Are people starting to believe yet?
The Bulls have been beating the odds all season. Last summer, management went all in to acquire a second superstar to play alongside Derrick Rose. The targets were obvious: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and/or Chris Bosh.
They spurned the Bulls and decided to join forces in Miami instead.
Look, I’m biased. I’m a Bulls fan. And let me tell you: When those three guys decided to take their talents to South Beach — or, in Wade’s case, to stay in Miami — it felt like I’d been punched in the face by Mike Tyson. Actually, I felt like Iron Mike had punched me all over. It was brutal.
Management “recovered” with a series of smaller, less spectacular moves that were made both before and after The Decisions, bringing in coach Tom Thibodeau, Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson, Keith Bogans, Kurt Thomas, Omer Asik and Brian Scalabrine.
They weren’t bad moves. It was obvious even then that (barring injury and misfortune) this was going to be the best Bulls team in some time. On paper anyway. But there was also a sense of bitter disappointment that something better hadn’t been done. Something bigger. That, in spite of the makover, the Bulls were still several shambling steps behind the Celtics, Lakers, Magic and, now, the Heat.
Then Carlos Boozer broke his hand tripping over a gym bag. Before the preseason even started.
Man, it felt like chunks of death were raining from the sky, because the early-season schedule was cruel. And there was the annual circus trip. But guys stepped up. The team slogged through the bad luck. Had a winning circus trip for the first time since the Jordan era. Stayed above .500 until Boozer returned.
After a couple “getting Booz into the swing of things” beatings from the Celtics and Magic, the team took off, winning seven straight. Then Joakim Noah went down with a thumb injury. And suddenly the sky was falling again.
Noah was out for 30 games. It felt like forever. Heck, it was forever. Still, against all hope or reason, the Bulls kept winning. However, it seemed like there was always a “but” attached to the wins.
“But they’re only beating bad teams.”
“But they’ve also lost to some bad teams.”
“But they beat the Celtics without Garnett.”
“But they beat the Heat without LeBron.”
“But they beat the Magic at home…can they win in Orlando?”
“But they’re so-so on the road.”
“But their offense is average. At best.”
Meanwhile, circumstances bumped Rose into the MVP discussion. Simple logic seemed to indicate that his season had become MVP-worthy. After all, even at full strength, the Bulls didn’t have the raw talent of Boston, L.A., Miami, Orlando, et al. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah combined to miss nearly 60 games. Keith Bogans was (and is) the starting shooting guard. Despite it all, the Bulls were right there in the thick of things.
The “M-V-P!” chants got fired up. Even in arenas outside Chicago.
That seemed to set off a fire alarm in the advanced stat community. Article after article was published explaining why Rose wasn’t — and, in fact, could not be — MVP. His Player Efficiency Rating wasn’t high enough. His Plus-Minus numbers weren’t there. The team wasn’t winning enough games. And the success they’d had was due as much (or more so) to other factors (defense, coaching, bench) as it was to Rose.
So on and so forth.
Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference even cobbled together a formula that showed the Bulls would be only one game worse if Derrick wasn’t even on the team. Rose worth one game in the win column? Really? The “Rose isn’t MVP” argument started to take on a life of its own and, in some ways, began to overshadow what was happening with the team.
Fortunately for the Bulls, Rose didn’t curl up and die because the metrics don’t support his MVP candidacy. He kept ballin’. Just ballin’. So did the rest of the team. They won 13 of 16 games before the All-Star break, a stretch that included victories over the red-hot Mavericks and league-leading Spurs. But D-Rose was Chicago’s lone ASG representative. Boozer had missed too many games. Noah had been out more than he had been in. And Luol Deng? He didn’t have the stats to be an All-Star.
When Jo came back after the break and the Bulls immediately faceplanted against the Raptors, people snickered. The Bulls wiped some of those grins away when they downed the Heat — with LeBron this time — the very next night. “But,” I was informed, “Chris Bosh isn’t going to shoot 1-for-18 again.” Ergo the Bulls had gotten lucky. The skepticism was still strong. And I was getting shelled in the ESPN Daily Dime Live chats. If I suggested Chicago could hang with anybody, or that Rose was right there with the best of them, I was accused of homerism. Dismissed as irrational. Even crazy.
I have to admit, the doubt was getting to me, so much so that the collapse in Atlanta shook my faith a little. Giving up a 19-point lead and losing on the road to a playoff team felt like a pretty solid smack down and decent proof that the Bulls weren’t ready to join The Big Boys Club. It had been a test of legitimacy and the Bulls had failed.
I was pretty bummed.
But the team kept ballin’ and won their next game against the Magic in Orlando. Even then the “But Faces” were out in full force. “But,” it was argued, “the Magic expended a lot of energy coming back from a 24-point deficit to beat the Heat in Miami the night before. The Bulls just caught ‘em on a bad night.” Once again, a major victory was stripped of his legitimacy. Just another lucky win.
Then came yesterday’s showdown in Miami.
The Heat had no excuses. The game was in Miami. They had a day of rest to recover and lick their wounds. LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh all played. And, as predicted, Bosh certainly didn’t go 1-for-18 again. He finished with 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting.
The Heat led by as many as 12 points and were up 49-40 at the half. They had plenty of motivation to finish the game. In the past seven days, they had blown double-digit leads against the Knicks and Magic and then gotten blown out by 30 against the Spurs. This was supposed to be a redemption game for them.
Instead, the Bulls earned redemption. As if they needed any.
Boozer didn’t shoot well (6-for-15), but he scored 12 points and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds. Chicago’s bench outscored Miami’s reserves 16-6. The defense — which surrendered 36 fast break points the last time the Heat visited Chicago — held Miami to a mere 11 points in transition. Forced Wade into 7 turnovers. And, according to ESPN Stats and Information, “completely took away Miami’s isolation offense, holding the Heat to 1-for-7 shooting on plays where a potential shooter is isolated against his defender. The Heat typically score 13 points per game on such plays, according to video review, but the Bulls held them to just three points on Sunday. ”
Then there was Rose. He scored a game-high 27 points against a defense determined to stop him. He outscored LeBron 8-4 in the fourth quarter. And, to me, his game was defined by the following sequence:
With the score tied at 76-76, Rose scored on a difficult layup to give the Bulls a two-point lead. Then, in one-on-one defensive coverage, he forced Wade into a bad miss (Wade was more concerned with drawing the foul than converting the field goal attempt). On the other end, Rose took it right to Wade, drew the foul and knocked down both free throws to put Chicago ahead 80-76. On Miami’s next possession, Rose — with help from Noah — forced Wade into a bad pass that sailed out of bounds. Then Rose brought the ball down, dribbled himself into shot and nailed a 19-footer to boost the lead to six with 3:30 left.
It wasn’t all warm sunshine and delicious candy, though. After that burst, Rose went on to commit back-to-back turnovers and shoot an airball. The Heat came back to take an 86-84 lead.
But Deng and Noah helped save the day.
Deng — who scored 9 points in the final quarter — has come through for the Bulls all season. Remember, this is a guy who has been repeatedly left for dead over the years, by everybody. Bulls fans included. His stats didn’t earn him an All-Star spot, but that just proves a man’s value can’t always be defined by data. Lu regularly logs 40+ minutes. Plays defense. Scores. Rebounds. Whatever the team needs. Tirelessly and without complaint.
For years, people have claimed that Deng is not worth his hefty contract. Well, he’s earned every penny he’s made this season. He has been the team’s most quietly dependable player.
With 17 seconds left and the Bulls down two points, Deng made an aggressive move with the basketball and got fouled by Mario Chalmers. Stepped to the line and drained the first. Missed the second.
Now, that could have been game over for the Bullies. Had Miami controlled the rebound, Chicago would have been forced to foul. But Noah, who never, ever gives up on a play, managed to tip the ball back toward Deng. Luol went after it while getting pushed from behind by Mike Miller. Tweet! Deng stepped back to the line for two more freebies. This time, he knocked both of them down.
Redemption. Bulls by one.
So here come the Heat. According to advanced metrics, LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. Based on those same metrics, Wade is barely a half-step behind James. And Bosh, as noted, was an All-Star while Boozer, Deng and Noah were not. Surely this team should be able to close.
LeBron got the call. He drove, one-on-one, against Noah. An unstoppable force to the hoop. Noah stuck him. Forced him into an incredibly difficult left-handed layup attempt that was nowhere close to the mark. Wade snared the offense board and squeezed off a short jumper at the buzzer. No good.
Bulls win! Bulls win!
Maybe the ending shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. According to ESPN Stats and Information:
“The Heat are now 1-for-18 this season in the final 10 seconds of regulation when trailing by three points or fewer.”
And get this:
“James’ former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, may not be having the best season, but they are 5-for-11 in similar situations in 2010-11.”
Well now. Isn’t that interesting?
What does it all mean? That a guy with a history of injuries can still make an impact. That a player who has been derided as an overpaid loser is more of a winner than anybody thought. That a group of limited castoffs and castaways can comprise one of the league’s best benches. And that a man can lead and inspire his team to win after win even if he’s outside the top 10 in PER rankings.
And sometimes a team full of players ballin’ — just ballin’ — can trump three superstars.