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April 12, Bulls vs. Heat: A Magnificent Mile-Marker?

April 13, 2012

By Vincent Jason

Watching Craig Sager meander his way down the sideline after the Bulls/Heat game on Thursday, wearing that disgusting puke mustard orange blazer, the audience can easily forget the man is the TNT sideline reporter, responsible for interviewing the player of the game, as opposed to a comic sideshow akin to the crazy uncle who tries to make his nephews smile by pulling quarters out of their ears.

The end of these important games on national TV can turn formulaic, especially for Bulls fans who remember the championship years. Here’s the pattern some of you might remember: A hard fought win, close at some points, but then the defense and Jordan pull the team away. Cue “Another One Bites the Dust.” Jordan, towel around neck and knees still dripping from the ice packs, gives a canned ham answer about the team effort. (If Ahmad Rashad was the reporter, the two exchange glances like two high school buddies would, as a reminder on which one of the two would buy the drinks, thus continuing the most open “secret” bro-mance of the early nineties NBA).

My ears and eyes always perk up when Scottie received the game-end interview, but that started to become blasse as well. Dennis would always surprise with his basketball insight (if he wasn’t obviously looking for the exits to run to his late night booze and sex romp). If someone else managed to sneak in for the post-game pow-wow, you know that man must have done something to overshadow Jordan.

The Thibs-era teams (I purposely chose to define this time by the coach and not by Rose, Thibodeau’s did not just imprint his personality and style onto the team, but tattooed his way of basketball onto their faces like a Mike Tyson eye design) make me smile at the end of games, and not just for the wins (which are a plenty, as evidenced by the fact Thibs reached 100 wins faster than any other coach ever). Sager would grace Rose with his presence much of the time during national TV contests, but it’s not unsual to see Boozer, Deng, or the other hero of the day rotate on a regular basis. This is especially true during this injury plagued season. Next man up: Thibodeau’s teams have a military precision that is impossible not to marvel at.

So Sager stands next to Watson after the Bulls win over the Heat, it helps exude in many ways what makes the Bulls so special. On a night where Rose clearly showed some rust and did not have it, the rest of the team picked up the slack. Korver could easily have grabbed the microphone and done the honors, as well as the front court duo of Asik and Gibson.

When the Heat win, the track meet highlights litter the SportsCenter screens. The fast break dunks are bookended in the beginning by a bad boxing demonstration (I’m sorry! But Wade drops his hands when he throws punches!!!) and the Lebron/Wade interview at the end. Great. Been there done that.

The Bulls have talent. Not as celebrated as the Miami Big Two and Three Quarters, but Chicago has starter quality talent ten deep. Some pundits might describe Thibadeau as squeezing everything possible out of the team. The picture from that description has the players bent on their knees, gasping for air, with a Mick-like training yelling sports clichés about trying harder into the group’s ears.

Maximizing the talent in front of him by placing players in optimal situations, especially late in the game, seems more appropriate. When Bill Self coached the Illinois basketball team, particularly during their Elite Eight run, the man took every clock stoppage as a chance to shuffle in his players for offense/defense, to the point of annoyance as the game slows. When Thibs does it, the change is seamless.

The types of play between the two teams can be described by using different sports: Eric Spoelstra found inspiration in the University of Oregon’s quick strike offense, which find success in it’s explosive nature. Thibodeau’s moves harken to the baseball diamond. Imagine a top flight National League manager making pitching changes and lineup shifts in the middle of an inning, placing players in the an optimum situation where the likelihood of success is at it’s maximum.

In a term borrowed from another “sport” in poker, the moves should have the most EV, or Expected Value. I don’t think Thibs is a stat freak looking at new basketball metrics such as +/-, but Thibodeau clearly knows the strengths and weaknesses for each of his players.

Speaking of +/-, the box score of this latest game tells the story about how the Bulls can beat the Heat. Most of the bench had +/- readings of more than fifteen. Six members of the Bench Mob played meaningful minutes, Jimmy Butler included for his defense at the end of regulation. The deep front court of the Bulls, long ago the subject of trade bait for another “bona-fide star”, clogged the middle of the lane, making life difficult for the two Heat greyhounds. In a night where someone had to step up to take on the production of Rose, the entire bench unit stepped up to the fore.

The game ranks right up their with great recent regular season games, which are quickly piling up for the team as currently constituted. The Rose shot against Houston and Deng’s three against the Heat last year come to mind. But as this paragraph began with, these games were in the regular season. The seminal moment for some of these Bulls in the playoffs was that electric Celtic series in 2009.

The fact the Bulls have for the most part overcame the adversity emanating from this season due to injuries and the condensed schedule should give fans confidence heading into the playoffs. Last year’s loss to the Heat, as well as this trying season should have hardened the team to withstand a multitude of situations which can come up, most notably a hobbled Derrick Rose.

Like in most cases, this latest Heat/Bulls game does not tell the whole story, or can accurately predict how a Conference Finals matchup would unfold. This does serve as an important litmus test in determining what the club needs to work on and continue to do:

1.)    Ball movement is extra important for a team as tough on defense as the Heat.

2.)    Shooting guard production, not found last year, will be key again this year. Now the Bulls have three big guards in Hamilton, Korver, and Brewer. The chances of one of them getting hot enough where the team can play off that player look good.

3.)    Rose needs to play these last seven games to regain a rhythm, unless Derrick can attribute his ills tonight directly to his injuries, and continued play further aggrevates said groin/ankle/foot.

Thibs very well knows all of this, and will continue to tinker for the rest of the regular season. And I can comfortably smile at the end of games, especially because I expect the revolving door of heroes-of-the game to continue, even if we are subjected to another ugly Sager suit.

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