Through the latter stages of the Miami Heat’s 27-game winning streak, we repeatedly brought up the fact that luck, timing and inevitability would result in the team eventually losing to a squad that didn’t seem worthy of the Heat’s presence. The Heat are the defending champions and the best team in the NBA, but because this is the NBA the best team doesn’t always win every time out. It’s why Miami entered its streak with a 29-14 record.
That record was bumped up to 56-14, and now it stands at 56-15 thanks to a Chicago Bulls team that was working without three of its starters in Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Richard Hamilton, and perhaps its best shooting guard in Marco Belinelli. Chicago rode withering perimeter defense and a few kind non-calls on its way to a gutty, moving win that hardly felt like “just one of those nights” for Miami. Despite the Heat’s 13 missed three-pointers.
In a season full of unanswered questions and lowlights for Chicago, despite a 39-31 record, here are the highlights from Wednesday’s game:
The prevailing take from Chicago’s unexpected win typically referenced the team’s physical play. LeBron James and company were not allowed the ability to look over the top of the defense and fire when ready. Instead, Chicago swarmed the Heat’s passers and shooters, bumped the cutters off their intended targets, and took advantage of a Heat team lacking in an interior presence save for drives from the perimeter. And whenever the Heat attempted to drive from that perimeter, the Bulls were waiting with six fouls in hand. Watch the team’s work on LeBron:
This is where things get dicey.
Kirk Hinrich’s first quarter foul on LeBron James probably falls out of the “flagrant” categorization, because Hinrich didn’t attempt to do anything to harm James, and only wanted to wrap the league’s reigning MVP up as he drove toward a potential three-point play. Still, this is a league that (too) often hands out flagrant fouls based solely on the result of a clean but obviously intentional foul, with referees paying attention to the result (a player hitting the floor, or falling at a weird angle) instead of the intent and execution.
To that end, Hinrich’s play may have been flagrant-worthy, if only to keep up the consistent (and, in my opinion, incorrect) NBA line. I don’t think it was a flagrant, and this leads directly to the back and forth between James and both Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer later in the contest.
If the referees, after a review, are going to decline to give Taj Gibson a flagrant on his foul on James – the correct call, I believe – then they need to stay consistent and decline to give a flagrant foul to James later in the quarter when he bumrushed Carlos Boozer’s show screen. To hand James a flagrant for his retaliation seems like an arbitrary, poorly-considered call. Respect the hell out of all the athletes involved – Hinrich, Gibson, Boozer (for staying on his feet) and James – and don’t single one out when everyone is taking part in a physical game.
James, as detailed by Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski on Wednesday evening, was calm but pretty ticked as he recalled the back and forth. Watch:
(Interesting side note: LeBron James’ last flagrant foul? It came against Dwyane Wade, in 2007, according to ESPN’s stats services.)
To those that follow the Bulls with keen interest, in many ways the win was far from surprising. In a rough year, the Bulls have gone through the motions during a few games, and thrown up some awful bricks in dozens of contests; even during wins. And though in a vacuum a Bulls team missing its two best players and working without the Bench Mob that made life so hellish on the Heat over the last two regular seasons (Since James joined the Heat, Miami is now 3-7 against Chicago during the regular season) this conquest may have seemed like a shocker, but in Chicago’s green world it made complete and total sense.
If the players that end such a streak get credit. so does the fellow who coaches those players. From the outside, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau looks to have painted another masterpiece of X & Overachievement. But while Hinrich acknowledged, “Yeah, he was fired up,” other Chicago players saw or heard nothing different from their guy on the sideline.
“Honestly, the dude is the same every game,” said forward Luol Deng, who scored 28 points and made the most of those reprieves when James shifted over to Hinrich. “No matter who you’re playing. I didn’t see any difference. He’s intense. He’s always focused.”
This swings both ways. It also is the reason why Thibs plays his starters far longer than he should in games that Chicago is in no danger of losing, and it’s the reason he sometimes fields players that need the voice of someone with better perspective to tell them that they shouldn’t be playing through an injury. On nights like Wednesday, though, Tom Thibodeau was in his element. He was born to coach games like this.
(And then he worked his ass off in order to become perhaps the best in the NBA at coaching games like this, facing odds like these. Tom Thibodeau didn’t come out of the womb calling out perfect plays. He fought his way to the top.)
It also helped that he had two superior athletes in Luol “44 Minutes” Deng and Jimmy Butler to toss at James and D-Wade. Deng managed 28 points on 22 shots with seven rebounds, five assists, and two steals. Five of Luol’s shots were blocked, and James still got his 32 points, but Deng at least approximated the output of the best player in the universe. Butler played over 43 minutes and turned it over five times, but he also contributed 17 points while finishing several broken plays, with five assists and this massive throwdown over Chris Bosh:
We probably should have known, all along, that it would be Chicago that turned Miami’s odds on their collective ear. For 27 games the Heat mixed league-best skill with quite a bit of luck as they compiled that winning streak; and if you think using the word “luck” is a denigration, think again. There have been plenty of dominant NBA teams over the last 40 years, and yet only two of them have strung nearly two months’ worth of consecutive wins together. At some point, the on-paper advantage doesn’t matter, which is why you see teams winning 13 of 16 at their best, instead of 27 of 27.
Chicago – with skill, its own luck, drive, and an exacting and withering attention to detail on both ends – took care of all that. Not only were they the perfect giant-slayer straight out of central casting, but one that had enough confidence in its own station to take down the team that has been dragging national TV cameras around the NBA landscape for weeks.
If the Heat were designed to dance on tabletops on South Beach in late June, then these Chicago Bulls were bred to make life hellish for them on the way there. This won’t be Chicago’s year, again, but it sure as hell was their night. A night, and a victory, they earned.