MIAMI In many ways, the 2011-12 campaign has been an improvement for the Bulls from the previous campaign, at least in certain areas. While injuries have prevented Derrick Rose from reaching an MVP level again, the improved health of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, the development of further depth and consistency within the Bench Mob, Luol Deng making his debut All-Star appearance and adding a legitimate scoring threat at the shooting-guard position in Rip Hamilton, all represent progress.However, at the tail end of the regular season, its clear that something is missing. Perhaps this reads like a knee-jerk reaction after a disappointing loss to the Heat, but whether or not last seasons squad was a true title contender in hindsight, the veritable bullying of the Bulls by the Heat wouldnt have occurred a year ago, not with the likes of Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans around.Say what you want about Bogans lack of offensive firepower and though the Bulls post-player rotation have remained relatively healthy throughout the year (knock on wood), Thomas would have been an excellent insurance policy, but more significant to any on-court contributions theyd provide would be Miamis knowledge that the two veterans wouldnt permit the flagrant fouls, whether called by the officials or not LeBron James bone-crushing, dirty screen set on the diminutive John Lucas III, while it was officially a non-call, was as bad, if not worse, than the called flagrants committed James Jones and Dwyane Wade wouldnt be happening, at least not without some sort of retribution.This isnt a judgment of the Bulls front office for not re-signing the pair, as the Bulls league-best record cant be second-guessed at this stage of the game. But whether its Bogans, Thomas or another non-nonsense veteran that opponents respect, if not fear payback if one of the Bulls was targeted on the floor, the team simply lacks anybody with an enforcer-type quality.By no means is on-court violence being advocated, but as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said after the humbling defeat, I just want them to respond. Hamilton, while not the player whom opponents fear from a brute-force standpoint, comes from a background his former employer, the Pistons, were known as one of the leagues most physical teams during their title-contending heyday explained it best.When youre fighting and youve got aspirations and dreams and you want to win a championship, youre going to do anything and I felt as competitors, thats what were going to do to help our team win, he said. When somebody tries to put you on your heels, you never get on your heels. Youre going through them the whole game. You dont allow anybody to go through you. Weve just got to do a better job of putting our foot on the gas and responding, and not allowing them to do different plays where were on our heels.Hamilton himself was the victim of one of the aforementioned flagrant fouls committed by Miami, as longtime nemesis Dwyane Wade outright shoved him afterwards, Wade admitted he didnt even try to be covert, as he felt Hamilton was getting away with fouling him and wanted to direct the officials attention to the situation prompting one of the handful of skirmishes, in which the Bulls were reacting to the Heats actions.Its part of the game, man. Its one of those things that happen in the heat of the battle. Youre going to have plays like that, two people just trying to outwill each other, trying to fight, Hamilton explained about the incident with Wade. He knows what Im going to do, I know what hes going to do, so its one of those things where, Im not going to give you the edge, and hes going to do the same thing with me. I didnt think he was going to back down, he didnt think I was going to back down, so its all part of the game.Anything happens in a game. Anything happens in the heat of the battle. Its one of those things that just happened, he continued. I didnt even know they called a flagrant foul. I thought they called a technical, but its part of the game. Thats what playoff basketball is about.Its one thing for isolated incidents, like the situations with Hamilton and Lucas or center Joakim Noahs angry response to Jones foul, to briefly fire up a team. Its another to maintain that mentality throughout the course of a game, without losing focus or control, yet letting the opposing squad know that there wont be any of that going on, not without severe repercussions.I think weve got to get better. Thats what the playoffs are going to be about. I know what youre going to do, you know what were going to do, said Hamilton, one of the few Bulls in the locker room when the media was allowed to enter. When somebody pushes their foot on the gas and tries to push us back, weve got to push even harder.Thats the game. When youre playing in the playoffs and you know one game can send you home, thats what youre going to get. Youre going to get an ugly game, added the veteran shooting guard, who answered all the time, when asked if the physical tone set Thursday evening would persist in potential future matchups with the Heat. Ive been in many ugly games in my career and thats the game that you want to be in. You want to be in a dogfight.As far as intense game, yes, it goes without saying that the Bulls have the mental toughness and dont shy away from physical play allowable under the rules. But judging from the Heats approach and honestly, going back to the first-round series last spring with upstart Indiana, in which the Pacers, even with Thomas and Bogans present, displayed a similar mindset, especially in defending Rose, though they didnt have the talent to translate it into wins, at least at that point in time it wouldnt be surprising to have other teams attempt the same course of action (after all, it was a nationally-televised, high-profile affair) in the future.With three games remaining in the regular season before the playoffs begin, the Bulls have enough on their hands with Roses uncertain health status and even without him at 100 percent, they should be capable of surviving a first-round matchup, especially if they maintain the Easts top seed and face the free-falling 76ers, as the Carmelo-Anthony Knicks could pose problems for even the stiffest of competition. But beyond the opening round, where the likes of Boston and Indiana could lurk, and assuming they return to the conference finals, another anticipated showdown with the Heat, it wouldnt be surprising to see their mettle tested again.
Dwyane Wade sounded every bit like a frustrated 35-year old father when talking about the repeated ills and so-called growing pains of his Bulls, as they surrendered yet another game against a sub-.500 team.
Sometimes it's the New York Knicks whom the Bulls are offering temporary refuge. Or maybe the Minnesota Timberwolves as they are all-too-generous to roll out the welcome mat for returning figures to Chicago.
Tuesday it was the Dallas Mavericks, the second-worst team in the Western Conference, who stormed into the United Center and escaped with a 99-98 win, courtesy of Wesley Matthews' triple with 11.7 seconds left followed by him locking down Jimmy Butler on the ensuing possession.
Wade was forced to take a contested 21-footer that went awry, but the Bulls' ills went far beyond the last two possessions, when the Mavericks exploited their strategy yet again.
"Either you learn the lesson or figure out," Wade said. "Keep putting your hand on the hot stove every day.
"We just gotta figure out not to put our hands on that stove. And understand when we come in the kitchen, that stove is hot, don't touch it. As I continue to say, this is a very young team and they have to play in these games and have to go through these moments. The one thing you want, whether it's this year or next year, is to not make the same mistakes."
The Bulls are apparently insistent on touching the stove and keep burning themselves, the most recent time with the confusion or the bad strategy in defending the Mavericks' final offensive possession.
Deron Williams found himself with Nikola Mirotic defending him off a switch from Jimmy Butler. Not the quickest afoot, Mirotic gave Williams an easy path to the basket and Wade was the backside help, not wanting to leave Matthews on the wing for a triple.
But with the bench commanding Wade to help, Williams easily found Matthews for an open 3 as Wade had no help for his man. With the Bulls up two, one could see how Wade didn't want to leave Matthews.
"I'll have to go back and watch, but it looks like Deron got downcourt, Wade went over to help and we didn’t rotate accordingly," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We obviously need to do a better job of staying in front of the other end."
Mirotic was supposed to be brought back slowly in his return from strep throat, but he played the entire fourth quarter and 22 minutes overall, having lost eight pounds with his illness that had him miss four games.
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Their issues were game-long and have been seasonlong as the Mavericks were supposed to absorb a shellacking from a Bulls team that felt a 25-point beatdown in Texas last month.
Instead, they would've been happy with settling for an escape when Butler rose up over his college teammate Matthews for a 20-foot wing jumper with 22.8 seconds left.
Butler nearly added a triple-double and clutch moment to his growing resume with 24 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds but was dogged by Matthews all night, the defender who wouldn't give him airspace, went chest-to-chest and even earned a technical foul when he felt Butler exaggerated some contact in the third quarter.
"He took away my space, wouldn't let me get to my spot," Butler said of Matthews. "Good for him. I should've did something different."
Wade missed 13 of his 21 shots, scoring 17 with five rebounds on his 35th birthday
With scoring at a premium, Robin Lopez had a season-high 21 points being guarded by Dirk Nowitzki — and they were necessary considering the Bulls were without Taj Gibson (ankle injury) and Doug McDermott couldn't repeat his 30-point showing from Sunday in Memphis.
Rick Carlisle has long been regarded as one of the top strategic coaches, and though he doesn't have the usual personnel from the Mavericks' salad days, he had enough tricks up his sleeve to throw the Bulls off.
Six Mavericks scored in double figures, led by Harrison Barnes' 20 points and Seth Curry's 18, as Barnes, Matthews and Curry combined for eight triples — spreading the Bulls out and picking them apart defensively.
The Mavericks started Nowitzki at center, going to an almost all-small lineup. And though Lopez scored 14 points in the first half, trying to feed him seemed to take the Bulls out of it in the second half.
The energy was tardy to the party, as they shot just 41 percent in the first half but woke up a little in the third quarter — continuing their all-too familiar trend of half-hearted efforts against lesser teams.
And it looks like the ever-optimistic Wade is dishing out some realism, probably something that comes with the perspective of turning 35.
"You can't keep getting stressed out or frustrated. We've been going through this all year. We'll get back in in the morning.
"Once you realize who you are, you're better off. I sleep better at night. Once we want to be a better team and start winning games, we will. I'm not mad, I'm not frustrated, I'm not stressed. Just taking the hits."
Is Rajon Rondo avoiding his former coach?
During Tuesday night's Bulls-Mavericks game, Rondo awkwardly ran behind Mavs coach Rick Carlisle as the third quarter was winding down.
Take a look at the play in the video above.
Rondo, who played with the Mavericks in the 2014-15 season, had a weird relationship with Carlisle. Most notably, he and Carlisle had a heated exchange during a game on Feb. 24, 2015 against the Toronto Raptors. It eventually led to Carlisle saying that Rondo was a bad fit for the Mavericks and that the team should have never traded for him.
On Tuesday, Rondo apparently shook Carlisle's hand before he checked in the game for the first time in the first quarter.
Rondo and Carlisle meet at midcourt before Rondo checks in and shakes hands. Peace on earth— Vincent Goodwill (@vgoodwill) January 18, 2017
All is well, it seems, but that was still weird.