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."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Breaking down the World Series hangover

Do the Cubs have a World Series hangover?

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, NBC Sports Bay Area Giants Insider Alex Pavlovic joins CSN's Patrick Mooney to talk about the World Series hangover, how last year's playoff loss lingered in San Francisco, Johnny Cueto's quirks, the legend of Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija's ups and downs.

Plus Kelly Crull, Jeff Nelson and Tony Andracki break down the Cubs’ defensive struggles this year compared to an historic 2016 and how Ian Happ fits into the Cubs’ lineup in both the short and long term.

Listen to the latest episode below:

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

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USA TODAY

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

Caleb Swanigan, unsurprisingly, is heading to the NBA.

Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year announced Wednesday that he’ll pass up the final two seasons of his NCAA eligibility for a paying gig at the professional level, an awesome opportunity for a kid who battled obesity and homelessness to become one of the best basketball players in the country.

But Swanigan’s departure from West Lafayette means a heck of a lot to the Big Ten.

Without the league’s most dominant big man, what becomes of Purdue’s chances at winning a conference title? Similarly, with a weakened — though still strong — group of Boilermakers, what does the Big Ten race look like going into 2017-18?

First, Purdue. Matt Painter’s program is plenty healthy, and while there’s no doubt that losing Swanigan is a big deal, the Boilers got some really good news, too, Wednesday when Vincent Edwards announced he’ll be returning for his senior season. Seven-footer Isaac Haas also made the decision to return to West Lafayette, meaning the towering frontcourt hasn’t been completely decimated just because tha man called “Biggie” is gone.

Purdue will also return Carsen Edwards, who had an impressive freshman campaign, and Dakota Mathias, a terrific defender and 3-point shooter. Two more important pieces — P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline — are back, as well. And Painter will welcome in freshman Nojel Eastern, a highly touted guard from Evanston.

So the Boilers are still in very good shape. There will be a big magnifying glass on Haas, who despite his physical attributes hasn’t always found consistent on-court success. But there have been plenty of flashes of brilliance from the big man. A big step forward in his game would go a long way in easing the blow of losing Swanigan and could keep Purdue as one of the frontrunners for a conference title.

That brings us to the Big Ten race. Ever since Miles Bridges, the conference’s reigning Freshman of the Year, announced he’d be returning to Michigan State for his sophomore season, the Spartans have been the near-unanimous favorite. Only something like Swanigan deciding to stay at Purdue could’ve changed that. And with Swanigan expectedly heading to the NBA, Michigan State remains the preseason pick to win the conference crown.

Like any good year in the Big Ten, though, there will be challengers.

But Michigan State is the popular choice to win it because of Tom Izzo’s insane 2016 recruiting class is returning completely intact: Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are all back. And Izzo brings in one of the top 2017 recruits in forward Jaren Jackson.

But Sparty isn’t the only one with an impressive returning group. Purdue’s experienced roster has already been covered. Northwestern, a surprise contender in 2016-17, should be even better as Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey enter their fourth year playing together. Dererk Pardon, a shot-blocking whiz at center, is also back, as is sharp-shooter Aaron Falzon, who sat out the 2016-17 season with an injury after starting during his freshman year in 2015-16.

There will be big shoes to fill for some perennial contenders like Maryland — which must replace Melo Trimble — and Michigan, which watched eligibility run out on Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin before D.J. Wilson decided to head to the professional ranks Wednesday. But those teams have plenty of talent returning, too. The Terps will have all three of their fab freshmen — Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter — back for sophomore seasons, while the Wolverines have Moe Wagner back in the fold alongside Xavier Simpson and Duncan Robinson, among others.

And what of last year’s shocking contender, Minnesota? The Golden Gophers didn’t lose too much this offseason and will return almost every main player from last year’s 24-10 squad: Amir Coffey, Nate Mason, Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer and Eric Curry.

There are up-and-comers to think about, too, such as last year’s freshman-heavy squads at Iowa and Penn State. And could new head coaches Brad Underwood and Archie Miller make instant splashes at Illinois and Indiana, respectively?

If it sounds a little too much like the annual coach speak that “any team can win on any night” in the Big Ten, that’s because there is a good deal of truth to that oft-used phrase.

There are definitely tiers to this thing, though. Even without Swanigan, Purdue is still in one of those upper tiers. But there might be no team besides Michigan State at the very top of the heap, something underscored by Swanigan turning pro.