Updated: April 13, 2012, 10:15 AM ET

1. Bulls' Bench Puts Struggling Heat On Tilt

By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls did more than just beat the Miami Heat on Thursday night. They dealt a blow to their psyche.

And that could be more valuable down the line than virtually wrapping up home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, as the Bulls did with their 96-86 overtime win at the United Center.

The Heat have been living on the belief that when they reached for their extra gear, the one they unleashed against the Bulls in last year's playoffs, that they were the East's best team. Regardless of the standings or the statistics or the Heat's 13-10 record since the All-Star break, there was always that trump card in the back of their minds to make it easier to sleep.

Well, the Heat went to it Thursday, with coach Erik Spoelstra deploying the lineup he intends to use during the playoffs featuring the five free agents the Heat signed in the summer of 2010: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller. That group largely did in the Bulls during the conference finals last year, in fact.

James, Bosh and Wade combined for 71 points and shot 49 percent collectively, which against the Bulls' strong defense curves out to a terrific effort. A winning effort, they would expect. Especially considering the fact that they held Chicago to 43 percent shooting and just 84 points in regulation.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James and Dwyane Wade
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Bulls star Derrick Rose played one of the worst games of his career while still bogged down by rust after groin and ankle injuries, scoring two points and shooting 1-of-13. Joakim Noah had five points and four rebounds and Richard Hamilton had seven points. All three of those starters were benched down the stretch for inefficiency.

So afterward, in a silent Heat locker room as they absorbed their eighth loss in the past nine games on the road against teams with winning records, why was James staring at the wall and barely summoning a voice?

Because the Bulls beat the Heat with their second string -- walloped them, in fact. And it left the defending East champs reeling.

"It hurts. As a team we fought and played well and gave ourselves a chance to win," said James, who had 30 points and six rebounds but was scoreless in overtime when the Heat failed to register a basket from the field.

"This is one of the worst feelings I've had in the regular season this year."

Earlier this week the Heat put forth what they felt was a strong effort against the Boston Celtics, James having one of his best games of the season on the floor where the Heat had been the league's best home team. That, too, was a loss that staggered them.

Now they were dealing with the reality that C.J. Watson, one of the scraps the Bulls picked up after James, Wade and Bosh turned them down in 2010, was the best player in the fourth quarter and overtime. His 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left after the Heat's defense had a miscommunication broke their spirits. Add in Kyle Korver, who hit five of six 3-pointers, and Taj Gibson, who completely outplayed Bosh in overtime, and the Bulls had won the bench scoring by a 47-7 count.

Yes, with Rose, Noah and Hamilton cheering from the bench, the Bulls' second unit beat one of the Heat's best performances over the past few weeks. That's not a fatal blow, but it is not something the Heat are likely to get over easily. Especially after that same crew beat them without Rose a month ago.

That's two losses to the Bulls and two losses to the Celtics since the All-Star break and a meaningful part of their 13-10 record since then.

"You reach these moments where you're putting so much into it collectively and you can't get over the hump," Spoelstra said. "There is no easy road; what we're trying to do is the hardest thing we can do as professionals. Right now we're dealing with that hard road."

There were plenty of fingers to point. James missed a free throw with 11 seconds left that could've made it a four-point game and ended it. It erased the drama of the 3-pointer he'd made to give the Heat the lead with less than a minutes to play.

Wade missed a shot at the fourth-quarter buzzer and then both of his shots in overtime. Bosh missed two shots in overtime and had a costly turnover. Shane Battier, it appeared, was the guilty party who lost Watson on the tying 3-pointer when he and James mishandled a switch on a screen.

But it wasn't about a search for goats. It was about how the Bulls' overall team depth had beaten the Heat's star power. That is not how the Heat planned for things to go, and is simply not something they can afford if these teams meet in the conference finals. If that matchup takes place, it is safe to assume that Rose will not be such a nonfactor.

It was a missed opportunity and a mental blow, as the Heat now know they'd have to start the conference finals in Chicago and play a Game 7 there if it reaches such a point.

"We've got to trust our bench a little more; we've got to give those guys an opportunity," said Wade, who had 21 points. "I thought [Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau] did a good job trusting those guys no matter what they did. He trusted them all to the end. … We need to give [the bench] some confidence. We're going to need them."


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