The story of the 2012-13 Chicago Bulls is one of an ever-growing divide between what you can see and what you can't.
It was a foundation laid in the days immediately following playoff elimination at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers. The top-seeded Bulls didn't just lose to a No. 8 seed, they also lost Derrick Rose for an indefinable amount of time to a torn ACL, an injury that subsequently caused the organization to dismantle the same self-proclaimed "Bench Mob" that proved so vital to the team's success over the last two seasons for financial reasons.
But for whatever angst the offseason caused, it was never meant as an extension of the faces and names that make up these Bulls. The primary components are all still here, save for one very notable absence. As the Bulls have clawed their way to an 18-13 record, currently fifth-best in the conference, they've done it the same way they always have. Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson remain warriors, Tom Thibodeau is still the same certifiable maniac with a one-tracked basketball mind. There's still a lot to like here.
Never was this more apparent than on Friday against the Miami Heat, a road game the Bulls won despite the talent gap between the two teams being as wide as ever.
The Charlotte Bobcats broke an 18-game losing streak against the Bulls just four days prior and a win over the equally woeful Wizards the game before wasn't as convincing as it should have been. Yet Chicago punished the Heat on the inside, dominated rebounds and second-chance points, and held Miami, top three in offensive efficiency, under 90 points.
The Bulls beat the Heat last year when John Lucas III scored 24 points and honest-to-goodness out-gunned LeBron, they beat them once more when a clearly banged-up Rose shot 1-of-13 and the now departed C.J. Watson and Kyle Korver carried the offense by combining for 33 points and seven three-pointers. Each of those wins over Miami last season were totally unthinkable, and Friday's victory was very much on the same level. The current D. Rose-less incarnation of Chicago should not have had the shot creators or shot makers to hang with LeBron and Co. Instead, they scored what was close to a wire-to-wire victory thanks to the same virtues that have propelled this team for the last two and a half seasons.
Here are a few excellent things about the win:
"We got smashed on the glass," James said.
LeBron has a way with words, at least in these increasingly rare melancholy and honest postgame states. The thought of James repeating these words should be enough to carry Bulls fans on positive vibes for the rest of the season, everything else be damned.
James wasn't exaggerating. The Bulls dominated Miami 48-28 on the boards, and it was very much the reason they won the game. The Bulls finished with 19 offensive rebounds; the Heat finished with four. Chicago out-scored Miami 20-7 on second chance points. The Bulls' 44.2 percent offensive rebound rate was a season-high.
Miami's evolutionary take on smallball proved killer last postseason, but at least when LeBron isn't at his most otherworldly and at least when his teammates aren't making you pay too regularly with open threes, Miami is undeniably vulnerable inside. That Noah and Carlos Boozer destroyed the Heat so thoroughly was something close to art. It was as beautiful as it was bloody.
Carlos Boozer, hero of men
Boozer became public enemy No. 1 for Bulls fans soon after signing a near-max contract in the summer of 2010 for reasons that are far too obvious. He doesn't play defense, he just sort of stands and yells. He doesn't take it hard in the paint on the offensive end like he did in Utah, he just sort of hoists rainbow jumpers. But Boozer is quietly putting together another decent enough season -- 15 points and 9.6 rebounds per game with a 17.55 PER, even if his shooting percentages are dipping -- and dare I say Friday was the best game he's ever played as a member of the Bulls.
Boozer has a reputation as a bit of a bum slayer -- he kills bad teams, struggles mightily against top competition and especially in the playoffs -- but it wasn't an issue on Friday in Miami. Boozer was ... all over the place. He was fighting for rebounds, finishing inside, even clawing for loose balls. He dove to rescue one critical fourth-quarter possession that led to two of those second chance points for Chicago. It was the lead of the AP recap. Boozer finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds. He's never looked better.
Joakim Noah's 'flu-like symptoms'
On the subject of hangovers, The Hold Steady once sang "And Saturday night was a runway/That extended into Sunday/And sometimes Monday". Joakim Noah is probably familiar with the feeling.
Noah played his worst game of the season in Chicago's Dec. 31 matinee loss to the Bobcats, and then sat out Chicago's Jan. 2 victory over Orlando with "flu-like symptoms." Sure, if that's what we're calling it now. But Noah was back to work, fully operational, on Friday against the Heat, and the Bulls reaped the benefits. Noah exploded for 13 points, 12 rebounds and four assists. Miami had no answer for him. Perhaps the Heat should try the coconut water that Noah recommends for party-related illnesses so heartily.
The first, from Tom Thibodeau:
"Kirk (Hinrich) wasn't in, so that hurt us. But that being said, we have more than enough to win with. And if we're doing the right things we're going to have a good chance to win, so that's what we have to focus in on. You can't skip steps in this league; if you skip steps you usually get what you deserve, and we got what we deserved. Charlotte played very well in that game."
This quote has it all. Let's count:
2. "more than enough to win with"
3. "can't skip steps"
4. "you usually get what you deserve"
Four Thibodeau staples packed into 79 words. Amazing, really.
Regarding All-Star voting, James said with a chuckle: "It looks like I'm going to be a starter. Surprising."
I can't get enough of that. I just keep staring at it. Also:
LeBron has to fake rolling his ankle every once in a while to keep up the illusion that he's human. Like when Clark Kent can't open a jar.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) January 7, 2013
The Bulls are now 7-2 against the Heat in the regular season. Maybe it doesn't foreshadow future success, maybe it only serves to drum up false hope. Still, to be a healthy sports fan is to find joy in single moments, single games, and beating the Heat is still as sweet as ever.
Choosing to save money over trying to get better was nothing new for this franchise -- the Bulls are one of six teams never to pay the luxury tax, despite being wildly profitable by any measure -- but the financial impurity took on a new meaning with more enlightened fans eager to call the organization out on its own B.S. This was the groundwork for which these Bulls started the new season, and it's important to note that it's been hanging over everything as the team continues to grind through the regular season as Rose recovers. Even still, there are a lot things about these Bulls that are perfectly commendable on the court. If only the shadowy behind-the-scenes figures made as much sense.