MIAMI—By now, we should be over it.
Throughout the course of this season, the Bulls have overachieved so many times that discussing them overcoming the odds has become overblown.
But Monday night’s 93-86 Game 1 road win over the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals was one of those things you wouldn’t believe if you didn’t see it.
With Luol Deng back in Chicago and Kirk Hinrich in street clothes, the Bulls uglied it up, as is their custom, and stunned both the Heat and a Miami crowd that kept waiting for a game-ending run that never came.
Instead, they witnessed league MVP LeBron James get outplayed for most of the evening by Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah do Joakim Noah things and Nate Robinson have another one of those second halves that postseason legends are made of.
“I really believe that we just give them our all. We just go out and play. We compete at a high level and Coach always harps on winning your matchup, and we try to go out there individually and do that and conquer that as a team together, collectively and I think we’re doing a great job,” explained Robinson, who scored 27 points, dished out nine assists, was incredibly clutch down the stretch and received 10 stitches inside and outside his upper lip after being basically crushed by James when the two of them were diving for a loose ball.
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“I really just believe that we’re just out there having fun. We’re playing for each other, playing for the city of Chicago and nobody has us winning any games. I’ve heard that we were going to get swept. You’ve got different guys, Jalen Rose and these guys on TV, saying we’re going to lose in six or five games, and for us, we’re just taking one game at a time and we’re going to give them our all. We’re going to play as hard as we can for as long as we can and that’s our motto.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who has coached back-to-back strategic gems—the Bulls’ Game 7 win in Brooklyn in the previous round of the playoffs was just as masterful—acknowledged the diminutive scorer’s brilliance, as well as his toughness.
“He’s about as confident as they come. That’s the thing that makes him good. If he misses a shot, he has a very short memory. He always thinks he’s hot. He’s never afraid. He has the courage to take and make,” he deadpanned. “He got knocked around a little bit. A couple stitches. It’s all good. Get out there and get it done.”
Then there was Butler, who played all 48 minutes for the third consecutive outing, and went for 21 points and a game-high 14 rebounds, while guarding James, who had only nine points through three quarters before scoring 15 in the final stanza.
“I just tried to make everything difficult for him. That caliber of a player, there’s no really stopping him. It’s all about containment and I feel like myself, along with my teammates, we tried to make everything tough for him. I feel like that was the key,” Butler said of his strategy against the best player in the league. “Be aggressive on both ends of the floor and make him make plays whenever he’s on offense. That’s what he does, but you’ve just got to try to stay in front of him and make him pass the ball.
“It’s all about the rest that you get in between. I feel like I’ll do whatever it takes for this team to win. If that’s 48 or that’s 20, I feel like my teammates have confidence in me to still be aggressive on offense and on defense. I’ve got to produce,” he continued. “I just want to do whatever it takes to win. I know that rebounding is definitely the key to this game. normally the team that outrebounds the other one comes out on top.
"As far as getting to the line, that’s just being aggressive or my teammates setting good screens or taking the right shots, so I’m in the right place for the offensive rebound. I feel like my teammates are everything. They give me the ball when I’m open, so I’m confident in taking a shot that I take in practice.”
Thibodeau, who made Butler earn every bit of his second-year emergence before placing huge responsibilities on the youngster’s shoulders on a nightly basis, praised the cowboy boot-wearing swingman’s ability to rise to the occasion.
“He’s mentally tough. That’s what we need him to do right now. We’re shorthanded. We’ve got a number of guys playing big minutes. That’s what we need,” he said. “I thought LeBron got going in the second half. He had a big fourth quarter. And that’s what he does. The thing about Jimmy is he’s going to work the whole time. There were plays Jimmy defended as well as you can and LeBron still has the ability to make. He’s an unselfish player. If you double-team him, he’s going to hit the open man. So that requires you to make multiple effort. You have to try to make it so he has to work in a crowd.”
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Still, as thrilling as the victory was, it has to be noted that not only is it just one game, but Miami was clearly rusty after being off for over a week following their first-round sweep of Milwaukee, not to mention that the last time the two teams faced off in the playoffs, the Bulls also won the series opener, then dropped four in a row back in the 2011 conference finals.
“It was a great win. We're really happy about it, but we're not satisfied. We feel like we can play better. Have to be humble. Nobody believed we could be in this position right now. But we're not satisfied,” explained Joakim Noah, who supplied 13 points, 11 rebounds and copious amounts of energy. “You're playing against the best. They haven't played in a long time, so you know they're rusty. We're expecting them to play a lot better in Game 2. We feel like we can play better as well.
“We've played this team a lot so we know their tendencies pretty well. But every game of these playoff series is chess. It's chess out there now. We're going to go back to the film room, see the things that we could have done better,” he went on to say. “I’m not too excited after the win. Just making sure that we're focused on a huge Game 2. We've been in this situation before where we won Game 1 .We were all very, very excited about it. And they ran us over. So even though we felt like it was a real tight series two years ago, to be in this position is great, but we're not satisfied.”