LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined for 71 points on 58.8 percent shooting on Wednesday night, and Derrick Rose watched it all in street clothes from the bench. Yet the Chicago Bulls still found a way to take down the Miami Heat with teamwork in an emotional 106-102 win at the United Center. For Rose, missing a prime time ESPN game against the Bulls' top rival had to be difficult, but it still registered as a better day than Tuesday. After getting an MRI on his injured groin on that day, he was figuratively hit with a $25,000 fine from the league for criticizing the referees and then was literally hit by a driver who rear-ended his car on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago. His teammates made all of that chaos easy to forget by playing their collective arses off against Miami (read: LBJ and D-Wade).
The Heat-Bulls rivalry is real, folks. Not only is it emotional -- Chicago fans booed LeBron on his early touches, flashed explicit tee-shirts targeting King James and booed him again on crunch time possessions -- it's always an extremely competitive matchup. Consider this insane stat: in 10 head-to-heads over the past two years, the aggregate score is Miami 917 - Chicago 914 (via @JeffGurt). The critical difference on this night happened to be the superior teamwork and depth of the Bulls.
James and Wade turned in phenomenal performances, but they still managed to become the first duo to each score 35+ and lose since 2006. To say they received little help from their teammates would be an understatement. In the opening period, Wade and James scored all 23 points while the rest of the roster shot 0-for-6. By halftime the point ratio moved to 33-9 in favor of the two megastars. By the end, it looked just as ugly. James hit jumpers from all angles and finished with 35 points on 14-for-25 shooting, five rebounds, four assists and four steals, while Wade attacked the rim and pulled off a 36-point, seven rebound night. LBJ and D-Wade hit 30 of Miami's 38 made field goals on the night, as if to test the limits of ridiculousness. The other eight Heat players stumbled to a pathetic combined line of 31 points on 23.5 percent from the field.
Plenty of credit is due to Chicago for making Miami into something less than a team on the court. The late scratch of Rose put everyone on notice that energy and execution needed to be at a premium from tip to final buzzer, and each player helped to meet that challenge. Luol Deng (11), C.J. Watson (11), Ronnie Brewer (12), Kyle Korver (12), Joakim Noah (14) and John Lucas III (24) all scored in double-figures for a paint-by-numbers offense, but the little things outside of points are what really helped the Bulls get the W.
Chicago had an answer for everything. When LeBron threw down an emphatic dunk, Taj Gibson countered with equal authority in a call-and-response spectacle for the ESPN cameras. When Wade poured in 19 fourth quarter points, John Lucas III responded with 11 of his own to protect the lead. Joakim Noah and Luol Deng did their thing on the defensive end too. Here's a taste of how Joakim Noah added to his career highlight package:
Then there's backup guard John Lucas III, who transformed into a clutch killer down the stretch. Eleven of his 24 points were scored in the fourth, and he caught the attention of LBJ on the final few final possessions. James defending Lucas didn't even work, but maybe because it was just one of those nights for Chicago. Nobody outside of James and Wade contributed anything of value for the Heat, while the Bulls upped the ante with shooting 10-for-19 from the arc. Here's video of the John Lucas III Experience -- 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting.
Thibs used the rotation wisely. He recognized when it was more profitable to play the lesser-talented rested player over the dependable fatigued player. Against Miami, you have to come with skill, but the bodies must be fresh to keep them away from where their offense kills the bloodiest -- at the free throw line.
The fresh bodies of a ten-man rotation where no one played more than 38 minutes or less than 11 paid off. There weren't those late rotations and reactions where Bulls were forced to hack; and there weren't players exhausting their dribble into too many turnovers.
When Chicago took an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter, the game still didn't quite feel in hand -- even though the Bulls have now won a league-high 49 straight games when leading after the third period. Fans experienced the hustle and determination of their backups with a joyous but guarded enthusiasm. The Heat had to make a run, right? And they certainly did, but it came up just short.
James and Wade combined to hit seven straight shots in the final three minutes of the game to cut the Bulls' lead to 100-96, then Wade cleared out for an isolation opportunity at the top of the key and bricked a last-best-chance three with 43 seconds remaining. From there the Bulls executed chase-and-foul offense to close out the game at 106-102. Hoping the entire supporting cast for Miami lays a complete dud is not a blueprint for success going forward, but it's nevertheless a terrific win to seize in the moment.
The Bulls (36-9) are now 3.5 games ahead of the Heat (31-11) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.