CHICAGO – Miami’s Shane Battier was offering what for a lot of NBA analysts would qualify as a “Eureka!” moment in assessing the disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences.
In an age when anything simple can be dissected into something way more complicated, Battier’s theory initially sounded more insipid than inspired.
Never mind that he likely was right.
“More good players in the West?” the Heat forward said, rhetorically solving in six words what so far has been the great puzzle of 2013-14.
“[Longtime NBA coach-turned-broadcaster] Hubie Brown starts every clinic by saying, ‘This is the most important lesson in coaching: If you do not have good players, you will not win,’ ” Battier said, with a laugh. “You could come with the most fantastic scheme, you could have the best togetherness and ‘rah-rah’ but if you don’t have good players, you’re not going to win. I think there’s more talent in the West right now.”
And Miami and Indiana have more talent than the East’s 13 other members at the moment, explaining their 31-7 combined records and 8-1 combined mark against West foes (compared to their neighbors’ 18-62 mark).
Except the Heat didn’t have more good players Thursday night, not in their late game against the Bulls at United Center. Dwyane Wade was back at the hotel with flu-like symptoms and Chris Andersen wasn’t even in Chicago (personal reasons).
As a handicapping, it might not have been on par with the Bulls’ — no Derrick Rose, no Jimmy Butler — but it was enough for Chicago to win by 20, especially given the home court and the Bulls’ tendency to see everything Heat as a big red cape, motivation-wise.
As Joakim Noah said after his revved-up, 17-point, 15-rebound awakening, “The people in the city, there’s something when Miami comes to town. You wake up in the morning you feel it, the people in the city they don’t like the Miami Heat. We don’t like the Miami Heat. It always feels good to beat them.”
There were three takeaways from Chicago’s 43-of-48-minutes mastery of the opponents it particularly loathes:
1. December ain’t May.
Since Miami’s Big Three era commenced in July 2010, the Bulls are 6-1 against the Heat in regular-season games at United Center. They are, more significantly, 2-8 against the Heat in Chicago and in Miami in the postseason.
And the truth is, given Rose’s absence again and the shifting – more like concentration – of power within the conference, the game Thursday meant far more to Chicago. If the two-time defending champions are going to peak for anyone on their four-game trip through the frigid Midwest, it’s going to be Indiana, not Chicago. The Bulls have been supplanted by their Central Division rivals as Miami’s top threat. Heck, a trip into sub-zero Minnesota to face an improved Timberwolves team might have Heat players quaking (or is that shivering?) more these days than a Rose-less Bulls squad.
2. The Bulls needed this.
The funk into which Chicago players fell, from the moment Rose’s right knee buckled in Portland after that long ordeal triggered by his left, was a deep, dark one. They’d been churning to re-adjust to Rose’s return but now they were throwing off losses — in overtime to lowly Utah, narrowly at Cleveland, at home against New Orleans in a triple-overtime drainer Monday — at an alarming rate.
Just having Rose around Thursday in the trainers room during and after shootaround, prior to his news conference to talk about his repaired right meniscus and second lost season, helped with the Bulls’ moods. Seeing Miami — a vulnerable Miami at that — helped even more.
“Lot of battles, lot of scars, lot of tough losses,” Noah said of his south Florida pals. “Lot of seasons ending because of them. Our team needed it.”
Noah needed it more than most. None of the Bulls’ emotions mean more to the team than their (mostly) high-energy center’s and he wasn’t especially enthusiastic about slogging forward without Rose again, this time lacking even the “carrot” that the point guard might be back by spring. LeBron & Co. – maybe the Miami jerseys alone – were his smelling salts.
3. Miami and Indiana could be the West. Then again, they could be the Bulls.
Which is to say, the Heat and the Pacers have more good players than their intra-conference rivals. But one, two or more of their good players could come up lame at any moment over the next five months, at which point they’re brought back to the motley pack. It’s that kind of season, it’s that kind of league.
Everyone saw what nearly happened to Miami in the 2012 playoffs when Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal strain in the conference semifinals against Indiana and only got healthy in the nick of time against Boston one round later. Or what happened to Oklahoma City last spring when Russell Westbrook tore a meniscus of his own in the first round against Houston. Or what the Heat has experienced this season with Wade’s ongoing knee soreness.
No team in the NBA is more than one significant injury away from its own personal Eastern Conference-itis. And that ought to keep most of them playing hard and focused.
Even the Bulls, without a one-time MVP, might find themselves with just as many good players as the next guy in some postseason series. That’s when motley maybe becomes manageable and the improbable starts to look possible.