The Chicago Bulls play with heart, hustle and passion.
It is said so much it seems cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The Bulls play an intense style of basketball, and, especially in the regular season, there are a lot of days where teams aren’t prepared to match it.
Usually, that is the recipe for success against the Miami Heat in the regular season. When the Bulls beat the Heat, Chicago plays with more intensity than the Heat and dominates Miami physically.
However, on Sunday afternoon, Miami, after two straight losses, was ready for the intensity Chicago brings. The Heat matched it for most of the game, and it seemed like one of the games the Bulls would lose simply due to lack of firepower.
But down 12 in the fourth quarter, the Bulls somehow found a way to win a game Miami really wanted as well. Not wanting to lose their third game in a row, the Heat did everything they could to pull out the victory down the stretch. They lost anyway, and that’s what makes this the most impressive win for the Bulls this season.
Watching the way Tom Thibodeau‘s team played defense on LeBron was fascinating. Having two mobile bigs in Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson allows the Bulls to help more aggressively on James’ drives than any other team in the league. And it also allows the Bulls to switch Noah on James, since Noah may be the only big in the league who can legitimately bother James in isolation.
Noah and Gibson make the Bulls an interesting matchup against the Heat. Most other elite defensive teams (such as the Memphis Grizzlies and the Indiana Pacers) are reluctant to switch with their bigs for fear of getting burned. Indiana in particular flat out refuses to switch, which makes sense with the scheme the Pacers run as well as the team’s personnel. But the Bulls can and do switch, and it gives them an advantage against a team like Miami.
Make no mistake, though, most of the credit for guarding James needs to go to Jimmy Butler. Butler somehow refuses to let James post him up and understands the Bulls’ scheme so precisely that he always forces James into help. He has an innate sense of when to gamble for the steal, and that was on display as he knocked the ball away from James on the last play of regulation. Contrast this with Carlos Boozer, who seems to slap at the ball at the wrong time every time and picks up dumb fouls, and it’s easy to see how useful this skill is.
With Butler’s great on-ball defense and the help from the bigs, the Bulls were able to force the most efficient player in the league into a 8-for-23 night. James only took three three-pointers but didn’t get all the way to the rim all that often either. Forcing him to take contested two-pointers outside of the lane is near-impossible, yet it’s something the Bulls accomplished.
For most of the night, it looked like all of this defensive execution would go for naught. Dwyane Wade was scoring efficiently, and Chicago just could not get anything going offensively against the suffocating defense of the Heat. But this changed in the fourth quarter as Chicago got an unbelievable effort from the post players.
Noah was brilliant the entire game. Giving an inspired effort on both sides of the floor, Noah added a scoring touch to his game when the Bulls needed it late. Even when the Heat forced him to the right (he prefers driving left), Noah showed a great touch with the right hand. His ability to finish with both hands coupled with his vision make him really hard to guard.
Gibson had an awful start to the game. He couldn’t get anything going offensively and struggled to score even with the mismatched Michael Beasley guarding him. But in the fourth quarter, Gibson got going. He made a couple of jumpers and had an emphatic dunk on the break. He also made great decisions with the ball when double-teamed and had a couple of assists. In fact, every single basket the Bulls made in the fourth quarter was scored or assisted by Gibson or Noah.
The Bulls then dominated overtime and secured the victory. And in a season full of inspired victories, Chicago got the most impressive one yet.
Donnie Kolakowski is a writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @zenoknows