- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- There is value to winning and value to losing and value in knowing the difference.
So while there are those who will rightfully and righteously point to the fact that the Bulls were 3-0 against Miami in 2010-11 in their regular-season series and still lost 4-1 in the Eastern Conference finals, it seems like nothing more than overthinking in the wake of the Bulls' 96-86 overtime victory over the Heat on Thursday.
The Bulls clinched the Central Division with the victory. More important, they climbed one win closer to sewing up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. And still more important, they added one more positive and, yes, valuable experience to their arsenal, giving opponents perhaps one more thing to think about in preparing to play them. And then there's always this: It is never a bad thing to perform well in critical game situations before a roaring crowd and a national television audience. Winning, as they say, doesn't stink.
"For sure," said a laughing Kyle Korver, one of many Bulls heroes Thursday night at the United Center (he finished with 17 points on 5-of-6 3-point shooting). "You try to learn while you win."
So what did the Bulls learn?
They learned they can beat the Heat with Derrick Rose playing his worst game as a pro (two points on 1-for-13 shooting to go with eight assists). Considering they already learned they could beat the Heat without Rose this season, this was just as positive, if not quite revelatory.
"It's one of the big steps in one of the biggest games around," said Korver's fellow bench-mobber Taj Gibson. "That's one of our rivals. They knocked us out of the playoffs last year. And there are a lot of emotions knowing how hard we work, how much effort we put in every day in practice. There's just joy, a lot of joy."
He might get fined by Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau for admitting as much. But even Rose, coming back from a sprained ankle that kept him out of Tuesday's game against the Knicks, could recognize a positive when he saw one. And when your bench outscores the opponent's bench 47-7, as the Bulls did, and your team triumphs despite playing without its star player for 9:19 of the fourth quarter and all of the five-minute overtime period, it's especially tough to overlook.
"If that's the lineup to win the game, I can't complain about anything," Rose said.
For three-plus quarters, this was not a thing of beauty, not even a shell of what you hope playoff basketball will look like. But the Bulls, with a 10-2 run at the end of the third, surged into the fourth behind the dynamic play of C.J. Watson, the sharp-shooting of Korver and Luol Deng, and the fierce rebounding of Gibson and Omer Asik, and presented a bizarre dilemma.
Would Thibodeau go back to Rose, who was scoreless in the first half and had been on the bench from 3:45 of the third, even though Watson had given the Bulls almost everything Rose could have?
Thibodeau reinserted Rose with 3:30 left in regulation and the Bulls leading by two. But Rose was clearly not in late-game form any more than he was in early-game form, missing everything on both a jumper and a drive before Thibodeau took him back out for Watson with 49.3 seconds left in regulation.
"I tweaked my ankle a little bit so I didn't think I'd go back in," Watson said. "It's good that the coach [had] confidence in me."
Watson, who finished with 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting and nine assists, would hit the 3-pointer that sent the game into overtime after LeBron James missed one of two free throws. But the confidence in Watson, Thibodeau said, was never in question.
"C.J. needed a break; otherwise he would've finished it out," he said.
Thibodeau admitted, however, that had he coached the reigning NBA MVP earlier in his career, it might not have been quite so easy a call.
"If this were his first or second year, maybe you would be more concerned with that," Thibodeau said. "But where Derrick is now as a player, he knows, he understands the situation. He's coming off an injury. He's a very confident guy. He'll get up to speed very quickly. The thing that you love about him is he was so happy we won and so happy for his teammates, and that's who Derrick is."
It is the Bulls' strength, they say.
"Our team all supports each other, whether we play good or bad, nobody is mad about playing time," Watson said. "It's why we're so successful."
Make no mistake, the Bulls need Rose to be fully healthy, and they need the starting unit -- along with Rip Hamilton, who played a solid if not spectacular 24 minutes -- to find its groove before the postseason. But given the fact that Thibodeau will continue to utilize the deepest bench in the league come playoff time while other coaches work with shortened rotations, Thursday night gave the Heat that much more to think about.
"This was very encouraging to me, man, because it's fun, it's exciting," Hamilton said. "I've been there before, and you win championships being a team, when everybody has each other's back and everybody's out there cheering each other and everybody's putting everything aside for one goal and that's to win. And that was great seeing that tonight.
"It was big because we want to be playing our best basketball going into the playoffs. But I think the key thing is we understand we need everybody in the locker room."
The Bulls are nothing if not realistic.
"We're proud of ourselves for winning tonight but we didn't win the championship tonight," said Carlos Boozer, who led the Bulls in scoring with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
But that does not mean Thursday night's victory did not have value.
"I think we're continuing to learn how to play against them," Korver said. "The more times you play someone, the more you learn about them. Tonight is great because it gives us more cushion. We want to have home-court [advantage]; we want to have the 1-seed, for sure. If nothing else, if there's a Game 7, it's going to be played here, and that's a good thing. But we know it all comes down to the playoffs."
The Bulls showed their biggest advantage on the Heat is power in numbers.