On a night that followed a busy afternoon—the NBA trade deadline, as well as controversially-viewed comments made by injured point guard Derrick Rose’s older brother—the Bulls (31-23) picked the wrong time to validate the theory that they’re merely an average team without the former league MVP and homegrown superstar.
Hosting the defending-champion Heat (38-14), after a competitive first quarter, the Bulls simply didn’t have enough to contend with reigning league MVP LeBron James (26 points on 11-for-15 shooting, 12 rebounds, seven assists) or his supporting cast and fell, 86-67, Thursday night at the United Center.
Like most contests between the two rivals, the contest started out as a nip-and-tuck affair, with James putting his stamp on the game from the outset.
The hosts took their usual collective approach, as contributions from the energetic duo of backup point guard Nate Robinson (14 points)—again filling in for injured starter Kirk Hinrich, who re-aggravated his right-elbow injury—and All-Star center Joakim Noah (11 points, eight rebounds, eight assists) leading the way in the early going, sparking a 9-1 run in the middle portion of the opening period.
But the tables quickly turned, as the Heat briefly regained control of the contest, as the scoring of oft-overlooked Miami point guard Mario Chalmers propelled the visitors.
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Still, it remained a close-knit game and after a quarter of play, the score was appropriately knotted up at 22 apiece.
Rookie point guard Marquis Teague started the second quarter and played aggressively to help the Bulls, who were plagued by ball-security issues, keep pace.
But despite a typical sequence from Noah—on one end of the court, the center stole the ball from Heat All-Star guard Dwyane Wade (17 points, eight rebounds, five assists), a Chicago native, pushed it the length of the court and dished off to teammate Taj Gibson, who threw down a vicious flush in transition—Miami was able to build a slim cushion by virtue of the Bulls’ turnovers.
The visitors’ lead ballooned to double digits, as James’ all-around game, the underrated skills of polished All-Star center Chris Bosh, as well as a spark off the bench from legendary sharpshooter Ray Allen, buoyed their attack.
The Bulls attempted to slice into the deficit, but their guests continued to match them basket for basket, and at the intermission, the Bulls trailed, 45-35, following a Wade baseline dunk off an assist from James, who was a perfect 5-for-5 shooting the ball.
After the break, things didn’t dramatically improve for the Bulls, as they struggled to finish on the interior and Miami capitalized, maintaining their comfortable edge, though a wide-open fast-break dunk fumbled by James drew the delight of the home team’s fans.
The visitors’ ability to compete on the glass, opposed to the Bulls’ dominance on the glass back in their early-January road win in Miami, was also a factor, as Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra went away from the small-ball approach that helped his team win a title last season.
But while the hosts gradually chipped away at their guests’ lead, getting the game back into single digits behind Carlos Boozer (12 points, 11 rebounds), even with assistance from Bosh earning a technical foul from the officials, the Heat seemingly had a stranglehold on the proceedings, led by the efficient—the aforementioned missed dunk was one of his two misses on the night to that point—and dominant James.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were behind, 65-54, after James missed a left-handed attempt to beat the third-quarter buzzer, which was only his third errant shot of the evening.
Rip Hamilton started the fourth period—proving that Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau’s imposed minutes limit for the veteran was arbitrary, depending on the situation—but neither his presence, nor that of his teammates, could put a cramp in Miami’s style early in the frame.
Compounding the home team’s poor shooting from the floor and ballhandling difficulties was the fact that their effort waned, as the Heat, in sharp contrast, ran the floor hard in transition for easy baskets, shot a high percentage and played stifling defense, all of which was spurred by James’ brilliance—even after he came up limping following a hard foul from Robinson on a fast break—and resulted in the Bulls loyalists being quieted to a near-whisper.
Thibodeau essentially waved the white flag down the stretch of the game, as seldom-used reserves like backup center Nazr Mohammed and forward Vladimir Radmanovic received minutes toward the end.
With a trip to Charlotte immediately after the contest for the second half of a back-to-back Friday night, the Bulls won’t have time to lick their wounds after Miami extended their season-long winning streak to nine games with the victory, which avenged its home loss last month.