By Nick Shepkowski –
UNITED CENTER (CBS) – The Baltimore Ravens had not yet outlasted the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII, YouTube videos of asteroids flying over Russia weren’t yet an internet sensation and the Miami Heat had just a .007 percent lead in the Eastern Conference standings over the New York Knicks.
Fast forward 55 days and how the world has changed. Joe Flacco is the highest paid player in the NFL after leading the Ravens to a Super Bowl, we’re all now aware (and a little weirded out by) a large number of Russians driving around with video cameras on their dashboards, and the Miami Heat are on the verge of mathematically clinching home court advantage throughout the playoffs after winning their previous 27 contests.
That was before the Bulls had their second chance to end the Heat winning streak, this time doing so in front of as energetic of crowd as you’ll see for a regular season NBA game. Joakim Noah and Marco Belinelli were officially ruled out by Tom Thibodeau 90 minutes before game time and hope around the United Center by most Bulls fans made it seem like the only wish was to keep the game respectable.
Forget respectable, on a unseasonably cool evening in Chicago, the Bulls cooled the Heat off and snapped the second longest winning streak the NBA has ever seen, in an environment that hasn’t been seen lately during home Bulls games.
“The atmosphere – the crowd was crazy into it and it was a competitive environment,” Luol Deng said of Wednesday night’s setting at United Center.
The Bulls jumped off to a quick start, leading by double-digits for much of the first quarter. With 3:40 remaining in the first quarter, LeBron James broke towards the basket on what appeared would be another highlight dunk. However, Kirk Hinrich showed off his finest form tackle to keep James from a highlight dunk and made him earn both points at the free throw line.
“I was just hanging on for dear life and didn’t want to give up the and-one,” Hinrich said of the play. “We had that edge about us tonight.”
Hinrich and the Bulls saw the play one way, while LeBron James and the Heat saw it differently.
Despite playing without one of their biggest leaders in Joakim Noah, the Bulls showed no hesitation in getting physical with Miami as hard fouls on James, Wade and Bosh all helped in attaining a 55-46 halftime lead.
The Bulls however came out of halftime slow and let Miami right back into the thick of things, as the Bulls were able to tally just 14 points in the third quarter. Two points did however come on what you’ll likely see on SportsCenter’s top 10 plays of the week when Jimmy Butler took an alley-oop lob from Luol Deng and slammed it in for two points over Chris Bosh.
“I tried to attack the defender,” Deng said of the play. “Jimmy’s so strong and so fast I saw him coming and lobbed it up.”
Even with the fierce dunk, the game was far from decided entering the fourth quarter as the Bulls were clinging to a 69-68 advantage. After a lowly 14-point output in the third, the Bulls surprisingly had little trouble getting baskets in the game’s final frame.
Both teams went on runs throughout the fourth quarter before things got especially heated in the final 4:30 of the contest when when Taj Gibson’s fourth personal foul came on a James breakaway that could have shifted momentum. Instead, the hard foul was reviewed and upheld as a personal instead of being switched to a flagrant-1. James then made just 1-of-2 free throw attempts, making the hard foul worth it. Moments later it was James, obviously upset about the foul not being called a flagrant, who was called for one of his own after throwing an elbow while fighting through a Carlos Boozer screen.
The Heat again charged back but once more for good measure it was “Captain Kirk” who made perhaps the biggest play of the night, making a Charles Tillman-like strip of Chris Bosh after the Heat had gotten within five points with just 2:41 left.
“(The) biggest play of the game,” Luol Deng said of Hinrich’s steal.
From that steal the Bulls stretched the lead to nine and for all intents and purposes clinched the contest.
Some may believe that it wasn’t anything more than an exciting regular season win, but players in the Bulls locker room felt very much otherwise.
“It means that when we’re right that we can beat anybody” Carlos Boozer said. “It was a playoff game, it was hard fought and people were fighting for position on the court.”
Game-hero Kirk Hinrich described both the small and big picture of Wednesday’s result: “It means a lot to us because they’re steam-rolling this league and it’s a big win but it’s more important to be playing well down the stretch.”
In addition to covering the Bulls for CBSChicago.com, Nick Shepkowski is the associate producer for The McNeil and Spiegel Show. For Bulls information all season long, follow him on Twitter @Shep670.