MIAMI—Just like any other game in recent memory between the Bulls (43-37) and the Heat (64-16), Sunday afternoon’s matchup had its moments of contentiousness, was a close-knit affair for a large portion of the contest and contained plenty of physical play, but with the Bulls’ streak-ending victory in Chicago looming in the minds of their hosts—and perhaps the referees—the visitors fell, 105-93, at the American Airlines Arena.
Maybe the late-arriving Miami crowd was at their best for the matinee game, but it was clear from the outset that both teams, regardless of who was in or out of the lineup, were prepared for the late-season showdown between the rivals.
“I don’t get wrapped up in that stuff,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said before the game, disputing the notion of a rivalry. “I know they’re a great team and we have to play great to win.”
Utilizing a smaller lineup to match the Heat’s team speed, as well as combat their injury woes, the Bulls were up to the task at the outset, with All-Star Luol Deng (19 points) and small-forward counterpart LeBron James (24 points, seven rebounds, six assists), the league’s reigning MVP, exchanging triples early and de facto centers Carlos Boozer (16 points, 20 rebounds) and Chris Bosh (12 points, nine rebounds, four blocked shots) also getting on the board. Point guard Mario Chalmers (15 points) benefited from the defensive attention on his high-profile teammates and paced the hosts in scoring.
The game was evenly played in terms of intensity, but the Heat began to create some separation as the period went on, gaining a double-digit advantage as the Bulls were saddled with foul trouble—both Jimmy Butler (13 points) and Boozer, who went to the bench, picked up a pair of first-quarter fouls, while Nazr Mohammed, who replaced Boozer, would be whistled for three fouls in the frame—before a Marco Belinelli fast-break dunk off a Deng steal ended an 11-0 Miami run.
The closely-officiated game, perhaps a product of James’ comments about the Bulls’ physical nature in the two teams’ last meeting, clearly was a detriment to the visitors—they were whistled for nine fouls and the Heat attempted 15 free throws—but with a lift off the bench from Nate Robinson (14 points) and solid execution in transition, the Bulls kept it a competitive affair, though they still trailed, 30-22, at the conclusion of the opening period.
“[The Bulls’ last win over Miami at the United Center, snapping the Heat’s 27-game winning streak] fell right in line with every game that we’ve played against them. It’s been hard fought. They have great competitors, I think we have great competitors. It’s great competition, so that’s the way it is,” Thibodeau said prior to the contest. “I don’t want us to change, no matter who we’re playing. I think you have to play a certain way. I don’t think you can take plays off. I want us to play hard, I want us to play together, I want us to do the right things and I think people enjoy seeing great competition, and that’s the way I want it to be.”
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Athletic backup center Chris Andersen (15 points, seven rebounds) made his presence felt early in the second quarter, with his high energy level and activity around the rim, aiding Miami in establishing an even wider cushion.
Led by the feisty, savvy play of floor general Kirk Hinrich (14 points), the Bulls fought to keep things within single digits, as they tried to muck things up on the defensive end and although their offense couldn’t be described as fluid, they tried to limit turnovers and stayed patient against the Heat’s set defense.
But the Heat’s firepower, combined with the vast disparity at the foul line—in both of the first two quarters, the Heat were already in the penalty midway through the period—enabled the home team’s advantage to balloon, with Bosh and James doing the majority of the damage.
Before things got too out of hand, however, the Bulls battled back, as Deng and Robinson led the charge—especially the latter, who predictably injected his trademark instant offense into the equation—cutting the deficit to 56-54 at the intermission.
After the break, Butler picked up his fourth foul in the first minute of the third quarter, then subsequently completed a rare four-point play to tie the contest at 60 apiece. And being that there’s no love lost between the two teams, Bosh was assessed a technical foul for shoving Boozer shortly thereafter.
In the midst of all the commotion, Mike Miller (11 points, six rebounds, four assists)—the veteran sharpshooter started in place of Udonis Haslem, who rested, along with Shane Battier—knocked down a pair of corner triples to ensure that Miami didn’t surrender its tenuous lead, though the Bulls continued to challenge their hosts with timely treys from Hinrich and Belinelli, a surprise starter.
The All-Star duo of James and sidekick Dwyane Wade (22 points) helped the Heat acquire some breathing room, as the Bulls’ execution turned sloppy, Hinrich picked up his fourth foul and Boozer struggled to finish around the rim, compounded by Thibodeau getting whistled for a technical for complaining about the officials’ non-call of what he perceived to be a three-second violation on Chalmers.
Despite strong contributions from reserve swingman Daequan Cook (10 points), heading into the final stanza, the Bulls were behind, 86-77.
A slow pace to the contest and scoring struggles for both squads marked the outset of the fourth quarter, which wasn’t entirely negative for the Bulls, given their style of play and the Heat’s contrasting desired up-tempo methodology, but it also didn’t allow the visitors to make much headway.
As Miami began to get into transition for easy opportunities, Thibodeau, perhaps sensing that his team was running out of gas, took a timeout in an attempt to halt the proceedings, but the guests simply couldn’t close the gap.
While the Bulls weren’t run out of the building, one of their periodic offensive droughts occurred at the worst possible time and heading into the game’s stretch run, it appeared obvious that they wouldn’t be able to muster up the production for a comeback effort.
Without a dominant performance on the glass or one of their typically successful high-assist total games, besides their heart, the Bulls had nothing to hang their hat on Sunday, and sometimes—at least against the elite teams in the league—that’s not enough, especially not this late in the season and not having anything close to a full arsenal.