Bulls come up big against Heat's 'small' lineup

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Bulls come up big against Heat's 'small' lineup

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.

RELATED: Boozer, Bulls shock defending-champion Heat in Miami

"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."

RELATED: Boozer's big night should quiet critics - for now

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."

Blackhawks improve faceoffs in Jonathan Toews’ absence

Blackhawks improve faceoffs in Jonathan Toews’ absence

Yanic Perreault came onto the ice as the Blackhawks wrapped up practice on Thursday.

It’s been a relatively common sight the last few seasons. Most of the time, Perreault has helped out when a particular player is struggling from the faceoff dot. That was true with Artem Anisimov earlier this season. But with Jonathan Toews sidelined the Blackhawks have been even more focused on improving upon and winning faceoffs. Thanks to the extra diligence, they’ve done that.

The Blackhawks’ overall faceoff performance has steadily improved. They’ll see how it goes again on Friday night when they face the New York Rangers, their eighth consecutive game without Toews.

“We’re working almost every practice and trying to get better on faceoffs,” Anisimov said on Thursday. “If we win the faceoff, we start with the puck and it’s pretty good. You can go to the offensive zone or win in the offensive zone you start with the puck and you have the opportunity to shoot the puck all day and get chances. It’s a big part of the game.”

Enter Perreault, who was a great faceoff man during his NHL career. The Blackhawks players say Perreault offers a wealth of information in each session.

“It’s different every day. The whole science behind it, he’s been great since he was brought in,” Marcus Kruger said. “He always has something new he wants us to work on, whether it’s just timing or body-positioning or something like that. It’s a lot of different stuff and we work on new stuff every day.”

Rasmussen agreed.

“It’s a lot of things you can work on,” he said. “You try to work on being in a low position so you get stronger. [There are] a lot of small things on how you can go against other guys that do it certain way, and you have to find your own way, too.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Their first game without Toews, against the Anaheim Ducks, was dismal. Part of that is the Ducks having some tremendous face-off guys. But Toews is the Blackhawks’ best at the dot – he’s won 60.3 percent of the time this season – so that first game without him was rough.

Here’s how things have progressed for the Blackhawks, with faceoffs won and lost and percentage, in Toews’ absence.

Opponent Wins-Losses Percent
Ducks 18-49 27 percent
Kings 21-37 36 percent
Panthers 39-35 53 percent
Devils 22-27 45 percent
Flyers 22-31 42 percent
Jets 31-27 53 percent
Coyotes 30-28 52 percent

So yes, there’s been improvement.

“I think we hold our own,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Yan works well with our center men, they take pride in trying to be the best they can and now they’re taking some important faceoffs and some they probably haven’t taken in the past, whether they’re defensive or special-teams faceoffs. They’ve all won some important faceoffs for us at key times, too.”

The Blackhawks have done their best filling the void left by Toews, especially on faceoffs. There’s been a lot of work put into it, especially with Perreault following practices. But the results have been there.

“We know we’d like to start with the puck, and we had a couple of tough games when Jonny went down initially,” Quenneville said. “But it’s been much better since.”

High School Lites Week 2 basketball capsules

High School Lites Week 2 basketball capsules

CSN Chicago will have cameras covering the biggest high school basketball games across Chicagoland for another basketball edition of High School Lites. Catch the show live at 11 p.m. Friday on CSN and streaming at CSNChicago.com

The show will feature numerous teams in the CSN Preps Power Rankings. The best game on Friday night could be No. 16 Benet traveling to No. 15 Notre Dame in a clash of unbeatens in the ESCC but there will be plenty of other highlights to check for.

The Red-West, North Suburban and Southland are all prominently featured on the show this week while High School Lites will also have highlights from the SouthWest Suburban.

This week's Viewers' Choice Game of the Week generated over 5,000 votes as Von Steuben will travel to Taft to represent the Red-North.

We'll also have a Getting to Know feature on Conant senior guard Jimmy Sotos.

Thursday's Game

Hyde Park at No. 7 Kenwood, 4:30 p.m. -- Kenwood will try to keep its momentum going as they host Hyde Park in a Red-Central battle. Kenwood (5-1, 1-0) is coming off of a Red-Central win over Dunbar earlier this week while Hyde Park (3-1, 1-0) defeated Lindblom for a conference victory as well. The Broncos are still unbeaten in Illinois as they're relying on senior big man Manny Patterson and his talented group of teammates. Hyde Park is trying to figure things out in head coach Jevon Mamon's first season as Andrew Anderson had a nice game against U-High at the Chicago Elite Classic.

Friday's Games

No. 11 North Lawndale at Westinghouse, 4:30 p.m. -- The Red-West is going to be a lot of fun to watch this season as this should be an interesting game. The Phoenix (5-1, 1-0) knocked off Marshall for a Red-West win on Wednesday while Westinghouse (3-3, 0-1) is coming off of a tough double-overtime loss to Farragut. Westinghouse is going to have to slow down Carlos Hines and Martrell Barnes but they can counter with a talented senior of their own in Coreyoun Rushin.  

Kankakee at Crete-Monee, 6:00 p.m. -- We also head to the Southland on Friday night as Kankakee (1-3, 0-1) travels to Crete-Monee (3-2, 1-0). The Warriors survived a high-scoring, double-overtime win over Rich East on Wednesday as they're led by senior and Toledo commit Dwayne Rose, the nephew of Derrick Rose. Kankakee is off to a sluggish start as they've lost some close games and they could use a conference road win here.

Rich East at No. 19 Bloom, 7:00 p.m. -- Keeping it in the Southland, Rich East (2-4, 0-1) will try to shake off a double-overtime loss this week as they travel to face No. 19 Bloom. Rich East has two one-point losses and the double-OT loss to Crete-Monee this year, so they could be better than the 2-4 record indicates. Bloom (4-1, 1-0) was impressive during Thanksgiving week at the Chicago Heights Classic as they look like one of the premier teams in the South Suburbs this year.

No. 24 Thornton at Lincoln-Way West, 7:00 p.m. -- These two teams battled in the SouthWest Suburban Red last season and both programs return some key pieces. Lincoln-Way West (2-4, 1-0) is led by senior Marco Pettinato as he's an All-Area candidate and big-time scorer. Thornton (3-2) will counter with a big scorer of its own with senior Alonzo Verge.

No. 16 Benet at No. 15 Notre Dame, 7:00 p.m. -- This could be the best matchup of Friday night as two unbeatens clash in the ESCC. Benet (5-0) is coming off of a runner-up finish in Class 4A as they bring back some talented players like Jack Nolan, Liam Lyman and Justin Enochs. The Redwings have looked very good early this season as they've piled up a lot of double-digit wins. Notre Dame (6-0) is also off to a hot start as they picked up an overtime win over Loyola and another victory over Bartlett last weekend. The Dons have a lot of size on the inside as Chris Heinichen, Jeameril Wilson and Sean Johnson are all 6-foot-5 or bigger.

No. 12 Stevenson at Mundelein, 7:00 p.m. -- Stevenson is off to a great start as they try to carry that into Mundelein in this North Suburban contest. The Patriots (6-0, 2-0) are led by Indiana commit and senior Justin Smith as he's one of the best players in the state this season. Mundelein (2-4, 0-1) dropped one to Zion-Benton earlier this week as they try to get back on track in the North Suburban race.

Lake Zurich at Zion Benton, 7:00 p.m. -- Two team with high expectations in the North Suburban face each other in this one. Zion-Benton (2-1, 1-1) dropped a conference game to leader Stevenson last weekend but recovered with a double-digit win over Mundelein during the week. Lake Zurich (4-1, 0-1) dropped its conference opener to Waukegan after a 4-0 start to the season.

Viewers' Choice Game of the Week

Von Steuben at Taft, 6:30 p.m. -- This week's poll was a tight one as over 5,000 people voted and this game barely beat Lane at Uplift. The Panthers (0-2, 0-1) are trying to pick up their first win of the season after losing to an out-of-state opponent and No. 9 Uplift. Senior Rafael Cruz put up monster numbers last season as he's the player to watch for Von Steuben. Taft opened its Red-North slate at home against Lincoln Park as they're facing two tough opponents right out of the gate at home. They'll try to capitalize on those early conference home games with a win here.