The Miami Heat are 41-3 in their last 44 games, an incredible run that makes you wonder if anyone can beat the Heat in a seven-game series. Don’t tell that to the Chicago Bulls.
The Heat have lost just three games in the last four months, but two of those losses came against the Bulls. One of them was the epic battle in Chicago on March 27 that ended the Heat’s 27-game winning streak. During the regular season, the Bulls and the Heat split their four-game series. It doesn’t matter if the Bulls are healthy or not, they give the Heat a run each and every time. And since 2010 when LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade joined forces in South Beach, the Bulls are the only NBA team to have a winning record vs. the Big 3.
After Monday’s stunning 93-86 win in Miami in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals — with no Derrick Rose, no Kirk Hinrich, and no Luol Deng — the Bulls are now 3-2 against the Heat this season and 9-8 since 2010. The Heat have been held under 90 points only 11 times during the season, and the Bulls have done it three times to the Heat.
So why do these Bulls give the Heat such a hard time? We could go several ways, but the simply answer lies in the foundation laid down by head coach Tom Thibodeau.
The Bulls’ head coach comes from the Pat Riley coaching tree. He was an assistant under Jeff Van Gundy — a Riley protege — for seven seasons with the New York Knicks and four seasons with the Houston Rockets. Van Gundy learned all his defensive philosophies from Riley, and Thibodeau picked Van Gundy’s brain and added his own slice. Much like those Knicks teams in the 1990s, Thibodeau’s Bulls subscribe to three things: effort, energy, and execution. The Bulls play with passion, they work hard on every possession, and they follow the game plan to near perfection.
“Coach [Thibodeau] always harps on winning your matchup,” Bulls guard Nate Robinson said. “We play as hard as we can for as long as we can.”
Thibodeau is great at identifying a team’s weakness and exploits it. Oftentimes, great scorers struggle against the Bulls because Thibodeau knows how to make star players feel uncomfortable and force the supporting players into tough situations.
“They play Bulls ball. They’re rugged,” says James, who has seen his share of struggles against Thibodeau-coached teams going back to Thibs’ days as an assistant with the Boston Celtics when James was a Cleveland Cavalier.
The Heat love to isolate LeBron or D-Wade at the elbows, and they are very successful against most teams but not against the Bulls. James and Wade struggle to get to the rim because the Bulls load up on James or Wade and force them to give up the ball. If the Heat role players end up shooting the ball, the Bulls have done their job.
Loading up basically means taking away what the opposition likes to do, forcing a team’s best player into a crowd and taking the ball out of his hands. For this to work, you need a strong perimeter defender and a big man who is strong enough to protect the rim and quick enough to close out on shooters. The Bulls have lockdown defenders such as Hinrich, Deng, and second-year player Jimmy Butler. They also possess athletic big men such as Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, who cover the rim and recover on shooters. It’s basically a soft zone defense, with an emphasis on constant ball pressure.
If a player gets beat off the dribble, one player steps in to help and the man he’s guarding is then picked up by another teammate. Thibs calls this “helping the helper” or “playing on a string.” You’ll hear this a lot from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who also runs the Riley system and preaches the same defensive philosophies.
The beauty of the Thibodeau scheme is that the parts are interchangeable. Each player’s role is defined, which makes is easier to plug in guys in case of foul trouble or injuries. That’s why the Bulls keep on winning despite not having All-Stars Rose and Deng because the next guy up knows the scheme. Robinson steps into the vacuum left by Rose and Butler is more than capable of filling in for Deng. Robinson may not duplicate what Rose does, but he’s confident enough to carry the team for stretches. The same can be said of Butler, who is an emerging star in the playoffs. Thibodeau loves tough-minded, two-way players, and Robinson and Butler are capable scorers who defend their positions. They can win their matchups.
Imagine if the Bulls had a starting five of Rose, Hinrich (who makes life miserable for Wade), Deng, Carlos Boozer, and Noah. And coming off the bench you have Robinson, Butler, Marco Belinelli, and Gibson. Talk about a formidable nine-man rotation.
If there’s a team that can knock out the Heat in the playoffs, it’s Thibodeau’s Bulls.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.