MIAMI — In Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series, it’s unlikely that the Bulls will hold LeBron James to two first-half points and nine through three quarters, limit the entire Heat team to just 37 in the first half, score 35 points of their own in the fourth quarter or end the contest on a 10-0 run.
But it is likely that similar to the series opener, Wednesday night’s game will be a dogfight. One that Miami -- clearly rusty after resting for over a week following their first-round sweep of Milwaukee -- comes out with a heightened sense of urgency, particularly James.
“None of the above,” Thibodeau quipped, when asked if he prefers the league MVP to be in scoring mode or try to get his teammates involved, as he did in the first half of Game 1. “When you look at what he has done, every year in the league he has gotten better. It’s hard to say when you’ve been an MVP as many times as he has. The guy can beat you a lot of different ways.
“He can beat you with the pass. He can beat you with the shot. He can beat you with the drive. He can beat you with the post. He plays to win. He’s going to make the right play. He has seen every defense that you can possibly throw at him. He knows how to read defenses. He understands strengths and weaknesses of his teammates,” he continued.
“Oftentimes he’s going to try to bait you into things, to create easy scoring opportunities for his teammates. He makes everyone on the floor better. There’s nothing easy about guarding him. It doesn’t take much for him to get going. We’re just talking about the offensive end. People don’t talk about how great he is defensively and his rebounding and all the things that he does,” Thibodeau explained. “And then you’re talking about a guy like that who plays huge minutes every night and never misses a game, never misses a practice. You have to give him a lot of credit.
“I don’t know. He was great in the second half and I thought he was making the right plays in the first half. But he had a big second half, so we know how good he is.”
Miami’s small-ball philosophy, featuring James functioning as a de facto power forward, in theory, is less effective against the Bulls than most teams, due to the ability of big men Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson to guard perimeter players.
[RELATED: Versatile Gibson finds himself]
When they are forced to guard the likes of James, fellow All-Star Dwyane Wade and all-time NBA three-point shooter Ray Allen on switches, the Bulls’ top reserve and All-Star center are more than capable of moving their feet and staying in front of them off the dribble, while still being able to contest outside jumpers.
“Well, that’s where the value of Joakim and Taj come in. It’s the fact that when a team goes small, you can stay big because of their feet. They can guard smalls. We try to take advantage of that and they have the ability also, they have a lot of versatility to their lineup, to their team. They can go big, they can go small. I don’t know what LeBron is. He’s 6-9, 260, 270. He’s powerful, quick, so he’s an all-everything. We know how good they are. We’re going to have to play a lot better,” Thibodeau said.
“You can’t concede anything. The thing is, the way that team is built, you can’t lock into any one particular area, but you have to take care of the ball, the paint, react out, cover the line, so it requires multiple effort. Now, the thing where they can go small and spread you out more, so you’re running around a little bit more, but you still have to have that taken care of,” he continued. “They’re very good, they share the ball, it’s a well-balanced team. They play the right way; they play both sides of the ball, so we know how good they are. We’re going to have to play a lot better.”
Noah chimed in: “Well, LeBron, I wouldn’t consider him a small. They’re good. They play very differently. They spread the court. They’re a very good team.”
A key Bulls player who didn’t have his best game Monday was power forward Carlos Boozer, who was coming off an outstanding first-round series against the Nets, but although he’s had success on the interior against the Heat in the past, couldn’t find an offensive rhythm and was replaced by Gibson for defensive purposes.
“Well, we can do that. We’ve dealt with that all season,” Thibodeau said of getting Boozer more involved. “Usually, there’s always one big on the floor and Carlos has gotten better at guarding smalls on the perimeter, too.”
As is usually the case when the Bulls have beaten the Heat over the past three seasons, rebounding was an important aspect of the win -- they won the battle of the boards, 46-32 -- something that Thibodeau emphasized.
“Defense and rebounding and low turnovers, that’s a big part of winning, so it’s critical. We have to rely on gang rebounding. We need everybody in there,” he said. “They have great quickness to the ball, so we have to make sure we have a body on people. If we make it a jumping contest, we’ll be in trouble.”
Noah, who contributed 11 rebounds, concurred: “The team that wins the rebounding battle is going to have a big advantage. If you look at the numbers, the last 10-15 times we played the Heat, the team that wins that battle usually comes out with the W.”
Gibson added: “They’re a physical team, too.
“We just ran to the ball, I guess. After going against Brooklyn, a tough rebounding team, it kind of rubs off on you, basically, because that series was tough,” he went on to say. “We just played the same basketball we played against Brooklyn, played hard and we just flourished in it.”
But although they settled down after the intermission, the Bulls’ 11 first-half turnovers were an area of concern, as they seemed flustered by Miami’s trapping defense before making halftime adjustments.
“That’s the challenge. They’re a great defensive team. I thought our spacing was good in the second half. You’ve got to make quick decisions. I think if you hold the ball, you dance with it and keep it on one side, you’re going to be in trouble against the trap,” Thibodeau said. “[Trapping has] been a staple of their franchise since Pat Riley’s been here, so I don’t anticipate it changing.”
As unprepared as the well-rested Heat seemed for the Bulls’ intensity to begin the series, the notion that the short-handed underdogs, who won’t have All-Star small forward Luol Deng in Game 2 -- he remains in Chicago after suffering complications from a spinal-tap procedure last week -- while veteran floor general Kirk Hinrich is doubtful as he recovers from a left-calf injury, having expended so much energy with so few healthy bodies is certainly a challenge, though Gibson argued that playing seven games against the Nets with a quick turnaround has helped keep them focused.
“It’s tough, but one thing, you’re still kind of fresh from last series, no rest. When you get rest, it kind of takes the edge off from not playing, so whenever you’ve got time and you’ve got a day off and you get to come back and play another game, it’s good for the team and we understand what we need to do. Everybody’s going against us, so that’s more fuel to the fire. Just go out there and do our jobs,” he said.
“I think we were still sharp, knowing that we just gutted it out [against] a great Brooklyn team. It was a dogfight, especially rebounding the ball against Brooklyn and we just came in with that same mentality, and just tried to play physical. They played physical [Monday] and it was just a good game.”
[RELATED: Thibodeau: Deng, Hinrich "day-to-day"]
Noah, who famously guaranteed the Bulls’ Game 7 win over the Nets immediately after their Game 6 loss, remains cautiously confident, though he’s aware that the Heat will make adjustments to their game plan.
“I think people underestimate chemistry a lot. They had a long break so they were a little rusty. We’ll get their best shot in Game 2. We have to prove to ourselves we can step it up too. It’s been a different year; lot of ups and downs. This team has been through a lot of experiences this year. There were a lot of highs and lows. All these experiences make you stronger, whether they’re good or bad. We’re definitely battle tested as a team. We’re excited to play a huge Game 2,” he said.
“When you play against a team like that, they're capable of winning anywhere. So you're adjusting game by game. Stay focused. It's a game of chess. Now they're going to look at the film, play some of our sets a little bit differently. We'll have to be ready for everything.”
Gibson echoed: “I really don’t know [if the style of play will be the same]. Every game is about adjustments. You see in the Brooklyn series and other series, every game is about adjustments. They’re probably going to see something they can take advantage of, we’re probably going to see something we can take advantage of. It’s all about just being ready, having the will and just going at your matchup.”