A defenseless loss to the Toronto Raptors followed by a complete lack of trade deadline team enhancement had (some) Bulls fans feeling pretty bummed out yesterday.
Maybe I’m projecting. I sure felt bummed out. With all the daring and savvy trades being made, I was hoping management would pull off…something. I mean, the Pacers almost got O.J. Mayo for Josh McRoberts. Surely the Bulls could have gotten someone for some little thing, right?
Said Bulls GM Gar Forman: “At the end of the day, in certain situations, we thought it was too rich to get marginally better. We’ll have opportunity to strike when the time is right. There’s [a] big window of opportunity for us to be good for a long time and we want to stick to a plan. We’re trying to build a team, and we want to do it at the right price.”
But…but…Keith Bogans is starting! Keith Bogans!
That’s the passion and woe of the Chicago faithful. We see this team, this elite squad, and feel that there’s something missing, some crucial element still necessary to compete for a title. The Lakers are the incumbents. The Spurs were the team of the last decade. The Celtics have a handful of future Hall of Famers and certified championship pedigree. The Heat signed the three biggest free agents of what turned out the be the best free agent class in league history.
The Bulls have assembled a nice team. A solid team. A team that works hard, gives it up on defense, and appears to genuinely like playing together. But when the average fan — or even the average critic — sees Bogans in the starting lineup, there’s an unshakable sense that Chicago is at least one significant move of some kind from being a true championship contender.
Then they go out and beat the Super Friends of Miami on national television.
The victory was as sweet as a spoonful of sugar dipped in honey and covered in chocolate. Honestly, it didn’t completely relieve my angst that management didn’t do something to upgrade the shooting guard position (or at least bring in some extra shooting), but it cleaned out the wound, rubbed on some Neosporin, applied a Band-Aid and gave it a motherly kiss for good measure.
I know it’s only late-February, and it doesn’t count for anything other than one regular season win, but this was a playoff game, folks. Playoff atmosphere. Playoff intensity. Playoff everything. Players on both sides wanted this one, and they wanted it badly. Everybody was playing with an edge.
LeBron James (29 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block) did what LeBron James does. That is, a little bit of everything, at a constant superstar level. Dwyane Wade (a game-high 34 points on 12-for-24 from the field and 10-for-12 from the line) seemed a little irked the LeBron-versus-Rose MVP debate makes little to no mention of him.
The Heat forced turnovers (8 steals), got out in transition (an amazing 34 fast break points) and, in the early going, put on a dunk fest that made it look like Chicago’s vaunted defense (particularly in light of the Toronto game) was nothing but smoke and mirrors. Maybe more smoke than mirrors.
But then the defense roared back to life.
Miami scored 31 points in the first quarter. That number dropped to 22 in the second. Then 14 in the third. The Heat never made it to 90 points. They shot 40.5 percent from the field. They misse 10 of their 12 three-point attempts. The bench contributed 2 points on 1-for-8 shooting.
And then there was Chris Bosh.
Bosh went 1-for-18 from the field. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he had the worst field goal percentage by a player with at least 18 field goal attempts since Mike Newlin went 1-for-22 for the Rockets on January 31, 1973. Essentially, he had one of the worst high-volume shooting nights in NBA history. That alone will lead some (maybe many) to disqualify Chicago’s win. After all, the Bulls certainly can’t count on an aberration game from Bosh every time they play the Heat.
Then again, Miami can’t count on having 34 fast break points every time they face the Bulls. That’s the problem with one-game samples.
That said, this game did fit a certain pattern that has formed with the Heat. As ESPN’s Michael Wilbon points out: “Against top-five teams, LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh (three All-Stars) have a record of 1-7. Against the top-five teams, D-Rose (playing with no other All-Stars and missing either Joakim Noah or Carlos Boozer all but 11 games this season) and the Bulls are 7-4.”
Of course, Wilbon’s statement is part of the ongoing LeBron-versus-Rose MVP debate, which (not to oversimplify) has seemingly become a battle of old-school thinking versus the new wave of stat-centric thinking.
If the Bulls can be on par with the Heat — who, as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst observes, have “two of the greatest players in a generation [James and Wade] playing excellently” and an additional All-Star to boot — then Rose must be the MVP, right?
If the Heat have a slightly better record (42-16 versus 39-17) and LeBron has superior Player Efficiency and Plus-Minus numbers, then he must be the MVP, right?
Pick your poison. I want no part of this debate until the end of the season.
As for the game at hand, Rose struggled with his shooting (9-for-24), but managed a team-best 26 points to go with 6 assists and 5 rebounds. Much will be made of LeBron’s defense on Rose in the fourth quarter, but Miami coach Erik Spoelstra obviously developed an anti-Rose game plan. The Heat packed the paint. Extra defenders swarmed towards Derrick every time he drove around a pick or toward the basket.
Stop Rose and you stop the Bulls. Unless somebody steps up. Which is what happened.
Luol Deng — who, it should be noted, is not an All-Star like Bosh — was fantastic (18 of his 20 points in the second half, 7-for-12, 10 rebounds, 5 assists). What’s more, he hit what to the naked eye appeared to be the game’s biggest shot. With 16 seconds left, Rose drove on James. Dipped the shoulder. Drew D-Wade — Luol’s defender — toward him and then kicked the ball to Deng for a wide open three.
Said Rose: “I was going to shoot the shot until D-Wade came over. And Lu was wide, wide open. He’s my shooting partner in practice. So every time in practice, every time he gets to the corner, he goes 10-for-10 or 9-for-10, so I knew it was going to be an easy shot for him.”
Added Deng: “Derrick has been making great plays all year. I just knew he was going to make the right play. D-Wade was so concerned with helping LeBron, you’ve seen what Derrick has been doing all year. I just made sure I was ready to shoot that shot and just concentrated and followed through … I knew it was good once it left my hand.”
Rose continued: “Big shot Lu. He’s the reason why we won tonight and I’m happy for him. He played great, he played hard and he’s still able to hit some big shots … He’s been solid the whole year; consistent, playing hard. He had to face LeBron tonight. Somebody he really takes that challenge [against]. He stepped up and he was still able to go out there and be effective throughout the whole game.”
The beautiful-to-watch Rose-to-Deng play was followed up by LeBron dribbling himself into position at the top of the three-point arc and, with nary a look to his teammates, tossing up an ugly-as-an-ape’s-butt triple attempt that didn’t even touch the rim (thanks in no small part to harrassing pressure by Deng). Man, I wish shots like that could be included in the PER formula.
Team-first basketball. It works, people.
It’s Deng hitting shots and making plays. It’s Carlos Boozer shooting 7-for-12 and coming within a rebound of a double-double (16 points and 9 rebounds). It’s the bench outscoring their Heat counterparts 22-2, which included big-time shots by Ronnie Brewer (8 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals) and Kyle Korver (a huge shot-clock-beating triple in the fourth quarter).
And, yes, it was Omer Asik, who had a game-high 11 rebounds and a game-best plus-minus score of +17 in 21 minutes of action. It seems as if the Bulls failed to upgrade at the two spot because they were unwilling to part with Asik. And although Keith Bogans pulled his head into the turtle shell (0-for-4), Asik’s performance, defensively and on the boards, provided a pretty clear justification of why management wanted to hold onto him.
That feeling may fade when Bogans is clanking threes in crucial playoff games. But, for one night anyway, it felt pretty good to have Asik patrolling the painted rectangle. Heat fans, after watching Erick Dampier (5 rebounds in 29 minutes) and Joel Anthony (1 board in 18 minutes), probably wish Omer was playing for them.
The win felt good and it was gratifying as heck. But, as I said above, it was still one regular season win. It means something. Not everything, but something.
Said Rose: “It just lets people know that we can compete with some of the best teams in the NBA.”
It’s true. And it’s more than can be said for the Heat so far.