Just when you think the Bulls should be worn out they appear to be energized instead.
Remember that storyline? You know, the one about head coach Tom Thibodeau playing his key players so many minutes that they’d be comatose by postseason time?
Well, it didn’t look that way Saturday night when the Bulls went on the road for a Game 7 and eliminated the Nets in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
The subsequent test is a little different, however. This isn’t Brooklyn.
It isn’t Deron Williams. It’s LeBron James.
The Heat won 41 of its previous 43 games, including 27 straight at one point before the Bulls of all people stopped the streak.
Yet on Monday night, the Bulls won Game 1 of the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal series 93-86 in American Airlines Arena.
“We’re short-handed,” Thibodeau said. “We have a lot of guys playing big minutes and that’s what we need.”
Short-handed? Heck, the Bulls played another game without Luol Deng (complications from a spinal tap) and Kirk Hinrich (bruised calf).
Big minutes? Jimmy Butler played all 48 minutes for the third straight playoff game. Marco Belinelli played 46, Nate Robinson 40 and Joakim Noah 39.
The Bulls came in on two days of rest. Heat players came in on 10 days of rest. The former were supposed to be exhausted. The latter were supposed to be rested.
Oops to that theory.
The guys who weren’t supposed to have anything left scored the game’s final 10 points to catch napping the guys who looked like they had been lounging on South Beach the past week.
“Who’s going to impose their identity on the other team?” is the way Heat coach Erik Spoelstra described the series. “They imposed their identity in this game.”
The Bulls’ identity has become that they just keep playing. They play through the good times and the bad times and all the times in between.
“Their team kept fighting back,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “Late in the game they beat us with their effort and that can’t happen.”
Take Robinson. He’s about 5-feet-8 and 180 pounds and James is about a foot taller and 80 pounds heavier.
During the first half they wound up on the floor in a two-man scrum during which James rolled over Robinson, who went to the locker room to receive six stitches around his lip.
That would sideline a lot of players on a lot of teams. On the Bulls, their shortest player returned to score 7 points in the late going to help close out the Heat.
Meanwhile, James had a big fourth quarter but shot an airball when the Heat needed him most with 25 seconds remaining.
“We’re going against a really good team,” James said. “Who’s ever on the floor for them is going to play their ball.”
Bulls’ ball has come to personify Thibodeau’s persistent mantras: “Next man up” and “We have more than enough to win.”
As Robinson said, “There’s something special about this group. We love to play for each other.”
The Bulls still have plenty of time to run out of energy in what now shapes up as a rigorous series against the NBA defending champion Heat.
But that was supposed to happen a month ago, wasn’t it?
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