Game Recap: Bulls 96, Heat 89

The Good:
The Bulls shook off a stretch of uncharacteristically poor play — they lost three of four games, including back-to-back blowout losses to the Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets and a pitiful home defeat to the dreadful Charlotte Bobcats, who came into the United Center on an 18-game skid — to win back-to-back road games against the Orlando Magic and defending champion Miami Heat.

The Better:
The Bulls have a distinct size advantage over many teams they face…but they don’t always take advantage of it. That has been one of the most frustrating aspects of following this club, with or without Derrick Rose. Despite employing a quartet of talented frontcourt players — Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson — the Bulls often don’t pound the ball inside the way they could (and should), despite coach Tom Thibodeau’s insistence that he runs the team’s offense inside-out.

According to Hoopstats, the Bulls rank only 21st in points scored in the paint per game (35.7). For some added perspective, that puts them behind gooey-on-the-inside teams like Phoenix (39.2) and Toronto (36.2).

Maybe Thibs realized his team wasn’t playing to its greatest strength, because the Bulls emphasized tall ball against the Magic, and it worked out pretty well, as Chicago’s starting frontcourt combined for 75 points and 25 rebounds behind Boozer’s season-high 31 points.

With Noah back in the lineup after missing the Orlando game with flu-like symptoms, the Bulls’ top four frontcourt players combined for 51 points and 37 rebounds. In all, Chicago shot 15-for-25 at the rim and outscored Miami 46-34 in the paint.

And do you want to talk about rebounding dominance? The Bulls outrebounded the Heat by a ridiculous margin of 48-28…including 19-4 on the offensive glass. That was good enough for a season-best Offensive Rebounding Percentage of 44.2. Take a close look at that number. The Bulls rebounded nearly half of their missed shots.

I know Miami ranks last in the league in total rebounds and only 22nd in Defensive Rebound Percentage…but how in the name of Brad Sellers does that happen?

Said LeBron James: “It’s just the will of going to do it. It’s a reoccurrence. You give a team like this extra possessions, they’re going to capitalize.”

And the Bulls did capitalize, outscoring the Heat 20-7 in second-chance points.

It was all about the offensive rebounding. Boozer and Noah had 6 each, and Gibson added 5. That said, Jimmy Butler had the biggest offensive board of the day. With the Bulls clinging to a 91-86 lead with 48 seconds left, Butler rebounded his own missed 21-footer and fed Boozer for a layup. That pretty much clinched the game.

Said Thibs: “We understand how important rebounding is and it showed tonight.”

Key Stat Part 1:
See the crazy rebounding numbers mentioned above.

Key Stat Part 2:
The Bulls scored at a rate of 111.6 points per 100 possessions, which was well ahead of their season average of 102.7. They had an excellent game plan and stuck with it.

Key Stat Part 3:
The Heat rank second in the league in three-point shooting percentage at 39.4 percent. Just like they did against the Knicks, the Bulls went all-out to contest three-point shots. And it worked. the Heat went 5-for-20 (25 percent) and never got into a rhythm from behind the arc. James and Shane Battier both went 1-for-5, Mario Chalmers was 1-for-3 and Mike Miller missed his only attempt.

Player of the Game:
Carlos Boozer. He followed up his season-best scoring output against the Magic by putting up a team-high 27 points against the Heat. Boozington shot 12-for-17 from the field, added a co-game-high 12 rebounds, and compiled a game-best plus-minus score of +19. Boozer shot 6-for-7 at the rim, 3-for-5 from 10-15 feet and 3-for-5 from 16-23 feet. He scored 16 points in the paint, ripped down 6 offensive board, and even played (for him) spirited defense. It was, without question, Boozer’s best game of the season…and it provided a little redemption.

One reason Bulls fans have singled out Boozer for abuse the last few seasons has been his play against the Heat. In 2010-11, Boozer averaged 16.3 points on 55 percent shooting and almost 9 rebounds per game against Miami during the regular season. He even had a couple big games against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, including a 26-point, 17-rebound outing in Game 3 and a 20-point, 11-rebound effort in Game 4. But he was terrible in Game 2 (7 points on 3-for-10 shooting) and even worse when the Bulls got eliminated in Game 5 (5 points, 1-for-6, 6 boards).

Boozer’s struggles against the Heat got even worse last season, when he averaged only 10.3 points on 43 percent shooting against them, including a dreadful 2-point game.

Last night, Boozer was dominant. He was aggressive with or without the ball and scored in various ways against a variety of defenders.

Said Noah: “I don’t know if that small ball is going to work against us. Not with guys like Carlos Boozer in the game.”

Maybe. Maybe not. But it didn’t work last night.

Goat of the Night:
I’m making this a joint “award” for Rip Hamilton and Marco Belinelli. Rip scored 7 points on 3-for-6 shooting in 17 minutes, but he also had a team-worst 4 turnovers. Marco also scored 7 points, but it took him 8 shots to get there. Both players had negative plus-minus scores, and neither of them ever looked entirely comfortable.

From the outside, it seems like Thibdodeau hasn’t made a decision about who should get the bulk of the minutes at shooting guard. Last night, Hamilton logged 17 minutes and Belinelli played 18. Both players appear to perform their best when they get consistent time on the court. Until Thibs makes a choice, both players will likely continue to struggle.

The Butler Did It Again:
With every passing game, this kid looks more and more like the real deal. His stats don’t jump out at you from the box score — 8 points (2-for-6, 3-for-4 at the line), 5 rebounds, 2 assists — but his effort jumps out if you watch the games. He goes all out on defense and doesn’t try to do anything that’s outside of his skill set or comfort zone.

The kid’s also got a toughness streak. Late in the first half, he took it right at Dwayne Wade and hit the shot while Wade fouled him. He also knocked down the ensuing free throw. There was also a Heat offensive possession in the fourth quarter in which Butler stood up to James and even cleanly blocked LeBron’s shot. Unfortunately, the officials saw fit to call a foul even though the replay showed there wasn’t any illegal contact.

There was some concern about whether Butler would make a suitable replacement for the departed Ronnie Brewer. I think those concerns have been laid to rest. The Knicks are winning, but Brewer is not playing well, and Butler is improving by leaps and bounds.

Completely and Totally Gassed:
Deng had a rough statistical night — 6 points on 2-for-9 shooting to go with 4 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals. He logged an exhausting 43 minutes trying to do the impossible: contain LeBron James, who cannot be contained by mortal men. By the end of the night, Deng wasn’t moving without the ball and got caught with his hands at his sides several times.

Playing long minutes against the MVP in what might be his best season ever will do that.

Please note, however, that the Bulls outscored the Heat by 12 points when Deng was on the floor, despite LeBron’s 30 points.

Quote of the Night:
Noah: “As long as we stay hungry, we stay driven, stay humble, I think the sky’s the limit. We just got to play for the right reasons, play for each other and if we play for each other I think that the sky’s the limit. And we know that our best basketball is going to come when Derrick comes back as well. It’s good (stuff), man. It’s good (stuff).”

Recap, Box Score, Advanced Box Score, Play-by-Play, Shot Chart.

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