MIAMI – Maybe, as one postgame wiseguy smirked after Game 1 of Heat-Bulls, the Brooklyn Nets should call P.J. Carlesimo and give him his job back.
There was no shame in losing Sunday to an undermanned, overachieving Chicago team in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference’s first round after all. Because 48 hours later, defending champion Miami lost Game 1 of the East semifinals on their home court to that same driven, unflappable bunch.
While the outside world has been busy defining Chicago by the bodies that are not there – Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich again, same as in the clincher in Brooklyn Saturday – the Bulls keep on defining themselves by the hearts of the players who are. And their habits, discipline and trust.
When something happens that isn’t supposed to happen – like beating a well-rested Heat team while missing a pair of All-Stars and a third guy who started in Rose’s spot when he wasn’t otherwise banged up – it might be written off as a fluke. Monday, it might have been a bit of rust on Miami’s game, maybe, and a nothing-to-lose, why-the-heck-not? attitude from the Bulls.
But when it happens over and over, like the Nets ouster or the victories at Miami in January or to snap the Heat’s 27-game winning streak in March, it’s less about game-plan trickery or hard-foul skullduggery.
And when multiple things happen to bring it all together – Jimmy Butler playing 48 minutes while shadowing freshly re-minted MVP LeBron James, a Little 1 (Nate Robinson) outscoring each of the Big 3, a Miami attack that ground down to 39.7 percent shooting, a Bulls team or anyone else for that matter hanging 35 on the Heat in the fourth quarter – then it is about a pattern, a culture, a way of life as ordained by coach Tom Thibodeau.
“It starts up with Thibs,” said power forward Taj Gibson, who banged with Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, felt James breathing down his neck a few times and even chased Ray Allen through screens a few times. “Thibs is the guru, he understands the game plan. Then it’s the bigs talking to the guards, understanding what they need to do. Bigs are the second defense, guarding that rim. And it works out. We all talk to each other. Talking is big on this team and we help each other. We cover a lot of our weak points and we show our strong points, that’s the main thing we do.”
Look, every team has a culture of one sort or another. Championship teams such as Miami most definitely do. Thibodeau just determined that he was going to build this particular one, the sort that would lead to this more-with-less resiliency.
Late Monday night, after the cameras and lights were turned off, Thibodeau talked about building the Bulls’ foundation. It started with a group effort, with general manager Gar Forman and VP of basketball John Paxson rounding up the pieces. It is even more of a group effort now, because guys who were pieces – five, six, seven of them, by Thibodeau’s count – they’re “like assistant coaches now,” he said. It’s upperclassmen indoctrinating freshmen, essentially, and if they can embrace and preach defense to career incorrigibles (on that side of the ball anyway) such as Robinson and Marco Belinelli, they can get through to anyone.
That was the goal — a San Antonio-like program where either newcomers change or they’re out.
“Most of our core guys have been together three years,” Gibson said. “So we understand what it takes.”
At which point he rattled off a list of the basics: Know that rallies come. Stay with it. Don’t let the crowd get involved. Get, take and hit big-time shots. “Guys are stepping up whenever their name’s called,” he said. “No matter who it is and wherever they’re needed, and they’re always doing a good job.”
Why is that? In Thibs they trust.
“He watches so much film, he knows what’s going to happen,” Gibson said. “He knows everybody’s defensive stance. He had me guarding Ray Allen — that’s how much confidence he has in everybody’s ability to guard on defense. He just really drew up and knew what the team was going to do. Every time they ran offense, it was exactly what Thibs showed us on paper. It worked.
“We feel totally prepared. We just follow the paper. We follow the game plan.”
The Bulls drew on their many meetings against Miami in the past two-plus seasons, dating to their 2011 Eastern Conference finals clash. Then as now, whether against Joel Anthony or Chris (Birdman) Andersen, Chicago knew that controlling the boards, limiting Miami’s possessions and shortening their own defensive exposures, was crucial. They outrebounded the Heat 46-32 on Monday and had a 40-32 edge in points in the paint.
Drawing on the past didn’t prepare them entirely for the present. Without Deng, home in Chicago recovering from complications of a spinal tap before Game 6 vs. Brooklyn, Thibodeau was without his most leaned-upon player and Chicago was without its defensive counter for James. Next man up: Butler was thrown into the fray. The second-year player from Marquette stayed ornery and, after a phone consultation with Deng, did was he was told.
“He was just like, ‘Take up his space, make everything tough for him, challenge every shot and of course, no layups,’ ” Butler said.
James’ line still was stellar, thanks most to a scoring final quarter: 24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists. But Butler was right there with him (21 points, 14 rebounds and more free-throw attempt than James and Dwyane Wade combined). And the other Bulls were there with Butler.
“Jimmy took an assignment, and it was our job to help him from the weak side,” Gibson said. “The offensive side – it doesn’t matter, we all just helped out Jimmy.
“Jimmy understands it. Everybody who comes on this team understands it right away. Because we’ve got guys that are blue collar and understand the hard work we’re putting in. They see every game we play against [Miami]. They understand the grittiness and griminess of the East game. And guys just adapt to it. You see Marco, the way he’s playing. You see the way Nate’s playing. Everybody plays with heart.”
Other teams have heart. Culture isn’t unique to Chicago. But the culture that the Bulls built is special because it’s theirs.
Next man up? More than enough to win? There never has been a better time for that than now, maybe no better team to heed it than this one.