Saturday night’s matchup between the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat at United Center carried an after-season vibe – just ask those who attended.
“It’s the kind of style and physicality you’re going to get in the playoffs,” Bulls striker DeMar DeRozan said.
“They’re a top team in the East and we know it’s a team we could probably see down the road,” said Heat guard Gabe Vincent.
The slug party back and forth lived up to the billing of a showdown between two of Eastern Conference’s best teams in the early season. The Heat came out victorious, 107-104, dropping the Bulls to 13-8 and 1-3 in their last four games.
Here are 10 observations:
1. Heat’s switch-heavy defensive plan and physics in driving and overtaking lanes combined with lowering the Bulls’ attacks early.
In the first quarter, as the Bulls lost 27-20, they made eight turnovers and launched nine out of 17 field-goal attempts from 3-point range – the latter a rarity for a team whose offensive identity is centered on running downhill back to the basket for finish at the rim, fouls or spray-outs.
Not only did the Bulls struggle to find a clean look, they also lacked transition opportunities. The Heat committed only two turnovers in the first – one on a set piece offensive three-second offense – which allowed them to put their defense on almost every possession and limit the Bulls to zero fastbreak points during the period.
2. In the second quarter, meanwhile, the Bulls saw force four Heat turnovers, get out in the transition more and find curves on timely cuts and slashes. They shot 50 percent and handed out eight assists during the period, winning the frame 26-22 and erecting a few highlight-reel sequences that set the United Center crowd in motion.
Typically, Lonzo Ball, who scored eight points and hit two 3-pointers in the quarter, was at the heart of the action:
The Bulls had to feel lucky to be just 49-46 behind at halftime despite making 13 turnovers and shooting 5-for-17 from 3-point range to that point in the game. Neither team placed a two-goal scorer in the first half, an indicator of a scattershot, grind-it-out defensive affair.
3. The Heat extended their lead as high as seven early in the third quarter behind a scoring storm by Duncan Robinson, but DeMar DeRozan stopped the flow with 14 points (on 6-to-7 shooting), mostly generated using a series of mid-range jumpers .
On a crucial ball possession midway through the period, DeRozan buried a fall over Robinson and pulled the Miami sniper’s fourth foul in the process. Subject to possession at the end of the quarter, Robinson did not return to the fight. DeRozan finished with a game-high 28 points on 11-to-19 shooting.
4. Alex Caruso’s fingerprints were all over the place. At the defensive end, he manned missions across the position spectrum, from Jimmy Butler to Kyle Lowry to Robinson. On the offensive side, hit three out of four attempts from the 3-point range, and seven from the charity streak, to finish with a season-high 22 points.
The Bulls also benefited greatly from Caruso’s facilitating skills. While Billy Donovan has deployed his guards as screeners throughout the season, Caruso was successfully used as a decision maker in the pocket of Miami’s defense – whether it was to blow up a zone or on short-roll – on several occasions, ending the evening with six assists.
5. The Bulls have been one of the league’s sharpest teams in the fourth quarter all season, but were beaten 35-30 in the final frame of this one – out-shot and out-executed by the visitors.
In the shooting division, there was the unlikely 16-point outburst in the fourth quarter, which included four 3-pointers from Vincent, plus 11 points and three 3-pointers from Lowry. The Bulls, as a team, made just three long balls for Miami’s seven in the quarter.
And the hole in each side’s execution down the stretch was encapsulated pretty grippingly by a critical inbound play that put the Heat ahead 104-99 with less than 25 seconds left. At the game, Lowry came in to Vincent, who, when he sensed a double team, slipped the ball back to a cutting Lowry for an easy layup:
“We thought they would trap, and he (Vincent) read it just fine,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said of the sequence.
6. Nikola Vučević’s scoring matches continued. He collected seven points on just 3-to-9 shooting in this one, missed all three of his attempts behind the arc and hosted three turnovers up to start.
Shots that don’t fall are one thing, but Vučević struggled all night to get a proper postposition against Miami’s swarming defense, even with sometimes notable size advantages by attacking switches. In a particularly tough stretch in the fourth quarter, he committed a three-shot error on Max Strus, and shortly after, he fired an open 3-point attempt from the side of the backboard.
7. Coby White was the Bulls’ worst perpetrator in the revenue department; he committed five coughups and shot only 2-for-8 from the field (0-for-5 from 3-point range) en route to four points from the bench. Just like in Orlando, White’s defensive commitment came in a positive way, but he now shoots only 35.7 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from 3 in eight games since returning from shoulder rehabilitation.
8. Zach LaVine and Butler have had their share of matches since they were swapped for each other in 2017, but both were relatively quiet in the opening of this contest three quarters. They came into the last picture with only 21 points between them on combined 7-for-23 shooting.
Each woke up to catch a glimpse down the stretch, though it was Butler’s buckets that came in a winning effort. LaVine hit two 3-pointers in the fourth, including a then-massive back-to-back over Butler to pull the Bulls to within 89-87 with 5 minutes and 45 seconds left. Butler, meanwhile, scored five points during the period, but his two field goals came on floats that made Miami lead nine and eight points, respectively, within the final 2 minutes and 15 seconds of the game.
9. Strus was the match’s leading goal scorer at the break with nine points at 4-to-9. By the end of the night, he had 13 points and two steals, a productive return to the city, he starred in during his collegiate years at DePaul, and got his NBA start with a two-way contract with the Bulls in the 2019-20 season.
10. Donovan mentioned the Bulls’ poor shot return – they went only 11-for-39 (28.2 percent) from 3 – and ball safety as crucial factors in the defeat. And in fact, the Bulls’ 23 turnovers were a season-high that exceeded the 20 they committed in a previous defeat to the Golden State Warriors.
Next: Home to the Hornets on Monday.
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