Heat Check: Bulls complete sweep of Miami

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Heat Check: Bulls complete sweep of Miami

Sunday, March 6, 2011
2:40 p.m.

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com
MIAMIWas anything less to be expected? The Bulls (43-18) made sure the Heats (43-20) much-discussed late-game strugglesand losing streak, now at four gamesendured Sunday afternoon, with an 87-86 victory at the American Airlines Arena, sweeping the season series in Chicagos favor.

A pair of early dunks by Joakim Noah (11 points, eight rebounds, two blocked shots) got the Bulls out of the gate quickly, but the unselfish approach of the visitors was countered by the offensive balance displayed by Miamis superstar Big Three trio of LeBron James (26 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals), Dwyane Wade (20 points, five assists, four rebounds) and Chris Bosh (23 points, five rebounds). Bosh seemingly put his miserable outing in Chicagothe All-Star power forward shot 1-for-18 when the two teams last played, proving key in the Bulls' victoryand was an integral part of the home teams offense in the opening period.

Meanwhile, James and Wade led the Heats aggressive, swarming defense and goaded their guests into unforced errors, leading to easy fast-break pointsin fact, the number of Bulls turnovers and Heat transition points (six) was equal after a quarterwhich was the exact scenario Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau was most concerned with heading into the matchup. Chicago floor general Derrick Rose (27 points, five assists) didnt force the action, preferring to be a playmaker and was content with hitting mid-range jumpers at the games outset.

While James uncanny shot-making ability was, as always, a variable that cant be prepared for, Luol Deng (18 points, three assists, two blocks) made him work for his buckets (and even swatted a James baseline drive out of bounds, although James scored on the ensuing in-bounds play) and knocked down a triple on the Bulls final possession of the period. Miami, however, held a 22-18 lead after a quarter of play.

Chicagos reserves, so steady and highly acclaimed as of late, werent at their finest to start the second quarter, allowing the Heat to run off six consecutive points and take a double-digit lead before Thibodeau called timeout. Bosh, now matched up with Carlos Boozer (12 points, 10 rebounds)who returned to the contest after exiting early in the first quarter with two quick foulscontinued to be effective, serving as his own second units focal point offensively.

Thibodeau eventually filtered in his regulars and the Bulls chipped into the deficit, with a stingy defense, an unselfish offense and the continued strong play of Deng leading the way. A scary moment for Heat fans came when James, after going behind the back in transition, then getting fouled, took a hard fall and appeared to injure his left wrist.

James stayed in the contest, however, and questions of his immediate health were answered upon his leaping snatch, save and heady pass of an offensive rebound to Wade for a layup while sailing out of bounds. Rose, James prime competition for the leagues MVP award, also rose to the occasion with his smart passing, continued proficient pull-up jump shooting and a trademark difficult finish at the rim while absorbing contact.

In the waning moments of the first half, El Heat capitalized on the offensive struggles of Los BullsNoche Latina at the American Airlines Arena was marked with the aforementioned Spanish monikers on the respective teams jerseyswith a 7-0 run to again make it a double-figure gap between the squads. A Rose floaterand the foulwith 3.9 seconds left in the second quarter ended the spurt and allowed the Bulls to pull within 49-40 at the intermission.

In the first half, we were a step behind most of the half and I thought they got whatever they wanted, said Thibodeau. "And then the second half, it was much better. Our ball pressure was better, getting back was better, our offense was better."

I thought our offense caused us a lot of problems in the first half, from our turnovers, quick shots. If you have poor shot selection against this team and you put them in the open floor, youre asking for trouble. If they have a live ball, its very difficult to get back and get a stop.

More of Bosh and James hitting deep two-point jumpers opened the third quarter, but the Bulls turned the tables on Miami, getting out in transition with Rose briefly taking over the game for a stretch after consecutive warp-speed, coast-to-coast driving layups, prompting Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra to call timeout as M-V-P chants for Rose were drowned out by boos. The home team quickly responded, creating some separation after Chicago narrowed the gap, but the visitors stayed resilient and cut the deficit to a one-possession game midway through the period, with Noahs energetic play serving as a catalyst.

Chicago tied the game early in the final stanza, then went up on a Deng jumper, taking its first lead since the opening period. The visitors second unit rose to the occasion, reeling off six consecutive points to begin the fourth quarter, leading the home-standing Heat to halt the proceedings with a timeout for adjustment purposes.

Our bench has been great and they continue to be great, and I think its huge, especially when were on the road and you want to buy your starters some rest; you guys the media remind me of that all the time, said Thibodeau, slipping in a joke between himself and the reporters that cover the team. You can trust those guys and every night someone different steps up.

Chimed in Rose: The bench did a great job with getting the lead and holding it.

As the game entered its stretch run, the visitors kept Miami on its heels by answering any chance of the home team gaining momentum with a crowd-silencing basket or defensive stopthe off night of Heat reserve swingman Mike Miller aided Chicagos causeuntil a Mario Chalmers (11 points, five assists) three-pointer with 1:05 remaining in the contest knotted up the score at 84 apiece, prompting Thibodeau to call timeout to strategize. Out of the timeout, sharpshooter Kyle Korver missed a triple and on the subsequent Heat possession, a blown defensive assignment allowed Chalmers to drive to the basket uncontested to give Miami an 86-84 lead with 25.8 seconds to go.

After conferring on what to execute, Deng was fouled on a driving fall-away runner with 17.3 seconds left, then hit the front of end of his two free-throw attempts, before missing the second. However, in the ensuing scramble for the offensive rebound, Noah kept the ball alive and Deng ended up with the missed carom and was fouled again, this time making both to put the Bulls up, 87-86, with 15.9 seconds on the clock.

We had a play, they guarded it well and Kyle did a good job of skipping the ball, and they kind of overplayed it, I drove to the basket and got fouled, recounted Deng about the play, which some observers felt was a questionable foul call after the offensive rebound. I missed the second free throw and I thought it was a great playplay of the gamefor Jo to tip that ball. I wasnt boxed out and I just went right for the ball, I was pushed. Because of Jos play, I got a chance to redeem myself and I knocked them downI just felt confident going to the line.

Youve got to look at it and see it again, but I really thought I got fouled. I felt like I got pushed and the referee made the call. In the NBA, especially with games like this, its the little things.

Exclaimed Noah: The basketball gods! They were on our side.

Afterwards, Thibodeau had high praise for Dengand even joked with reporters about the small forwards heavy minutes, somewhat of a sore spot for him usually.

Luol, you can just trust that guy. He does everything for you, lauded Thibodeau. Even the last play, Jo tip-in, Luol coming up with the loose ball, the foul, going to the line, got the second chance to make free throws and he did. You look at Lu the whole game, hes got a tough coverhes on LeBron the whole timebut you can count on that guy every night and hes a complete player. He does everything for us. Hes the glue of our team.

Following a Miami timeout, James got the ball at the top of the key and drove on Noah after a defensive switch. The reigning two-time MVPs late-game struggles persisted, as he missed a layup in traffic and after Wade ended up with the miss, he, too, failed to convert, erring on a jumper from the corner, with starting shooting guard Keith Bogans (in for defensive purposes on the final possession) snatching the board to end the game.

We were just switching pick-and-rolls and he made a nice move. I tried to make it as hard as possible for him. We shrink the court very well and D-Wade got a pretty good look, but it just feels good to come up with a big W on the road, Noah explained. To be honest, he made a nice move and I tried to recover as fast as I can. I just tried to make it as tough as possible for him. I want him to shoot over me.

Thibodeau commended Noah for his defense after the game.

LeBron has the ability, even when you defend him perfectly, to still make and the challenge is not to get him frustrated and to make shots tough, but I thought that Jo really protected the rim," Thibodeau said. "That was a big-time play at the end.

We hung tough, he went on to say. We got aggressive, fought our way back into it. It was just a grind game all the way and then some big plays at the end.

It wasnt pretty, but we got the win.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Fast Break Morning Update: Celtics even up series with Bulls

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Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

Isaiah Thomas carries Celtics at critical times to save series against Bulls

The Celtics season was unraveling, and their face of the franchise was stumbling down the stretch. The opposing Bulls had used a 40-18 run spanning the second and third quarters to take their first lead. Jimmy Butler was hearing “M-V-P” chants from the crowd of nearly 22,000 and the Celtics looked lost, just as they had at times in Game 1 and 2 losses.

And Isaiah Thomas, the MVP candidate who had carried the Celtics all season, was at the front of the miscues. In just 4 third-quarter minutes he missed two shots, turned the ball over three times and committed his third and fourth personal fouls, the latter occurring on a charge during a 3-on-1 fast break. Knowing he’d need his All-Star point guard down the stretch of what was quickly becoming a tight contest, Brad Stevens subbed out Thomas with the hope that the Celtics could keep close their eight-point lead at the time.

Instead, the Bulls kept their foot on the gas, eyeing a 3-1 series lead behind the driving force of Jimmy Butler. The Bulls’ own All-Star helped manufacture a 12-0 run that put the Bulls, down by as many as 20 late in the second quarter, ahead for the first time, 65-63.

Thomas reentered with the score tied at 63, missing his first shot that set up the Bulls’ go-ahead basket from Robin Lopez. Following that basket, Thomas strung together the most important stretch of basketball this season in a 4-minute span that saved the game, and potentially the season.

The Bulls’ lead was brief, as Thomas twice drove to the basket and connected on layups to put the Celtics ahead. Next he found Al Hoford on a pick-and-roll set that the duo had run to perfection in Game 3. Thomas then took two trips to the free-throw line, burying all four attempts, and capped the quarter with a pair of assists to Kelly Olynyk that pushed the lead to 10. All told, Thomas had a hand in all 16 of the Celtics points scored after the Bulls took their lead.

The Celtics managed to hide Thomas defensively – he finished with just the four fouls – and the Bulls only managed to get within five in the fourth quarter (with Thomas on the bench) before the All Star point guard closed the door to even the series heading back to Boston for Game 5 on Wednesday.

“The game was not going our direction and the worst that could happen is somebody fouls out of a game,” Stevens said. “Isaiah’s a big part of our offense and we needed to feel better about ourselves and we tweaked the defense a little bit there to try to protect him, but we didn’t feel like he could sit right there. Things were not going our way.”

Much of the night belonged to the Celtics, even if the Bulls did manage to erase the 20-point deficit. The Bulls’ defensive strategy in Game 3 to limit Thomas, who was second in the league in scoring, to just 18 points, his second lowest point total of the year. Thomas’ nine assists were crucial in Friday’s win, but the Celtics wanted him attacking the basket.

They set higher pick-and-rolls to allow Thomas room to take Robin Lopez off the dribble, and the Boston again playing a small-ball lineup the floor was spaced enough to allow Thomas to attack the rim; just two of Thomas’ 10 makes came outside the restricted area, and his 13 free-throw attempts were a stark contrast after he tallied zero in Game 3. Thomas was a team-high +17 in the nine-point win. His 33  points were the most he had scored in the series.

“It helps us feel a lot more confident when he’s on the floor because he’s able to make plays, not only for himself but other guys on the team,” Avery Bradley said. “Sometimes we need him getting in the paint, kicking it out, and hitting the next guy because it’s contagious.”

Thomas’ third-quarter stretch was his best, but not the only time he contributed. The 5-foot-9 Thomas scored 10 points in the first quarter as the Celtics pushed their lead to as many as 14 points. He hadded six more in the second quarter as the Bulls deployed three different point guards – Jerian Grant, Michael Carter-Williams and Isaiah Canaan – at him, as well as Jimmy Butler.

Thomas remained focused as the Bulls’ carousel of point guards with Rajon Rondo out continued to to turn.

“I just try to play the same way no matter who’s out there on the floor. I got a job to do and that’s score the basketball, make plays for others on this team and be a leader,” Thomas said, speaking to the media for the first time this postseason. “So it doesn’t really matter what the other team’s doing because I’ve got to do my job and I’ve got to do it at a high level for us to win.”

Thomas went for the kill shot in the fourth quarter and delivered. Two baskets from Game 1 hero Bobby Portis cut the Bulls’ deficit to five, prompting Stevens to sub in Thomas, Bradley and Jae Crowder earlier than he would have liked. No matter. Thomas drove twice to the basket on successive possessions and scored both times, including a three-point play. That pushed the Celtics’ lead back to 10 in just 90 seconds, and the Bulls didn’t get close than eight the rest of the way.

Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg vented frustration with the officials following the game, noting that Thomas becomes an “impossible guard” when he’s allowed to carry the basketball during his dribble. Thomas said he couldn’t remember a time this season when he was called for carrying – in reality he’s been called for it three times, though not since January.

It was a strategic tactic for Hoiberg to deploy, hoping for any chance to slow down Thomas. The Celtics point guard is heating up at the perfect time, and he’s doing so while still trying to find his three-point shot. Once that starts working the Bulls will need to once again adjust on the fly. As for Hoiberg’s comment, Thomas echoed during his postgame availability what he showed earlier on Sunday night.

“That,” he said with a smile, “is not the reason why I’m an impossible cover.”