Miami had its three superstars. Short-staffed Chicago came together as one.
The Bulls pulled off the improbable Wednesday night, dousing the Heat and their near-record 27-game win streak with a 101-97 victory that saw Tom Thibodeau’s crew take a 2-1 lead in the season series with one game remaining between the teams.
For the first time in recent memory, Derrick Rose was an afterthought and his team was the focus. An incredibly gutsy effort, disciplined play on both ends of the court, precise execution, clutch play and standout performances from seemingly the entire roster made what appeared virtually impossible, especially given the circumstances, a reality.
An 11-2 start by the Bulls (39-31) with four out of the team’s five starters on the board early had the arena rocking from the outset, even in the wake of starters Marco Belinelli and All-Star center Joakim Noah being sidelined due to injuries.
But while the Bulls’ selfless play and the presence of Carlos Boozer (21 points, 17 rebounds) early were big for the hosts, the power forward’s former teammate in Cleveland, reigning league MVP LeBron James (32 points), came storming back to personally narrow the gap for the Heat (56-15).
The wing duo of Jimmy Butler (17 points, five rebounds—starting in place of Belinelli, he was matched up with fellow Marquette product Dwyane Wade (18 points); the Chicago native returned to the lineup for a game in his hometown after missing Miami’s last two contests with a right-knee bruise—and All-Star Luol Deng (28 points, seven rebounds, five assists) was productive right out of the gates, but perhaps the team’s inspiration came from floor general Kirk Hinrich (seven points, six assists, five rebounds), whose physical play, including basically tackling James in transition, which drew a loud ovation from the crowd, helped set the tone.
With Deng’s scoring, solid rebounding, good ball security, stout defense and a late-quarter boost from instant-offense reserve Nate Robinson (14 points) helping them build a cushion, the Bulls held a 32-22 advantage after the opening period, despite James exerting his will as a scorer.
Robinson continued to energize both the crowd and his teammates, helping the hosts maintain their double-digit edge, although Wade began to get it going offensively after showing some rust from his layoff to open the contest.
Upon James returning to the game after taking a breather, the prolific pair began to shoulder Miami’s offensive burden, but with the Bulls still shooting the ball efficiently—they shot a gaudy 58.3 percent from the field in the first quarter—taking away the Heat’s other players, including All-Star big man Chris Bosh (21 points), as well as hitting timely shots from long distance, the home team kept its guests at bay.
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But Bosh started to come alive toward the end of the frame and coupled with the Bulls beginning to be loose with the ball, the visitors attempted to narrow the gap as halftime approached.
At the intermission, the Bulls led, 55-46, after a defensive stand on the final possession of the second quarter, featuring 10-day contract signee Malcolm Thomas receiving his first playing time with the team.
After the break, back-to-back dunks by James prompted a Bulls timeout and while things didn’t further deteriorate for the hosts immediately, the game evolved into more of a tight-knit contest than the first half, though the Bulls maintained a slim cushion.
The hosts suffered one of their periodic offensive droughts, which led to the Heat taking their first lead of the contest on a Shane Battier triple at the 4:28 mark of the third quarter on a possession that featured multiple offensive rebounds for Miami.
The Bulls didn’t wilt, however—as evidenced by a Deng-to-Butler alley-oop in transition, on which the second-year swingman absolutely posterized Bosh—and kept pace in the back-and-forth affair, preventing the Heat from going on one of their trademark runs.
[WATCH: Jimmy Butler posterizes Chris Bosh]
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls’ mediocre 14-point period was all but forgotten by their vocal loyalists, as they clung to a tenuous 69-68 edge, due to a Boozer three-point play with 1.1 seconds left in the frame.
Butler continued to make an impact at the outset of the fourth quarter, but the Bulls also got a surprise contribution on both ends of the floor from reserve wing Daequan Cook, enabling them to acquire some breathing room early in the period.
The Bulls continued to plug away, making timely shots—Hinrich, who was being guarded by James, and Deng, came up big, in particular—but the Heat still lurked, as James and Wade began to assert themselves even further.
With the Bulls having all of the momentum heading into the game’s stretch run, the already-physical contest got even chippier, as a hard Taj Gibson (six points, five rebounds, five assists) foul on James was first ruled a flagrant foul before being overturned, followed by James attempting to flatten Boozer, his former teammate, on the other end of the floor, which was ruled a flagrant foul.
Cheap shots aside, a Gibson jumper with 2:18 left made it a 94-85 contest, in the Bulls’ favor, and while the Heat made final push, in the final minute, a Boozer putback layup over James, followed by a Robinson driving finger roll, sealed the deal, in a display of fortitude that reflected the hosts’ lack of fear of their vaunted guests.