Saturday night’s matchup between the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat at the United Center carried a postseason atmosphere — just ask those who participated in it.
“That's the type of style and physicality you're going to get in the playoffs,” said Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan.
“They’re a top team in the East, and we know it’s a team we could likely see down the road,” said Heat guard Gabe Vincent.
The back-and-forth slugfest lived up to the billing of a showdown between two of the Eastern Conference’s top early-season squads. The Heat emerged victorious, 107-104, dropping the Bulls to 13-8 and 1-3 in their last four games.
Here are 10 observations:
1. The Heat’s switch-heavy defensive scheme, and physicality in driving and passing lanes, combined to bog down the Bulls’ offense, which is already prone to stagnance in half court settings, early on.
In a first quarter the Bulls lost 27-20, they committed eight turnovers and launched nine of 17 field-goal attempts from 3-point range — the latter a rarity for a team whose offensive identity centers on driving downhill to the basket for at-the-rim finishes, fouls or spray-outs.
Not only did the Bulls struggle to find clean looks, they also lacked transition opportunities. The Heat committed just two turnovers in the first — one on a dead-ball offensive three-second violation — which allowed them to set their defense on almost every possession and limit the Bulls to zero fastbreak points in the period.
2. The second quarter, meanwhile, saw the Bulls force four Heat turnovers, get out in transition more and find baskets on timely cuts and slashes. They shot 50 percent and handed out eight assists in the period, winning the frame 26-22 and racking up a few highlight-reel sequences that juiced the United Center crowd.
In typical fashion, 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 trail just 49-46 at the half despite committing 13 turnovers and shooting 5-for-17 from 3-point range to that point in the game. Neither team placed a scorer in double-figures 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 flurry by Duncan Robinson, but DeMar DeRozan stemmed the tide with 14 points (on 6-for-7 shooting), mostly generated by way of an array of midrange jumpers.
On a crucial possession midway through the period, DeRozan buried a fallaway over Robinson and drew the Miami sharpshooter’s fourth foul in the process. Save for one possession at the end of the quarter, Robinson didn’t return to the game. DeRozan finished with a game-high 28 points on 11-for-19 shooting.
4. Alex Caruso’s fingerprints were all over this one. At the defensive end, he manned assignments across the positional spectrum, from Jimmy Butler to Kyle Lowry to Robinson. On the offensive side, hit three of four attempts from 3-point range, and seven from the charity stripe, to finish with a season-high 22 points.
The Bulls also benefited significantly from Caruso’s facilitating skills. While Billy Donovan has deployed his guards as screeners throughout the season, Caruso was successfully utilized as a decision-maker in the pocket of Miami’s defense — whether it be to bust a zone or on the short-roll — on numerous occasions, finishing the evening with six assists.
5. The Bulls have been one of the league’s sharpest fourth-quarter teams all season, but were beaten 35-30 in the final frame of this one — out-shot and out-executed by the visitors.
In the shot-making department, there was the unlikely 16-point fourth-quarter outburst, which included four 3-pointers, from Vincent, plus 11 points and three 3s from Lowry. The Bulls, as a team, made just three long-balls to Miami’s seven in the quarter.
And the gap in each side’s execution down the stretch was encapsulated rather poignantly by a critical inbounds play that put the Heat ahead 104-99 with less than 25 seconds remaining. On the play, Lowry inbounded to Vincent, who, sensing a double-team, slipped the ball back to a slashing Lowry for an easy layup:
“We thought that they were going to trap, and he (Vincent) just read it great,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said of the sequence.
6. Nikola Vučević’s scoring struggles continued. He tallied seven points on just 3-for-9 shooting in this one, missing all three of his attempts from behind the arc and coughing up three turnovers to boot.
Shots not falling is one thing, but Vučević struggled all night to gain proper post position against Miami’s swarming defense, even with, at times, notable size advantages against switches. In one particularly tough fourth-quarter stretch, he committed a three-shot foul on Max Strus, then soon after fired an open 3-point try of his own off the side of the backboard. He's down to 40 percent field-goal and 26.3 percent 3-point shooting on the season.
7. Coby White was the Bulls’ worst offender in the turnover department; he committed five coughups and shot just 2-for-8 from the field (0-for-5 from 3-point range) en route to four points off the bench. Like in Orlando, White’s defensive engagement popped in a positive way, but he’s now shooting just 35.7 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from 3 in eight games since returning from shoulder rehab.
8. Zach LaVine and Butler have had their share of battles since being traded for each other in 2017, but both were relatively quiet in this contest’s opening three quarters. They entered the final frame with just 21 points between them on combined 7-for-23 shooting.
Each awoke for glimpses down the stretch, though it was Butler’s buckets that came in a winning effort. LaVine hit two 3-pointers in the fourth, including an at-the-time massive stepback over Butler to pull the Bulls to within 89-87 with 5 minutes, 45 seconds remaining. Butler, meanwhile, scored five points in the period, but his two field goal makes came on floaters that made Miami’s lead nine and eight points, respectively, inside the game’s final 2 minutes, 15 seconds.
9. Strus was the game’s leading scorer at halftime with nine points on 4-for-9 shooting. By night’s end, 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 during the 2019-20 season.
10. Donovan cited the Bulls’ poor shooting returns — they went just 11-for-39 (28.2 percent) from 3 — and ball security as deciding factors in the defeat. Indeed, the Bulls’ 23 turnovers were a season-high, surpassing the 20 they committed in an earlier blowout defeat to the Golden State Warriors. Miami, meanwhile, committed just 10, a recipe for success against a Bulls team whose best offense often starts with defense.
Next up: Home for the Hornets on Monday.