CHICAGO – This is the way a 27-game winning streak ends: With a lot of bangs and a few whimpers.
Undermanned almost beyond credulity, the Chicago Bulls stiffened defensively, tried to whack twice for every one they absorbed and toughed their way to a 101-97 upset over the Miami Heat that snapped the NBA’s second-longest streak of consecutive victories. The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ mark of 33 in a row rests easy, which is more than can be said about Heat star LeBron James, who ended his night both battered and a little cranky.
The Bulls met arguably the NBA’s most imposing and unstoppable physical force with force of their own. Point guard Kirk Hinrich managed to grab the cow catcher, crash to the floor and live to tell about it when James barreled straight at him in the first quarter. In the fourth, Taj Gibson put James on the floor with a two-handed swipe as the Miami forward drove to the hoop. Initially and incorrectly ruled a flagrant foul, the refs got it right upon review but James didn’t appreciate going down, his legs twisted like a pretzel.
Moments later, James drove one of his massive shoulders into a screen set by Chicago’s Carlos Boozer. That one was a flagrant foul, a spill of frustration not so much that the streak was about to end – it was 90-82 with 3:52 left – but that he was getting abused in the process.
“I believe, and I know, that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays,” James told reporters afterward. “First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. … And you know, the last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground.
“Those are not basketball plays. It’s been happening all year and I’ve been able to keep my cool. But it is getting to me a little bit.”
First things first: No one can blame James for disliking the thumping. But what Chicago did apparently was within the bounds of Doc Naismith‘s game – OK, maybe Doc Lecter‘s – because none of the Bulls got tossed or ejected. Not that their depleted roster could afford any ousters.
“He probably got a little frustrated,” Gibson said. “But you got to keep playing. These are two physical teams. The refs did a great job, because they let a lot of stuff go.”
Besides, what were the Bulls supposed to do? The NBA’s hottest team in, sheesh, 41 years was bearing down on them. And they were light in the loafers – no Derrick Rose, no Joakim Noah, no Richard Hamilton, no Marco Belinelli. Absent those players and their skills, Chicago’s only real alternative was to dial up the grit.
“Obviously having those guys out is not easy,” said Hinrich, who stuck in his nose and jaw wherever he could, from attacking James off the dribble with some – ugh! – inevitable results to ripping the ball away from Chris Bosh for a critical takeaway at 92-85. “But we realize, collectively, if we share the ball, team defense, have good energy and intensity and play with that edge, we’re going to have a chance to win some games. … We just grinded.”
That play where he grabbed James and all but tackled him? “I was just hanging on for dear life. Just didn’t want him to get the ‘and 1,’ ” Hinrich said. “You just don’t realize how powerful that guy is. With his speed and strength you can’t take anything for granted. I still feel I got the worst of it.”
Hinrich, at times in the second half, found himself guarded by James, the bigger man’s extra six inches and 70 pounds or so eclipsing his view of the basket. So what did Hinrich do? He drove left and got snuffed. He drove right and got snuffed. Then with just over two minutes left, Hinrich went up the gut again – and kicked the ball to Gibson on the left baseline for a 16-footer that made it 94-85.
“Kirk is one of the toughest guys I know,” Gibson said. “He has so much swag every day in practice. He’s a real vet. He doesn’t shy away from anything. He’s always in the middle, especially on big men – he switches out with centers. He really doesn’t care.”
Miami, throughout its remarkable streak, had played numerous teams that were missing key players: Orlando (no Nikola Vucevic), Cleveland (no Kyrie Irving or Anderson Varejao), Milwaukee (no Luc Mbah a Moute to guard James), Boston (no Rajon Rondo or Kevin Garnett). The point of which isn’t to sully the Heat’s accomplishment but to marvel at how hard and well these various depleted rotations play when their coaches’ options are limited, their minutes are high, everyone’s expectations are muted and the opponent is toting around a huge bull’s-eye.
The Bulls claimed streak-busting had little or nothing to do with Wednesday’s outcome. They were driven more by the 86-67 hairball they spit up against Miami at United Center on Feb. 21, back when the streak was just nine games old.
Said Gibson: “We didn’t like that. We felt like we got punked on our own court. They blew us out.”
If the players that end such a streak get credit. so does the fellow who coaches those players. From the outside, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau looks to have painted another masterpiece of X & Overachievement. But while Hinrich acknowleged, “Yeah, he was fired up,” other Chicago players saw or heard nothing different from their guy on the sideline.
“Honestly, the dude is the same every game,” said forward Luol Deng, who scored 28 points and made the most of those reprieves when James shifted over to Hinrich. “No matter who you’re playing. I didn’t see any difference. He’s intense. He’s always focused.”
It was that way for both teams Wednesday, but the only way out for the Bulls.
“We just came in with that dog mentality that we weren’t going to go soft,” Gibson said. “We really had it in the back of our head. Once the game came, we knew we had to do it. There was no talking. Guys just understood, to go out there and play hard. Take hard fouls when you need to.
“Every time we play that team, we try to send a message. They sent the message the last game we played them. So we had to keep pushing. Every time to play this team, it’s like a new testament.”