If you’re currently experiencing an intense and overwhelming feeling of stunned amazement at what they Bulls are doing in these playoffs, don’t be alarmed.
It indicates only that you are still sane.
You know the drill by now. The Bulls are a depleted team. No Derrick Rose. Kirk Hinrich is day-to-day with a bum calf. Luol Deng had a spinal tap last week and tweeted a picture from his hospital bed last night. Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis) and Taj Gibson (knee) are playing through injuries. Gibson and Nate Robinson recently battled the flu.
All that and two days after winning a do-or-die Game 7 on the road, the Bulls had to face the defending (and presumed future) champs in Miami.
Mission impossible, right?
Never impossible. Not with this group. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau ripped the page with the word “quit” right out of the team dictionary, burned it, and buried the ashes.
At times, Thibodeau’s mantra of “more than enough to win” has seemed laughable in the face of the many injuries and misfortunes that have plagued the Bulls this season. But it instilled a sense of commitment and responsibility in every player on this team, from the front of the bench all the way to the end of it.
Take Nate Robinson.
The Bulls signed Robinson last summer as a last-minute afterthought. He was supposed to be a part-time player at best. With Rose and Hinrich both out, Robinson started at point guard, playing 40 minutes and 29 seconds. Little Nate finished with game-highs in points (27) and assists (9). He had more free throw attempts (10) than LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined (9). According to ESPN Stats and Information, Robinson became the fourth Bulls player in the past 25 seasons to have at least 25 points and 9 dimes in a playoff game, joining Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, and Scottie Pippen.
Not bad company. Especially considering Robinson is doing it for a little over $800,000 this season.
But wait, there’s more. Robinson scored or assisted on 25 of Chicago’s 35 fourth quarter points…and he scored 7 in the team’s 10-0 run to close the game. His clutch performance made him the only player in the last 15 seasons with at least 11 points and 6 assists in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. All this despite getting 10 stitches mid-game after busting his lip in a loose ball collision.
Said Thibodeau: ”He got knocked around a little bit, couple stitches, it’s all good. Get out there and get it done. … He’s about as confident as they come, and that’s the thing that makes him good. If he misses a shot, he has a very short memory. He always thinks he’s hot, never afraid, and will step up in a big situation. He has the courage to take and make.”
Now take Jimmy Butler.
Forget Robert Downey Jr. Butler is Iron Man. Incredibly enough, the second year man out of Marquette has played the full 48 minutes for three straight games, making him only the fourth player since the NBA-ABA merger to go the limit in back-to-back-to-back playoff games (per Elias Sports Bureau). In his previous two games, he spent those long minutes guarding Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Last night he guarded LeBron and D-Wade all night. While contributing 21 points (on only 13 shots) and a game-high 14 rebounds.
Said Butler: “It’s all about being tough. We’re always going to be the underdogs. We take pride in that. Everybody can overlook us, but we feel like we’re good enough to hang with a lot of these teams. I talked to Lu before the game. He was like, ‘Take up his space, make everything tough for him, challenge every shot.’ Of course, no layups. I feel I don’t want to give layups to anybody, make them earn it from the stripe. Lu’s going to rest up and we want him back. But until (then) I guess I’ll be stuck guarding him.”
As Huey Lewis might tell Butler: The Bulls and their fans are happy to be stuck with you.
Said Noah: ”I’m really proud of him. [He's a] young player, but he played huge against the best. He’s like a brother and to see him shine the way he’s been shining in these playoffs … I knew he was ready but the sky’s the limit for that kid.”
Added Gibson: “He’s really talented and he goes out there and does the job, doesn’t talk back, just grits it out each and every night and he’s getting better each game I think. … He understands his role, he understands what this team needs. Whenever we’re down we can always count on Jimmy. Without Lu in there Jimmy just stepped up big and we just helped him. Whenever a guy needs help, we just help each other out.”
Helping each other out. That’s what this team does.
Whether it’s Noah with a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 1 blocked shot) and great interior defense, or Marco Belinelli hitting the boards (7 rebounds) to make up for his poor shooting (3-for-10) or Gibson giving the team a big lift off the bench (12 points, 4 rebounds, 1 blocked shot, +9).
And there there was the defense.
In the first quarter, Miami was held to only 15 points on 5-for-19 shooting. They improved only marginally in the second quarter (8-for-20). The Heat did shoot 50 percent (10-for-20) in the third quarter, but they were only 8-for-19 in the fourth, including 0-for-5 in the final two minutes.
For the game, Miami shot a miserable 39.7 percent, including 29.2 percent from three-point range.
Most importantly, the Heat converted only 59 percent of their shots at the rim, per Hoopdata. Mind you, Miami led the league in field goal percentage at the rim during the regular season at 71.5 percent.
The Bulls played great individual and team defense, but much of the credit goes to Noah and Gibson, who both protect the paint and can switch out on perimeter players better than most big men in the league. Just ask Ray Allen and Shane Battier, who combined to go 4-for-14 from the field and only 3-for-11 from downtown.
Maybe the Heat players were simply rusty after a long layoff. They did miss several open shots in the early going. But the Bulls also dominated the glass, outrebounding the Heat 46-32, with a 26.5% to 15.9% advantage in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (per Basketball-Reference). In fact, Butler (14 boards) and Noah (11 rebounds) both outrebounded Chris Bosh (6 rebounds), Udonis Haslem (3 rebounds) and Chris Anderson (1 rebound) by themselves. Rebounding is about effort. And Chicago simply fought harder than Miami in this game.
Said Robinson: “I’ve played on some tough teams, but this one is a little different. There’s something special about this group. For me, it feels like we’ve been playing together 10 years. We love to play for each other, regardless. A couple of times in the game me and Jimmy had miscommunications and he told me on a switch to make sure to go under, little things like that. You make adjustments and you don’t need the coach to tell you. He’s younger than me and is telling me that. He’s helping me out. That’s how it is with each guy on the team. It makes it easier to go out and play, and it’s fun. I love the energy and passion. Teammates joke with me and it gives me confidence to go out and play with energy. I love the energy and passion. This is probably the best season I’ve had with this group of guys. God is good. I’m blessed and thankful to be on this team.”
And Chicago fans are blessed and thankful to be rooting for this team.