HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The Bad Boys era Pistons would have been proud of the effort from the Chicago Bulls Sunday in Miami. The intent was there.
But the execution and the results were not there as injury-plagued Bulls did their best to rough up the Miami Heat before falling 105-93 to the defending NBA champs on their home floor.
“Make ’em feel you,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said during one timeout huddle as he rallied his troops from an early deficit. And it worked for a while. The Bulls stayed in this game because they were willing to inflict as much legal but very physical pain as allowed in order to neutralize the Heat.
When it works, it’s a thing of brutal beauty, sort of like the Bulls’ streak-busting win over the Heat on March 27. You might remember that game from the LeBron James–Kirk Hinrich floor scrubbing incident, one of the plays that prompted James to groan about the way the Bulls were allowed to muscle up on the Heat.
It appears we have reached a crossroads, of sorts, in regards to whether or not those sort of, let’s call them “chippy” tactics really work anymore. They certainly haven’t produced any championship hardware recently. The last team to play bruising defense that leaves opponents black and blue from the experience was the 2007-08 Boston Celtics, a team Thibodeau served as its defensive coordinator under Doc Rivers.
That Celtics team would qualify as the last team to utilize that brutal, throwback defensive style on its ride to a title. That’s not to say that you don’t have to be an elite defensive team to win a title, because you absolutely do.
All four teams to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy since then — the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and 2010, the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and the Heat last year — have finished among the league’s elite in defensive rating. In fact, the last championship team to finish outside the top eight in defensive rating was the 2001 Lakers, who finished 18th.
There is only one non-playoff team in the top 10 this season, the Washington Wizards. So again, you have to play defense at an elite level to even get into the championship conversation.
But that doesn’t mean a team will be able to bully its way to the title the way the 2004 Pistons did. We might not see another team built on that sort of rugged defensive bedrock the way that Pistons team was or the 2008 Celtics were when they won it all.
The Bulls have tried it in recent years and seen it go up in smoke in the playoffs.
They had the best record and defensive rating in the league in each of the past two seasons, and lost to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals two years ago and in the first round to the Philadelphia 76ers last season, after losing 2011 league MVP Derrick Rose to a knee injury that has sidelined him this entire season.
It makes you wonder, if and when we might see another bruiser riding down the street during a championship parade?