CHICAGO -- Now, the best and worst nights of John Lucas III's NBA career involve getting away from the Miami Heat.
Filling in for injured starter and reigning league MVP Derrick Rose (sore groin) at point guard for key stretches, Lucas took a page out of the Jeremy Lin script to shoot down a team that once gave up on him during the Chicago Bulls' 106-102 victory against the Heat on Wednesday at the United Center.
Lucas scored a team-high 24 points, including two free throws in the final seconds that secured the win for the Bulls. And much like Lin, it was a performance that might have also solidified a role for Lucas as the Bulls head into the stretch run of the season.
After the game, Lucas admitted that one of the biggest performances was fueled, in part, by the frustration and disappointment he felt when the Heat cut him just before the start of the 2009-10 season to reduce their roster to the league maximum of 15 players.
The wasn't necessarily what Lucas had a problem with. It was how Miami went about letting him go that still stings him a bit to this day.
Standing in the corner of a crowded and loud Bulls locker room after Wednesday's game, the 5-foot-10 Lucas could barely be heard over the chatter that filled the room. But he told the story of how the Heat carried him to their final preseason game in 2009 -- a trip to Jacksonville to face the Atlanta Hawks -- and informed him that he was cut just before players boarded the bus to the arena for the game.
“They let me go as I was coming down to get on the bus for the game,” Lucas recalled Wednesday. “So I watched the game in the stands. It put a little fire underneath me, because I felt like they could have let me go before we even [traveled] to that game. But that's something you take and go with. It's a business. That's all it is.”
The Heat ended up signing and keeping veteran journeyman Carlos Arroyo instead to challenge then-second-year guard Mario Chalmers for the starting job. Lucas ended up moving onto the next of what would ultimately be four short-term stops with NBA teams, two minor leagues and two stints overseas before he resurfaced with the Bulls this season.
“I felt like I had by far one of the best camps I had as an NBA player,” Lucas said of his time with the Heat. “No hard feelings. The organization was great. I was the last person to get cut. But I thought I was going to make the team.”
Instead, he spent Wednesday making that team pay. He caught the Heat's attention in the second quarter when he led the Bulls' second unit to a lead they would eventually grow to 17 points before Miami went on a late rally. For the second time in as many games, the Heat struggled at the two positions where the team has long been weakest: point guard and center.
Miami couldn't overcome deficiencies in those areas even on a night when Dwyane Wade (36 points) and LeBron James (35) combined for 71 points. Chris Bosh had a poor game, missing 12 of 15 shots, committing four turnovers and grabbing only three rebounds in 37 minutes in the Heat's fourth straight loss on the road.
Lucas seemed to pick up right where Jameer Nelson left off in the Orlando Magic's overtime win against the Heat on Tuesday. Miami had trouble defending the pick-and-roll in both games, with Nelson and Lucas carving through the defense to hit big shots or set up open teammates late.
Lucas became such a headache for the Heat that LeBron would take on the assignment of defending him in the fourth quarter. But Lucas was just one of the problems for Miami. The Heat's bench was outscored 56-15. The Bulls were also relentless on the glass and outrebounded the Heat 50-34, which also factored into a 21-7 edge in second-chance points. Miami also had a difficult time defending the paint Tuesday against Dwight Howard, who had 24 points and 25 rebounds.
Speaking of second chances, those are what have defined Lucas' career since he went undrafted out of Oklahoma State in 2005. He's bounced around from Minnesota to Houston to Oklahoma City and to Miami before making the Bulls' roster as the third point guard behind Rose and C.J. Watson.
James said he didn't feel like he was guarding a prospect who was trying to keep a job in the league during Wednesday's fourth quarter. Instead, he was defending a player confident he's finally arrived.
“He needs no confidence,” James said. “He's always been like that. When he's out on the court, he believes he's the best player on the floor. That's the way he plays. He made some big shots for them tonight. That's the reason why they had almost 60 points off the bench, and the reason why they won.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has been fond of Lin's rapid development this season with the New York Knicks after being cut by several NBA teams. Spoelstra spoke of some similarities with Lucas that go beyond their initials and the opportunities they've taken advantage of while primary rotation players were injured.
“We knew him well,” Spoelstra said of Lucas. “That's probably part of it. We're one of the teams that cut him. But he's a tough-minded player. That's a good storyline for a lot of young players out there who don't have the mental toughness to stay with it. I don't know how many times that kid has been cut. But it's made him tougher, more resilient. He's put in the time and played well.”
The last time Lucas faced the Heat, he was reduced to highlight fodder when LeBron leaped completely over him along the baseline to catch and finish a dunk off a lob pass. This time, Lucas made some of his own highlight moments, including when he beat James off the dribble for a step-back jumper to put the Bulls ahead 96-84 with four minutes left.
Lucas said he made several adjustments from that Jan. 29 loss to the Heat in Miami. Among them was taking some advice from his father, former NBA player and coach John Lucas II, on his drive to the arena for Wednesday's game. The elder Lucas broke down ways his son could get through cracks in the defense if the Heat tried to trap him the same way they did in the previous meeting.
“When you have an NBA father as a coach, and he knows the game and sees the game, then you have a little advantage,” Lucas said. “He called me today, right before I got here and told me some things I could do. He watches everything I do.”