With his team’s 14-point third quarter and 20 turnovers for the game, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau couldn’t quite call Wednesday night’s 101-97 win over the Heat at the United Center a 48-minute game.
But it was pretty close.
“You’re always striving to get there. I think we’re improving. We took a hit with a lot of guys being out, being on the road, but the guys that we have, we have more than enough in that locker room and you can see it,” Thibodeau said. “When we come out, when we’re ready, prepared, play with an edge, play together, the same things go into winning in every game, regardless of who you play. When one guy goes down, the next guy has to step up and get it done.”
[HIGHLIGHTS: Bulls snap Heat's 27-game winning streak]
Playing without the likes of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Rip Hamilton and Marco Belinelli, the Bulls weren’t supposed to have a chance against the streaking Heat—though recent history tells us otherwise—but from the outset of the extremely physical affair, it was apparent that if Miami was going to continue on its path to history, it wouldn’t be easy.
“Miami’s a great team. you’ve got to play great to beat them. They’re not going to beat themselves. What they’ve done is unbelievable. I thought overall we played from to start to finish, very well. We had a lot of guys step up,” Thibodeau said. “The way they play, you have to play with great intensity. You can’t win a world championship without playing like that and I think they understand that. When you look at what they’ve done, to be the defending the world champions and to have a winning streak like that, knowing that everyone’s chasing you, it’s a credit to them, so I think you can learn from them. They bring it every night and we’ve got to do that.”
The Bulls exerted their trademark style of play and made it a blue-collar, grind-it-out affair from start to finish, to vanquish the defending champions the only way possible.
“We’ve been saying it all year: When we’re at our best, we can beat anybody and when we’re at our worst, we can lose to anybody. It’s something that we all believe in,” said Luol Deng, who had 28 points, seven rebounds and five assists in his head-to-head duel with LeBron James. “We’ve had our ups and down, but we’ve played well against these teams, teams with great records this year, so we’ve shown that we’re capable of beating these teams. But also, we’ve shown that if we don’t lock in, we could lose to anybody.”
Carlos Boozer, who finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, concurred: “It lets us know that when we’re locked in and focused, we can compete with anybody, even the best.”
After the fact, the Bulls can still insist that they were less worried about ending the Heat’s streak than simply getting a win, but facing a team that’s been their chief rival over the past three seasons, it truly did make the victory that much sweeter.
“I think it hyped up the media,” Thibodeau deadpanned. “Obviously they’re a great team, but the challenge is to not get caught up…if you get lost in all the other stuff, then you’re not going to be prepared to play well.”
Boozer went along with his coach’s straightforward approach: “We didn’t really think about that going into the game, but I’m proud of our guys, for being the team to break the streak. But more importantly for us, we just want to keep getting better leading into the playoffs, want to continue to improve, get healthy. That’s a big deal for us. We feel like if we’re healthy, we can compete with anybody. But our biggest concern is to continue improve as we go along and I thought we got better tonight. We’ve got four huge parts of our team out—D-Rose, Joakim, Rip, Marco—and we had guys step up and play phenomenal for us, so I’m very proud of our guys for doing that.”
But other Bulls were more honest about the situation.
“It means a lot,” acknowledged Jimmy Butler, who went for 17 points and five assists, while guarding fellow Marquette product Dwyane Wade. “On our home floor, the rivalry that we have, we know we’ve got to go through them in the playoffs most likely, so we’re just proving to ourselves, as long as we play hard and compete, we can beat them.
“We knew had to get into them from the jump. We couldn’t take it easy on them; we had to be the aggressors on the offensive and defensive end of the floor, but the crowd definitely helped,” he continued. “I felt like we didn’t panic with their pressure. We had a few turnovers, but in the end, I feel like we handled it extremely well. Made the right plays to the right people and shared the ball. I felt like that was the biggest part of this game.”
Deng chimed in: With a game that’s hyped up so much, everyone kind of watching every game they play—it didn’t matter who they were playing; they were following the streak—so it’s great. It’s a good feeling to say that we’re the ones that ended their streak before they broke the record.”
This was the type of contest that afterwards, no matter what aches and pains, bumps and bruises the players had accumulated over the course of the evening, it was absolutely worth it.
“It makes it even more special that they got the streak because that means that they’re at their best, no excuses, you go in there and do your job, and both teams are back and clashing. That’s how it felt all night,” an exhausted Taj Gibson told CSNChicago.com, with a smile on his face. “All night, every time I went in for a rebound, it was just hitting—body on body, hitting—and every time we went for a foul, we would foul them hard, they would foul us hard. It was a physical game.”
So while he didn’t go as far as saying it was his coveted 48-minute game, his undermanned team’s effort was enough to bring even Thibodeau joy when addressing his players after it was all over.
“He cracked a smile,” Butler revealed. “But if you turned this way, you missed it.”