Withstanding the Heat
In a lost season, Bulls remind how tough they can be in halting Miami's streak
CHICAGO -- There was a revival in the United Center, and it had nothing to do with The Return.
As expected, rapper Waka Flocka Flame's Twitter prediction of a Derrick Rose return proved hollow. The only thing that returned on this late March evening was the Chicago Bulls' outsized sense of pride and that once-familiar feeling of extinguishing the Miami Heat -- in the regular season, at least.
The atmosphere was unusually charged for a regular-season game. It's not every day you can see the Bulls win their third straight game, matching a very sad season high, and clinch a playoff berth, right?
That's what everyone came for, wasn't it? Not the fate of the Heat's epic 27-game winning streak.
"We got our streak going," said a smiling Luol Deng after the game. "If there weren't 12 games left, we might go for 27, 28."
Deng was kidding, as he carefully pointed out. But he was glad to indulge in a joke.
Once upon a time, the Bulls rarely lost as they racked up the best record in the league the past two seasons.
But with Rose's absence now at 70 games and looking more and more like a lost season for the erstwhile MVP, the undermanned Bulls (39-31) found momentary joy, and a certain validation, by breaking Miami's famous winning streak with a bruising 101-97 victory Wednesday night.
To Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, this was just another game, another opportunity to remind his players not to skip steps while trying to make his head explode every few minutes or so.
"Honestly, the dude is the same every game," Deng said.
So, of course, Thibodeau said that the Heat's streak just "hyped up the media," not his team. But that wasn't the case.
Ending anyone's winning streak is always a goal, but the Bulls consider the Heat (56-15) their biggest rivals, even if it's not reciprocal.
"We knew it was a big game," Deng said. "There are a lot of [reporters] in this locker room I haven't seen before, so I knew it was a big game right away."
While James complained about hard fouls, overall the Heat didn't seem broken up about the loss, trying to fool reporters that they never cared about it anyway. Miami reporters, tired of the hype, cracked beers in the press room. "Here's to the Bulls!"
The challenge to the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers' 33-game winning streak is over. No more talking about how the Heat compare to the 1995-96 Bulls.
Basketball fans of America, you can send those flowers to the Berto Center, c/o Tom Thibodeau. He likes spring assortments.
"I'm just happy that's over," Taj Gibson said. "There was a lot of pressure tonight. It felt like it was a playoff, championship game. That's how much we were hearing about it."
The national media came to watch the Heat roll over the injury-riddled Bulls. The fans came to get Rose bobbleheads and yell nasty things at James.
Maybe some of us came to write a eulogy for the Bulls -- death by Rosephyxia.
What we got was a playoff-caliber atmosphere with playoff-caliber basketball. Hard-fouling, exciting basketball.
How physical was this game? The Bears stats crew gave Kirk Hinrich 14 tackles. Hey, someone has to get them now that Brian Urlacher is gone.
James, a former All-State receiver in high school, wasn't basking in the old-school glow of the game, nor his flagrant foul in the fourth quarter.
"First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground," a perturbed James told reporters. "And the last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground. Those are not basketball plays. It's been happening all year, and I've been able to keep my cool. But it is getting to me a little bit."
Later, Bosh was asked which teams play as physical as the Bulls.
"Everybody," he said. "Every team we play against, it's pretty much the same thing. We get everybody's best. Some days we win, some days we lose.
It was Deng who led the Bulls with 28 points, seven rebounds and five assists in 44 minutes, 27 seconds. It was Carlos Boozer, who despite his foibles, played tough in the paint with 21 points and 17 rebounds, and it was ascendant guard Jimmy Butler who might have been the key with 17 points, five assists and one jaw-dropping alley-oop finish.
But maybe the true heart of this Bulls win was Hinrich, who so annoyed James.
The veteran point guard shot 3-for-10 and had several shots swatted like volleyballs, but he had six assists and two huge, game-defining moments: firing up the crowd on that pseudo-tackle of James while trying to draw a charge and ripping a ball out of Bosh's hands near the Heat basket late in the fourth quarter, which started a fast break and squelched a possible "Heat check."
There's a reason the Bulls love Hinrich and wanted him back.
"Kirk is one of the toughest guys I know," Gibson said. "He has so much swag every day in practice. He's a real vet. He doesn't shy away from anything. He's always in the middle, especially against big men. He switches out on centers. He doesn't really care. He's one of those dog kind of players."
Deng compared Hinrich's foul to Terry Gannon fouling Clyde Drexler in the 1983 NCAA championship game, recently told in a "30 for 30" documentary.
"Kirk went for the charge and didn't let him take off, kind of grabbed him," Deng said. "That's Kirk. The Bosh play, he'd give up his body to win a game."
While the Heat's streak was in their ears, Gibson swore the Bulls were more concerned with the way the Heat won in Chicago on Feb. 21, an 86-67 beating during the Bulls' bad run.
"We didn't really like the way they beat us on our home court last time," Gibson said. "We wanted to go out there and play our own game. Once the game came, guys were just amped. We knew what we had to do. There was no talking. Guys just understood to go out and play hard and take hard fouls."
Chicago fell in love with the Bulls the last two years because of Rose's heroics but also because of games like this one. This hasn't always been an easy Bulls team to root for, thanks to the myriad injuries and dearth of winning streaks. But for one night, the Bulls looked like giant killers and the crowd treated them like conquering heroes.
One night doesn't make a season. With 12 games left, the Bulls hope this is the start of a respectable finish. And you never know, maybe Rose, who said he's waiting on God's word to play on his surgically repaired knee, will see this win as divine intervention.