At this point, we should know what to expect when the Chicago Bulls play the Miami Heat. From the moment The Decision ended, and the Bulls' primary plan in free agency during the summer of 2010 was effectively squashed, Chicago began to build itself as an antidote to the Heat. You simply can't match star power with Miami, so Chicago sought to build a contender by going the opposite direction. They hired a champion assistant coach with a sterling track record and glowing reputation. They surrounded star guard Derrick Rose with pieces that fit instead of working to align a co-headliner. They built depth, installed and reinforced the most basic basketball values, and preached gluing their collective foot to the gas pedal at all times.
Chicago was selling "Beat The Heat" t-shirts even before the first regular season meeting of 2010-2011, when a such task would appear damn near impossible on paper. The Bulls swept the Heat in the regular season before the inevitable Eastern Conference finals meeting, a hotly contested but decisively won series by Miami in a mere five games.
These two teams have a history. So far as important games go, the Bulls and Heat have waged war more often than any same conference contenders this side of the Spurs and Lakers. So how is it that Chicago and Miami can still find new ways to leave us exasperated, breathless and both physically and emotionally taxed with every meeting? If we're learning anything, it's that the narrative surrounding Bulls-Heat will be one played out over a number of years. Last season was the first chapter, but this is hardly a one-act play. On Thursday, Chicago added another twist to the story by continuing their regular season dominance over the Heat, this time carried by the bench on the worst night of Derrick Rose's career.
The Bulls will likely finish this season with more wins than any team in the NBA over the past two seasons; recently, their head coach became the quickest ever to win 100 games. So how is it that this team can still regularly find provocative ways of surprising us? The way Chicago won last night is impossible. As in: not possible. C.J. Watson and Kyle Korver vs. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade: who you got? But as Thibodeau's Bulls have proven with startling regularity, "impossible" is nothing hard work and shot making can't overcome.
These Bulls have made a habit of taking everything you think you know about the NBA and grinding it up into a mixture of indiscernible dust. The Bulls were thought to overachieve considerably last season when they won a league-best 62 games, only they've been just as dominant this season in the face of their best player missing about 40 percent of the games. The NBA is rightfully said to be a league of stars, yet the Bulls' actively reject the logic. They beat Miami -- LeBron, Wade, Chris Bosh -- last night with one starter on the floor. Taj Gibson might be a starter on a handful of teams, but I doubt C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, and Omer Asik would start anywhere this side of Charlotte. This isn't the way the NBA is supposed to work. Yet as the self-proclaimed "Bench Mob" matched Miami's star-laden crew shot for shot in crunch-time, it became obvious that reason and logic have no place at the United Center.
Actually: the "Bench Mob" is dead, long live the "Bench Mob". Without Rose and Richard Hamilton this season, roles on this team have disintegrated. Do we really still think of Watson, Gibson, and Ronnie Brewer as living under the guise of "reserves"? That tag was buried long ago. These Bulls are one, a cohesive being that flows and overpowers with an onslaught of physicality and numbers. The bench are the starters; the starters are the bench. Forget what you know about responsibilities, duties, and assignments on an NBA team. In this universe, those are not welcome.
If you thought Chicago's first win over Miami this season, the one keyed by John Lucas III, couldn't be topped, think again. Bulls-Heat Round III was every bit as exhilarating and twice as cathartic. Miami wanted this game. They did. The Bulls had every excuse to lose. But when crunch-time came and the game was still close, all bets were off. Miami should have been up by 20 with the way Chicago was bricking shots early in the game. Though we're told to believe great offense beats great defense in the NBA, Chicago, again, bucks the trend. They locked down Miami's stars and smothered the rest of the Heat to death. Literally: nobody outside of James/Wade/Bosh scored in the fourth quarter or overtime for the Heat. The Bulls finished with a 47-7 advantage in bench points. Derrick Rose shot 1-for-13 and sat on the bench in the game's most important moments. This is real life.
"Hard work overcomes" is the type of life theory that seems too fictitious to accept. There is circumstance, there is talent, there is opportunity which goes into every aspect of success. Yet, these Bulls win because nobody plays harder. It sounds lazy, but it's undeniably true. Chicago wins because they want to win more than anyone; they win because if they don't, it will sting deep down in their collective soul. The Heat have more talent by a wide margin. Hell, a lot of teams do. But no one works as hard as Thibodeau's team, a group that has personified their coach's maniacal devotion to playing basketball the way it is meant to be played.
That fourth quarter and overtime session remain a blur, and not just because I was watching in a hazy bar void of announcers. But while that situation is hardly an ideal place for critical analysis to be born, it almost doesn't matter when the Bulls play the Heat. Bulls vs. Heat is an experience, one that simply shouldn't be had alone in a living room. We're in this together. Miami is the real Evil Empire, a common enemy custom built to root against. Our humble Bulls are the perfect foil. I can't tell you exactly how the late game possessions went down this morning, but I can tell you how they felt. With Bulls-Heat, every made basket is a body shot. This is Evander Holyfield punching you in the stomach, and you punching right back. You can feel these makes. When Watson hit the three to send it into overtime? When Korver hit the three about seven feet beyond the arc? Yeah, who needs the numbers. Sports are at their best when the only thing invested is raw, personal emotion, and Bulls vs. Heat can bring it out of Chicago like nothing else.
The Bulls still have their issues. They can't possibly keep winning games like this against an opponent as otherworldly as Miami without Rose, with the supposed role players making the biggest plays. The starting backcourt needs to figure out how to play together. Joakim Noah needs to eliminate his physical lapses. And remember: the Bulls improved to 5-1 over Miami in the regular season over the last two years. As Miami proved in the Eastern Conference finals, it hardly foreshadows what will happen in the playoffs. But these regular season wins are important because Chicago knows they can do it. If that sounds a tad cheesy, I ask: what with this team doesn't?