Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knew prior to the game what would determine a victory in a matchup between the defending champs and the hungry Chicago Bulls, who haven’t tried to hide their hate for an opponent that has ended their playoff run two out of the last three seasons.
“It’s got to be more than the X’s and O’s,” Spoelstra said. “That’s really what it was the last two games (vs. Chicago) and a lot of this game today will be the intangibles in the trenches.”
Widely known around the league for their hard-playing, find-ways-to-win attitude, the Bull brought all the intangibles needed to send the Heat to their third straight loss with a 95-88 victory.
The Bulls (35-28) outscored Miami 9-2 in overtime. They also outscored them 27-6 in second chance points in a game that featured 11 ties and 13 lead changes.
“This is what you play basketball for,” Joakim Noah said. “I love it. I’m having a great time. Beating Miami—I don’t care if it’s the regular season—it’s always special.
“We played with a lot of hate today.”
There were only three technical called during the game (2 on Chicago, 1 for Miami), but the game had its chippy moments that will go along in the lengthy file of physical exchanges between the two teams.
Jimmy Butler and LeBron James got tangled up during the second quarter and had to be separated by an official. Kirk Hinrich delivered a pair of hard fouls on Dwyane Wade on drives to the basket and Noah made sure the Heat got an earful of him throughout the contest.
“He was trash-talking them the whole night,” said Taj Gibson, who decided early Sunday morning he would play after two days of battling with the flu. “He was in their ear the whole night, letting it be known that he was going to be after every rebound and he was really telling them everything that he was going to do. I could just see it on their faces, he was frustrating them and he really takes pride in the game. I think he’s playing MVP-style basketball and he’s our leader and it shows. He led us to this victory.”
D.J. Augustin scored a team-high 22 points, going 4-0f-6 from 3-pt range. Noah recorded his 31st double-double with 20 points and a team-high 12 rebounds. He also added a team-high seven assists along with a team-high five blocked shots. All of which came as his father, Yannick Noah, cheered with the exuberance of his son.
Jimmy Butler added 16 points and 11 rebounds, but the highlight for him was his defense on LeBron James.
Even with James being an offense to himself and requiring the attention of every defender on the floor, Butler played the four-time MVP close and physical, only allowing 17 points on 8-for-23 shooting. James didn’t attempt a single free throw.
Butler’s strip of James’ drive to the rim, as regulation was coming to a close and the score tied at 86, punctuated Spoelstra’s pre-game statement of “intangibles in the trenches.”
“Jimmy played a terrific game,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He plays with such toughness and he makes (offensive players) work. You can’t stop players like LeBron and Wade individually, but he battles and steps up to make the play. He is a catalyst. He makes a lot of things happen for our team.”
James ditched his protective face mask that he had been scheduled to wear for two weeks after having surgery to repair a broken nose on Feb. 21 and didn’t seem as aggressive as he normally does, but the Heat got 25 points from Dwyane Wade. Miami also shot 21-for-22 at the free throw line, but couldn’t get nothing going in overtime only converting on one of their eight shot attempts.
The Bulls started the game good with Kirk Hinrich and Carlos Boozer being aggressive in the first quarter. The Bulls went up 34-28 in the second with 6:50 remaining after an Augustin three, which forced a Heat timeout. During the timeout, the Jumbo-Tron displayed its “Moments In Time” montage that looked back at the Bulls 101-97 win last March that snapped Miami’s 27-game win streak.
It’s doubtful that Miami was paying attention, but they responded with a 15-3 run to end the period and take a 43-37 lead into halftime. The Heat continued to attack the basket to start the second half and James woke up to score seven in the third to put the Bulls down 67-59 going into the fourth.
"We didn’t let down," Noah said. "A lot of teams in this league, when they get hit in the mouth, they let down. We didn’t let down. I’m proud of my teammates. I’m proud of this team, just to keep fighting and show that resiliency in a big game like this, especially against the defending champs."
The Bulls went on a 13-0 run in the fourth to regain the lead, but no one could gain control with there being six lead changes and five ties in the final five minutes. The last tie coming when Hinrich made a lefty scoop layup to knot the game at 86 with 20 seconds remaining, which set the stage for Butler’s strip of James and the team’s overtime defensive effort.
No matter what the Bulls have gone through the past three seasons in terms of injuries or lack of healthy bodies, there’s just something about playing Miami that always seems to bring the best out of them. It’s just an indicator that shows that Miami or Indiana won’t have such an easy romp to an Eastern Conference Finals date like most would expect in the horrid East.
“We don’t like them,” Gibson said. “You see how we play, teams throwing elbows. We don’t like them and they don’t like us. They got what we want and the only way to get there is to go through them. When we play them, we’re going to give it our all.
“You look at all the ups and downs we go through….. we got so many different injuries, new groups of guys that seem to buy into what we like to do; buy into the whole team aspect and we keep flourishing ever year," he continued. "(We’re) just always right there toward hitting that next turn, next corner, but it’s always injury or something else happens. Right now, we’re just digging. That’s our rival. They got what we want; a championship.”