By Cody Westerlund-
(CBS) On the same evening the two-time defending champion Miami Heat waved the white flag in pursuit of home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals by resting stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh in a lopsided loss to the Wizards, Bulls savior Joakim Noah walked to the bench for a television timeout with 2 minutes, 43 seconds left and his team leading 100-82 against the hapless Magic.
Chicago’s eventual 108-95 win was well in hand, Noah had played his typical, elite level of basketball and the free Big Macs had even been won already for the sellout crowd of 22,087 at the United Center.
There was no good reason for Noah to return to the floor when the horn blew, not with the start of the playoffs waiting this weekend and injury always a looming threat for an organization that knows such hardship all too well.
There was no good reason to return to the floor, that is, except that Tom Thibodeau was his coach and there was still time on the clock, which meant there was something worth fighting for. So as the heart and soul of Chicago, Noah trotted back out and clocked 99 more seconds at full bore, as he always does, before leaving for good to a loud ovation as the Bulls (48-33) remained tied for the East’s third seed with the Raptors (48-33), who own the tiebreaker by virtue of winning their division.
“We’re not changing,” Thibodeau said afterward when asked what the approach would be in the regular-season finale at Charlotte on Wednesday, when Chicago would need a win and a Toronto loss at New York to vault into the third seed.
“To me, as you head down the stretch here … whatever your circumstances are, you want to make the most of your circumstances … I’m not changing. I’m going down there to try to figure out how to win.”
It was those words from Thibodeau and the 99 extra seconds Noah played that explained why Miami chose to rest its starters Monday, some 700 miles away in Washington D.C. While the Bulls aren’t the smoothest or most talented team in the league, their combination of stubbornness, pride, discipline and experience is rivaled by few.
With savvy that’s led them to multiple championship rings, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra knew well that Miami’s easiest path was only having to face one of the Indiana/Chicago/Brooklyn trio, against which it’s a combined 4-8 this season. The best gamble in that case was to seal the second seed like it did Monday, which – if seeds were to hold – now has the Heat in line for a second-round matchup against the inexperienced Raptors and the Bulls-Nets survivor battling the Pacers.
It was a smart move for the Miami but also one that those in the Chicago locker room couldn’t imagine making.
Resting with something to play for still? With that Thibodeau guy in charge, seriously?
“Pfff,” forward Taj Gibson said. “You guys should know that other guy (Thibodeau) in the other room over there, he’s not going to tell anybody to take any rest. You know he’s old-school. He doesn’t believe in that. He just believes in pushing forward. Like he said, the finish line is ahead. You got to just run through it. You can’t slow up. You can’t try to trot through. You got to run full steam ahead through it and whatever happens, happens.”
Of course, a potential case of irony/karma is still in play. Crazier things have happened than the Knicks beating the Raptors, for it actually just happened last Friday. And if such a result does come to fruition, all it would take is a Chicago victory in Charlotte to earn that third seed, potentially making a superior Miami team’s path all the more difficult.
If such a scenario plays out — or if the teams collide in the Eastern Conference Finals — most outsiders will believe the result is preordained, and it will be a contrast of mindsets. As the Heat find strength in their swagger earned from past success, the Bulls draw confidence from their from nights like Monday and what awaits Wednesday, when they “stop for nothing,” as Gibson put it.
“We believe,” Noah said. “We believe. Whoever we play, we’re going to be a tough out. We’re hungry. We want this. We believe in one another, and we believe in our system.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.