress this season, showing that he can be a lockdown defender, a contributor off the bench, and someone who can make the highlight reels with the best of them:

For me, though, the most important thing we saw last night was the gameplan. This team, a representative of Tom Thibodeau's coaching philosophy, knew that the key to success against Miami comes down to a few things. First, they needed to play physical, especially with LeBron. James is perhaps the most physically dominant player in the league, so Thibs' strategy to hit him and bump him whenever possible throws LeBron off his game. He's just not used to someone coming at him that physically for an entire game. So when you see Deng in his face, or Butler, of Taj giving him hard fouls, it starts to wear on LeBron and get him frustrated - all good things when facing Miami. You saw physical play the entire game, whether it was a constant on LeBron, or the clutch, game-sealing steal/takedown by Kirk Hinrich of Chris Bosh.

Hinrich & the Bulls played James tough and physical
Second, I love the way the Bulls moved the ball. This was crucial to a Bulls team that struggles to score when healthy, let alone without some of their best players. But by moving the ball around effectively, it spaced the floor, hurt Miami's chances of rebounding, and took advantage of Miami's tendency to take risky chances to help their fastbreak. Smart, well-spaced passes were a major key to success last night. And finally, Thibs recognized that the strength of the Bulls against Miami was rebounding, even without Noah. Take away their second chance opportunities and grab a few of your own, all while playing solid defense, and it can really make a huge difference.

Seeing the success that the Bulls had as a team last night, combined with the frenzied atmosphere at the United Center, must have given Derrick Rose a lot to think about going forward this season. We still don't know for sure what he plans to do, with the latest update being that "only God knows" when Derrick will return. I do think though that this win might start stirring Derrick's competitive juices and hopefully work to get him mentally ready to play. He's an uber-competitive player; there's no way he watched his team fight as hard as they did last night in every area of the game and not want to come back. Moreover, all of the naysayers who think Derrick shouldn't come back because they can't beat Miami should give pause to that thought right now. I understand that playing them in a 7 game series with a fresh-off-injury Rose is different, but last night, with the coaching, preparation, intensity, and effort the Bulls showed, should make us all realize that they can at least compete. I still think that Derrick will sit until next season, but this is exactly the type of game that might jumpstart his return.

LeBron: Time to Stop Whining.
Finally, I want to say a few things about LeBron James. I've never denied that he is a supremely talented player, arguably the most physically talented we've ever seen and probably one of the best overall players we've ever seen. But last night shows just why I, and others in Chicago and other NBA cities, cannot stand him. His nonstop pouting and complaining about being fouled hard last night, combined with the limping after being hit or smirking when he (finally) got caught taking a cheap shot are entirely unbecoming of what the Greatest Player On The Planet is and should be. For someone who gets nearly every favorable call from the officials on a nightly basis, it's off-putting to think he can complain about someone beating him at his own physical game. And then to go off after the game and complain about hard fouls? Give me a break LeBron. You're supposed to be the best player in the world, and you're someone who succeeds by using your physical tools to your advantage. Complaining about someone playing you hard, physical, and tough makes you sound like the spoiled kid on the playground that no one wants to play with, a sore loser, or both. Seeing him so upset makes me happy knowing that the Bulls' plan succeeded, but it also reinforces just why I can't stand him to begin with. You want to be considered one of the greats, and gain respect even from your rivals and their fans? Stop acting like a grown up child and play like a man. The greats before you did it. I don't remember MJ complaining to the media about the Pistons or Knicks knocking him down like a running back.

My biggest hope from last night is that it propels the Bulls forward to a successful rest of the season. I was elated at how they played last night. It was a true Thibodeau win in a grind it out, defensive, physical battle mixed with big shots here and there from different contributors. This Bulls team has so effectively bought into what Thibs has preached for a few seasons now that even without Noah, Rose, or Hamilton they never doubted for a second their ability to win the game. They took it to Miami from the opening tip and didn't relent when the Heat made their trademark surge on LeBron's back. This team ended Miami's incredible streak. THIS Bulls team; the one with the steady stream of walking wounded and nearly an entire season in the books without their best player. Now, the hope is that they can use this to propel them forward and win some games in the playoffs. They've already come this far overachieving in a season everyone felt was lost from the beginning. Why not push it as far as it can go?