MIAMI -- In the copy-cat league thats the NBA, theres been a major shift since last spring. That's when the Heat rode a "positionless," small-ball lineup, utilizing Chris Bosh at center, LeBron James at power forward and a cadre of outside shooters that now includes offseason acquisition Ray Allen to space the floor, get into transition and generally wreak havoc. Unlike a lot of teams, the Bulls -- even without Derrick Rose and the Bench Mob -- havent followed suit.
Instead, theyve stuck with their formula of tough defense, strong rebounding and size, featuring versatile players and an emphasis on dominating the paint which yielded the positive result of Friday nights 96-89 win over the Heat at American Airlines Arena. Just like virtually every game against Miami, it was a close-knit affair and while the Bulls wont always come out on top, especially being short-handed -- although its not as if they havent beaten the Heat without Rose or other key players in the past (anybody remember John Lucas IIIs magical evening at the United Center last season?) -- theres no fear factor, as they know that regardless of whos on the court, if they execute their game plan, theyll always have a shot.
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"Theyre the defending champions, theyre a great team. In order to beat them, youve got to beat them. They dont give you anything, head coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I thought we fought hard, we battled and things went our way in the end and I think we understand how important rebounding is. It showed tonight. I thought that was the difference in the game. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained. "But for us, I think the big thing is to focus on our improvement and so we dont want to get wrapped up in this one carries over and youre not thinking about your next game. Just concentrate on improvement each and every day, and thats what were trying to do.
WATCH: Thibodeau praises his team after win over Heat
Bulls center Joakim Noah echoed Thibodeau's words.
"Its a great win for us. Were very happy," he said. "It was a hard-fought game. We just pounded the glass. It was a great team effort. I think we played for each other and we needed it. We havent been playing great basketball and it was probably our biggest win of the year, against the defending champs. It feels good.
WATCH: Noah says win over Heat biggest of the year
That play when Nate got the charge and then he hit the three. The play when Booz was on the floor, passed it to Taj. Great offensive rebounds by Taj Gibson. Jimmy Butler, great offensive rebounds at the end for that pass for Booz to score. These are just winning plays, just effort plays. I think that we play team ball and we play together. When they drove baseline, there was always somebody there to trap the box and it was probably our best team win of the year, so it feels good."
In general, yes, it was an inspirational triumph to beat the Heat in their own arena, but more than that, strategically it appears that the Bulls have answers for Miamis fast-paced attack. When the likes of Noah, Gibson, Luol Deng and Butler have the size, strength and mobility to guard basically every player the Heat trots out and Carlos Boozer asserts himself on the interior as a low-post threat Miami has no answer for, its a thing of beauty.
"Really, we're ready for anything. It fits us well when they go small because we've got guys who can switch on multiple different screens. When Thibs sees that, his eyes light up because he understands that me, Jimmy, Lu, Joakim, different guys know how to switch on multiple positions," Gibson said. "At one point, I was guarding Ray Allen. I didnt even expect to guard Ray, but I was guarding him. But were always ready for anything, any task and were always ready to offensive rebound and go to the glass."
Boozer continued on the theme, crediting both the Heat and his teammates.
"Miamis approach is very effective," he said. "Obviously they won a championship doing it that way. So, for us, what we focused on was trying to pound them in the paint, rebound the ball, get the ball on the side, if you get double or triple-teamed, make the right play to whoevers open and I felt like we did a good job of that."
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Then, there's the fact that players like Deng and Butler were willing to sacrifice their offense in an effort to focus all of their energy on guarding James and All-Star Dwyane Wade, respectively. For Deng, it's old hat, as he's battled the reigning league MVP since their high-school days, but Butler was a novice at defending Wade, his fellow Marquette product.
"LeBron is LeBron and the biggest thing, I think, when you play against him is you have to compete with him and I thought he did that," Thibodeau said. "Lu's shot wasnt falling. I thought he had a couple plays in which calls could have been made and they werent, but he doesnt let that affect him. He keeps playing. I thought his playmaking was very good. He had four or five great passes that led to easy scores for us, so Luol, you can count on that guy every night. You can count on him when hes not shooting well. Hes going to give you something thats going to help you win every time he steps on the floor.
"I thought Jimmy had some really good minutes, particularly in the first half, when the game was sort of going the other way. I thought his energy and his toughness added a lot.
In a true team effort, the Bulls received contributions from up and down the roster. But while its a game they should definitely be proud of, its also something theyre capable of duplicating. So if they continue to defy observers who thought theyd be lucky to simply make the playoffs and in a weak Eastern Conference and truly become a factor, this early January game is something to keep in mind.
"First of all, this is a tough place to get a win," said Noah, who noted that winning cures everything in his first game back in the lineup after missing Wednesdays win in Orlando with flu-like symptoms. "I don't know why we have success, but they also ended our season two years ago. Well remember that and hopefully we can see them again in the playoffs."