So much for the bogus theory that the Bulls are all Derrick Rose and a bunch of nobodies, something that should have been dismissed long ago in the first place.
It was just a regular-season game, so lets keep things in perspective, but although the Bulls (36-9) 106-102 win over the rival Heat (31-11) Wednesday night at the United Center, without the leagues reigning MVP in the lineup, may not have been enough to erase the memory of last springs playoff loss, it certainly went a long way in changing the perception that the team is a one-man gang, as the unlikeliest of heroes, John Lucas III, led the way.
Without Rose, the Bulls relied on their typically excellent ball movement and their unselfishness paid off in the form of easy layups and dunksswingman Ronnie Brewer (12 points, six rebounds), in particular, was a prime beneficiarywhile making timely defensive plays to propel the home team to a slim cushion early in the contest.
The visitors, lustily booed by the raucous crowd, struck back behind their two superstars, LeBron James (35 points) and Dwyane Wade (36 points), who each hit a variety of contested degree-of-difficulty shots.
That trend continued for Miami, as the All-Star wing duo provided the guests only offense in the opening period, although team defense and a slight edge on the glass made up for the lack of secondary scoring.
A gimpy C.J. Watson (11 points), starting on place of Rose while playing on a clearly tender left ankle, gutted out a solid initial stint, while Carlos Boozer played a strong all-around frame and his backup, Taj Gibson (eight points, eight rebounds), provided energy off the benchas did rookie Jimmy Butler (eight points), who fared well guarding James for a spellbut the Bulls trailed, 23-19, after a quarter of play.
Gibson, coming off one of his best efforts of the season Monday evening against his hometown Knicks, continued to spark the Bulls early in the second quarter, helping the squad regain the lead with big finishes, relentless rebounding and by providing a defensive presence.
He received help from a modified Bench Mobfeaturing Butler, who drove to the basket with abandon in transition, sharpshooter Kyle Korvers (12 points) outside marksmanship and backup center Omer Asik, who energized the building with a deft save of a loose ball before it went out of bounds, followed by a tip-in on the other endand the hosts obtained some breathing room, though Miamis third All-Star, Chris Bosh (12 points), began to contribute.
Upon Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau reinserting his starterswith the exception of Watson; John Lucas III (24 points, 8-for-12 shooting, 3-for-5 from three-point range) remained in the contestthe Bulls immediately stretched the spread to double digits, as All-Star Luol Deng (11 points, five rebounds), in his first game back after a two-game absence to rest his ailing right wrist, knocked down a triple, and Joakim Noah (14 points, six rebounds) absolutely posterized Heat center Joel Anthony.
Lucas, however, was the star of the show, as the diminutive floor general not only acquitted himself much better than he did when he last played against the Heat, but went above and beyond, knocking down three consecutive long bombs, including two three-pointers, to give the Bulls a comfortable lead, though a furious Heat run, fueled by James, cut the lead to 53-42 at the intermission.
Following the break, an expected Miami spurt took place early in the third period, but while the Bulls withstood the visitors initial push, the Heat gradually decreased the deficit, as a dominant James and increasingly efficient Wade went to work.
But the hosts refused to fade away and with timely scoring from the likes of Brewer and Watson, as well as continued hustle plays and strong team defense, they not only maintained their advantage, but built it back up to double digits again.
Deng and Noah, two of the teams normal starters, also imposed their will on the contest by becoming more assertive on offense, while consistently making hustle plays and getting defensive stops, all of which contributed to the Bulls advantage further ballooning. Thibodeau again went to his reserves, keeping Deng on the floor, and they responded, as they limited the Heat defensively and headed into the final stanza with an 81-70 advantage.
The balanced-attack Bulls continued to withstand the Heats repeated pushes, with solid rebounding, defense and unselfish offense leading the way, not to mention individual scoring plays at critical junctures from the likes of Deng and even the rookie Butler.
Once again, however, Lucas carried the Bulls offensively, seemingly scoring at willeven when guarded by James, the same strategy Miami used to stymie Rose in last springs Eastern Conference Finalsto hold off both an impressive individual run by Wade and a Heat comeback, at least as the game entered its stretch run.
Noah came up big late, finishing point-blank shots in traffic with contact, but Wade continued to exercise his will and on the other end, James blanketed the much smaller Lucas to get the ball out of his hands.
But the Bulls came up big when it counted most, as Korver knocked down four free throws and Lucas, the hero sealed the deal with a pair of shots from the charity stripe with six seconds to go, offsetting Heat designated marksman James Jones two late triples, allowing the Bulls to prevail and the unexpected to occur.