MIAMI—After Saturday night’s first-round triumph over the Nets in Brooklyn, the first Game 7 road win in franchise history, the Bulls have a monumentally harder task in the second round of the playoffs.
Their opponents, the Heat, are a familiar foe and while the Bulls certainly don’t fear the defending champions, it’s hard to foresee them making the series a battle without all hands on deck.
Following his team’s victory at the Barclays Center, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was predictably vague about the status of two injured veteran starters, floor general Kirk Hinrich and All-Star small forward Luol Deng, saying both players were “day-to-day.”
While Deng said from his Twitter account Saturday evening that he would see his teammates in Miami, in advance of Monday's Game 1 against the Heat, that won’t occur Sunday.
According to a person with direct knowledge of the situation, Deng returned to a Chicago emergency room Sunday morning after being released from the hospital Saturday afternoon.
As for Hinrich, the point guard attempted to warm up before Saturday’s contest, but while he was able to take spot-up jumpers, he was clearly in pain when doing basic drives and was ultimately ruled out, due to the left-calf injury he suffered in the Bulls’ Game 4 triple-overtime win in Chicago.
Regardless, not only are the Bulls used to being undermanned, after beating Miami while being short-handed in the past, they are confident, though realistic about their perception as underdogs.
“That’s really tough because what team is ever the team that’s expected to beat the Heat? The Heat is one of the best teams in the league. We give them their credit, but we don’t believe in any of that stuff. When we’re on the court, everybody’s equal. We’ve just got to go out there and do our job. We’ve just got to get guys healthy and play like there’s no tomorrow. That’s why we play,” Taj Gibson said Saturday. “It’s so different, man. Every year we play them, it’s like a playoff game. Every time we play them, in Miami or Chicago, it’s just different and now, it’s a new time. They’ve got a new team, we’ve got a new team. It’s them versus us.
“That’s our rival. Words can’t express how bad we want to beat them. But we have to just focus. We understand it’s the playoffs now. Every game’s going to be a grind and guys are going to be ready,” he continued. “We’re not worried about guarantees right now. We’re just focused on getting guys healthy, and everybody’s just playing with injuries and playing with heart. Heart can’t beat great teams like the Heat. We’ve got to get guys really healthy. “
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When asked about the recipe for pulling off the series upset, Carlos Boozer was pragmatic.
“Honestly, just taking it a possession at a time. They’re the champs, they’re a very good team, very talented group of guys. They’ve been resting for I don’t know how long. They play very well at home, so for us, we’ve got to take it one possession at a time, one quarter at a time, don’t get too far ahead of ourselves, no matter what the situation is,” said the power forward, the Bulls’ most consistent scoring threat in the opening round. “You see how our group is. We stay together. We’re a group that no matter what happens, we stay together. We’ll get in the lab tomorrow, put this series behind us and when the ball goes up on Monday, we’ll be ready.”
Thibodeau made no bones about the Heat’s talent and asserted that his team would have to play at an extremely high level in order to compete.
“We know how good Miami is, so we’re going to have to be at our best. They’re playing great basketball, they’re a very deep team, extremely well-coached, very well-balanced, so we’re going to have to be at our best right from the start,” the coach explained. “We need everybody. The obvious with Miami is LeBron, Wade and Bosh, but they’re a lot more than that. I coached Ray Allen; I know how good he is. I coached [Shane] Battier; I know how good he is. I know what that team stands for, so we have to be at our best. We need everybody. They play as a team and they never beat themselves, so you have to play well to beat them.”
While he isn’t likely to make any guarantees about conquering the Heat, All-Star center Joakim Noah was both complimentary about back-to-back league MVP LeBron James—the Miami superstar was officially named the award winner Sunday—and eager about what awaits.
“I’m very excited. Obviously they’re the best and you want to play against the best. This is what it’s all about. Miami’s the defending champs. It’s going to be a war,” the Game 7 hero said, a smile creeping onto his face. “He’s a great player, so we’re excited about the challenge, playing against the best team and see what happens.”