Last night’s game had two possible outcomes for the Chicago Bulls: Either make history or become a footnote to it.
They made history.
Unless you just arrived on earth from another star system, you likely already know the Miami Heat entered this game having won 27 games in a row, which represents the second-longest winning streak in NBA history. Going in, some people felt that Miami’s streak was even more impressive and historically significant than the 33-game romp the Los Angeles Lakers went on during the 1971-72 season.
As Shannon Owens of the Orlando Sentinel put it: “Honestly, even if the Heat fail to break the Lakers’ record, this should still go down as the greater accomplishment. There is no comparison to the pressures today’s Heat team faces versus yesterday’s Lakers. ESPN and social media didn’t exist 41 years ago. And the quality of competition Miami is playing against is far superior.”
LeBron James himself said: “Back then, the leagues were separate. It wasn’t a full league at that time; the ABA and NBA leagues spread apart. So some of the greatest players weren’t even in the [NBA] at the time.”
I’m not so sure.
To me, this is a case of chronological snobbery, that wonderful little logical fallacy that something from an earlier time — be it thinking, art, science, or sport — is inherently inferior when compared to that of the present.
After all, while there are some factors (as noted above) that favor Miami’s 27-game streak, there are also a few that tilt in the favor of L.A.’s 33-gamer. For instance, the Heat live in an era of private jets, massage therapists and various other creature comforts that NBA players in the 1970s probably never even dreamed of. The 1971-72 Lakers had to take commercial flights, endure layovers and wash their own uniforms. Seriously.
And if you think today’s NBA schedule is unkind, talk to anybody who played back then. In those days, playing three nights in a row was accepted and standard practice. In fact, the 1971-72 Lakers played four sets of back-to-back-to-back games during their 33-game winning streak.
Then there’s the simple fact that Lakers great Elgin Baylor retired before L.A.’s winning streak began. Meanwhile, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain were both still very good but also past their respective primes (Wilt retired in 1973 and the Logo called it quits in 1974). By contrast, the Heat have the world’s best player in his prime and at the absolute top of his game…not to mention two other top 10 players in their primes.
Finally, as ESPN’s Rick Reilly put it: “If the competition is so superior now, as James says it is, how come two of the three greatest streaks in league history have come in the past six years? Why are four of the top seven from 2000 and later?”
The reality is, there’s no need to demean what that Lakers team accomplished in order to promote what the Heat have been doing. Their streak is truly amazing on its own merits, regardless of comparative rankings.
During their 27-game run, the Heat beat good teams (Clippers, Grizzlies, Hawks, Knicks Pacers, Rockets, Thunder), bad teams (Bobcats, Cavaliers, Kings, Magic, Pistons, Raptors, Timberwolves) and everybody in between. They blew teams out. They came back from huge deficits. They won 13 consecutive road games.
They didn’t lose. They just didn’t lose. For 27 games. Amazing.
Chicago’s season hasn’t been quite so sublime. It’s been plagued by injury, inconsistency and the mystery of when (or whether) Derrick Rose will ever come back from injury. There were rumors he would make his comeback against the Heat last night. Anyone who’s been following the Rose saga knew better. Rose and the Bulls are being as cautious with this situation as humanly possible. There was absolutely no way Derrick was going to make his long-awaited return in this meat grinder.
And man oh man this was a physical game.
During one first quarter drive to the hoop, James collided with Kirk Hinrich, who wrapped up LeBron’s arms to prevent the possibility of an “And-1” opportunity and both players ended up on the hardwood. During the fourth quarter, LeBron was again fouled hard by Taj Gibson. Initially, the officials ruled it a Flagrant 1, but they downgraded it to a normal foul after a video review. Shortly thereafter, a frustrated James rammed into Carlos Boozer and whistled an elbow past Boozer’s face. It was a play that, had it been anybody other than LeBron James, likely would have earned an ejection. Instead, the refs called a Flagrant 1.
That’s the kind of game it was. Which had LeBron feeling a little indignant afterwards.
Said James: “Let me calculate my thoughts real fast before I say [what I want to say]. I believe and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays. First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. The last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not defensive … those are not basketball plays.
“It’s been happening all year, and I’ve been able to keep my cool and try to tell Spo, ‘Let’s not worry about it too much.’ But it is getting to me a little bit because every time I try to defend myself, I got to face the consequences of a flagrant for me or a technical foul, whatever the case may be. It’s tough. It’s tough. It’s very tough, and I’m not sitting here crying about anything because I play the game at a high level. I play with a lot of aggression, and I understand that some of the plays are on the borderline of a basketball play or not, but sometimes you just got to … I don’t know. It’s frustrating.”
I’m not sure I get the whole “every time I try to defend myself, I got to face the consequences of a flagrant for me” stuff. Swinging an elbow at Boozer, who was standing still and setting a pick, isn’t a case of LeBron defending himself. But whatever. Tempers flare. It happens.
Added Dwyane Wade: “I’m surprised he ain’t done it before. A big guy like that, you don’t really want to see him really start trying to inflict pain on other people. He plays the game the right way. It’s unfortunate. It’s tough but that’s why he is who he is. You have to deal with it. Tonight, he decided to get back a little bit. I didn’t think it was that bad.”
It’s not terribly surprising Wade didn’t think LeBron’s flagrant was that bad, given his own history of breaking noses, kicking opposing players between the legs, pulling people down, outright tackling guys and even throwing them (or their shoes) out of bounds.
Do superstars get hit? Yes. Do they hit back? Clearly.
David Stern has cleaned up the NBA quite a lot — just ask anybody who played in the late 80s and 90s — but basketball is still a contact sport.
The Bulls know this as well as anybody, which is why their locker room is like a M.A.S.H. ward.
Rose still has not returned after having his left knee surgically repaired. Chicago’s All-Star center, Joakim Noah, missed the game with plantar fasciitis. And the Bulls were missing both their starting and backup shooting guards, Rip Hamilton and Marco Belinelli.
Going in, the mere notion of this squad derailing the Miami freight train seemed ludicrous.
But it happened. How you ask?
ESPN Stats and Information provided the following three statistical reasons:
1. The Bulls allowed the Heat to get inside the paint but didn’t allow the Heat’s shooters to make easy baskets. The Heat went 10-of-39 outside the paint (25.6 percent), their second-worst such shooting rate of the season (they were 6-for-35, 17 percent against the Lakers on January 17).
The Bulls had similar success against the Heat earlier in the season. On Jan. 4, the Heat converted on 77.3 percent of field goals inside the paint but struggled on shots outside, hitting only 30 percent.
In the Heat’s victory over the Bulls, the Heat had a more balanced scoring attack, shooting 59 percent inside the paint and 44 percent outside it.
2. The Heat dominated the fourth quarter during their 27-game win streak, outscoring opponents by a combined 152 points and shooting 44 percent on 3-pointers.
In the loss to the Bulls, they shot 1-for-8 on 3-point attempts and were outrebounded by 12.
3. Despite scoring 32 points Wednesday against the Bulls, LeBron James was held to three assists, tied for his third fewest this season. James drove to the basket 12 times in half-court sets, but created only one field goal attempt (and no baskets) for a teammate off those drives.
Those are all legit reasons. But there were more.
For instance, there was how Luol Deng (28 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals) nearly played LeBron (32 points, 7 rebounds, 4 blocks, 3 assists) to a standstill.
There was Boozer matching Chris Bosh with 21 points and outrebounding him by an astounding 17-4. (This game may serve as something of a message to those who feel Boozer shrinks against the Heat or is a lesser player than Bosh.)
There was an inspired performance by Jimmy Butler (17 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, and a spectacular one-handed alley-oop dunk over Chris Bosh).
There was little Nate Robinson for 14 points on 10 shots in 22 minutes…and nearly outscoring Miami’s reserves (17 points on 7-for-19 shooting) all by his lonesome.
And finally there was Kirk Hinrich. His stat line (7 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds) may look somewhat meager, but he made countless big plays, the biggest of which came with 2:41 left. The Bulls were clinging to a 91-85 lead when they forced James into a difficult step-back three-point attempt that was well off the mark. Bosh rebounded the ball, but Hinrich stripped him, took the ball the other way and eventually fed Gibson for an uncontested 16-footer that pushed Chicago’s lead to 9.
That wasn’t the only clutch play that helped the Bulls pull this one out.
With Chicago trying desperately to hold off Miami’s final attempt to rally, Robinson jacked up a three with 59 seconds left. Nate missed, but Boozer somehow fought his way to the offensive rebound and put it in the hoop to give the Bulls a 96-89 lead. Six seconds later, Deng stole the ball from LeBron. Then, after the Bulls had run the shot clock almost down to zero, Robinson swooped in for a driving layup to put the Bulls up 98-89 with 30 seconds left.
The Heat made a few exciting plays to make the final score a bit closer, but that was pretty much the ball game.
It wasn’t a pretty game, and it was far from perfect, as the Bulls gave up 24 points off 20 turnovers and got outscored 54-40 in the paint. But they did the dirty work, winning the rebounding battle 43-31 and doubling Miami’s Offensive Rebounding Percentage (32.4% to 16.2%).
And while James, Bosh and Wade (18 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals) all had strong games, the Bulls managed to keep Miami’s role players in check. To wit: The “other guys” managed a total of only 26 points on 11-for-30 shooting.
And — my God! — were those the offensively challenged Chicago Bulls scoring at a rate of 108.1 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference)? Who knew?
But, as much as anything else, the Bulls showed their mental toughness and willingness to fight and scrap.
Said Gibson: “Kirk is one of the toughest guys I know. He has so much swag every day in practice. He’s a real vet. He doesn’t shy away from anything. He’s always in the middle, especially against big men. He switches out on centers. He doesn’t really care. He’s one of those dog kind of players.”
That’s Hinrich’s way. And, really, the Bulls’ way. It has been under Tom Thibodeau anyway.
It’s amazing how fast things can change in the NBA. Yesterday, the Heat were pursuing the longest winning streak in North American professional sports history, and now that chance has passed. Maybe forever. And a few games ago, the Bulls were in the midst of their worst extended slump in years. Now they’ve won three games in a row and sit only 2.5 games behind the Brooklyn Nets for fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
Now there are 12 games left. Let’s see how the Bulls finish things off.