Bulls pen another improbable chapter
MIAMI -- How do you explain the Chicago Bulls?
Try to, and your mind might just explode.
Call it good fortune, then, that we haven't spent a lot of time trying to explain them.
Instead, everyone has been focused on Derrick Rose and his extreme patience in returning from last year's ACL tear.
And in their first-round series, it appeared more people worried about why the seemingly more talented Brooklyn Nets -- check that, the clearly more talented Nets -- were so befuddling, rather than what the Bulls were actually accomplishing.
So now it's unavoidable, isn't it?
Now that the Bulls have beaten the Heat in Miami in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series -- improving to 2-2 against the Heat in a stretch where the rest of the league has gone 1-41 against them -- we have to examine exactly how Chicago is having what can already be called a remarkable playoff run.[+] EnlargeIssac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesJimmy Butler and Nate Robinson were at the heart of the Bulls' Game 1 upset over the defending champions.
Minds will be blown, and it's all the Bulls' fault.
This is a team that's missing its primary playmaker and primary scorer in Rose. That part -- the adjustment the Bulls have made over the course of the year without Rose -- is the easiest part to understand.
They've simply learned to play offense without him, in part because they had so much experience doing it last season.
But that's just the start.
All-Star Luol Deng is out. The fact that it's due to a botched spinal tap procedure only adds to the uniqueness of it all.
His replacement? Oh, just this guy named Jimmy Butler. This guy who averaged all of 8.5 minutes per game last year, his rookie season, but now is so valuable he literally can't leave the court for Chicago. He hasn't done so in three straight games now. Three playoff games.
Oh, and in this -- his third straight game with no rest -- he only managed 21 points, a game-high 14 rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot.
And he guarded LeBron James, on the day NBA commissioner David Stern handed LeBron his MVP trophy.
He must've been given some secret formula for guarding LeBron from Deng, who normally gives The King some trouble.
"I talked to Lu before the game," Butler said. "He just said take up his space, make everything tough for him, challenge every shot, and of course, no layups."
Oh, OK. It's that easy, huh?
If that's not every coach's instructions to players guarding LeBron James, they should be fired. Obviously, Butler has the talent to do exactly that. But who would've guessed it?
Then there's Nate Robinson, the player who's been equal parts athleticism and comedy for most of his career because of his unpredictable nature.
He's slowly eliminating the comedic portion of his game and replacing it with stability.
On Monday, he calmly dropped 27 points and nine assists on Miami despite needing 10 stitches on his upper lip after what he called "a hustle play that went wrong."
Maybe it's just the playing time that's turning Robinson into Mr. Reliable. Or maybe he's just performing this way because of how much he loves this particular team.
"There's something special about this group," Robinson said. "It feels like we've been playing together for, like, 10 years.
"I told Coach, we just love to play for each other."
There's Marco Belinelli, an offensive-minded player on his fourth team in six seasons who's thriving on this defense-first squad.
Belinelli did a $15,000 dance after hitting a big shot in Game 7 against the Nets, but in reality he was describing his entire team in that one gesture.
Those three guys alone -- Butler, Robinson and Belinelli -- combined for 58 points, 24 rebounds and 13 assists against Miami in Game 1.
Those three combined make $4.2 million this season.
Miami's Mike Miller, who dropped in for six minutes to score five points with three rebounds, is making $5.8 million.
The All-Star still on the court, Joakim Noah -- the heart, soul, kidneys and entire nervous system of this Bulls team -- has been playing with a partially torn plantar fascia.
He was on a minutes restriction early in the playoffs. That was until the Bulls needed three overtimes to beat the Nets in Game 4 of that series. He played 39 minutes in that game.
Somehow, his foot has gotten better since.
So much better that he's played 123 minutes in his past three games and calls the injury "almost a non-factor."
"I feel very lucky," Noah said. "Because I seriously felt the day before the playoffs started that I wasn't going to be able to play. To be able to play on this stage, in front of my family, my friends, everybody -- to me it's something that I'm not going to take any of this for granted, because I know how down I was two weeks ago."
So how do the Bulls do it?
How do they seemingly dictate the tempo of every game, regardless of who they're playing or who's playing for them?
The Bulls just beat Miami with Carlos Boozer not playing a single fourth-quarter minute.
This isn't to say the Bulls will win this series. The Heat, even against the best of defenses, don't shoot 39.7 percent like they did Monday, and the result was Miami playing out of character down the stretch of a tight game.
But even if the Bulls lose the next four games in this series, they will make every single one of those minutes pure hell for the Heat. And it's almost impossible to figure out how.
Almost, that is, until you realize how detailed and prepared and knowledgeable their coach, Tom Thibodeau, is.
"Thibs is a guru," Gibson said. "He understands the game plan.
"He had me guarding Ray Allen. That's how much confidence he has in everybody's ability to guard on defense. He really drew up and knew what the team was gonna do. Every time they ran down and ran offense, it was exactly what Thibs showed us on paper."
It probably shouldn't be a surprise.
This team has had this same exact identity since Thibodeau got the job three seasons ago.
But in a league that is constantly called a player's league, it remains somewhat surprising when a coach can have this direct an influence and win -- regardless of whom he puts on the floor.
So maybe now we can all understand a little better why there really is no pressure on Rose to return.
In fact, his teammates remain defiant, telling everyone who'll listen that Rose should be left alone.
"Everybody who hasn't been in that situation before should really shut up," Noah said. "I feel like it's really unfair to him and to this team. We're fighting, and you're just killing somebody that's given so much to this team and this organization. It's crazy."
Almost as crazy as the Bulls' first eight games of this postseason.