MIAMI — After the emotion, tributes, red eyes and hard stares died down, Dwyane Wade did what he often did best as a member of the Miami Heat — defer.
He did it for LeBron James for years, and in the last several minutes of his return game back to Miami, he allowed Jimmy Butler to take center stage late, as Butler helped the Bulls to a 98-95 win Thursday night at American Airlines Arena.
“Worst basketball game I’ve ever played,” Wade said, half-jokingly.
Wade had an off-night in his emotional return to Miami, scoring 13 with seven rebounds and four assists on five of 17 shooting while Butler played a supporting role for most of the night.
A quiet 40 minutes or so had Butler itching for a push late, as two jumpers gave the Bulls a six-point lead midway through the fourth and his jumper with 53 seconds left gave the Bulls a 92-89 lead, and followed it up with two free throws to stretch the lead.
“Jimmy’s a closer,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We put the ball in his hands and he delivered for us. He was into the ball, fighting over screens, battling on the glass. It was a really efficient game.”
Wade has long said the team will run through Butler late, that he’ll get a heavy amount of touches so even on this night, it wasn’t a surprise. After a tough 39-point effort the night before in Atlanta, Butler looked a little weary for most of the night.
“I was trying to save all my energy for the fourth quarter to tell you the truth,” Butler said. “My teammates always have confidence in me.”
Considering the way Butler and the Bulls talked about their defensive effort in their four losses, it was about time they grinded one out — especially on the road under certain circumstances.
They held the Heat to 41 percent shooting, although they gave up 13 3-pointers at a 45-percent clip. A morning film session that went through some of their most common mistakes resulted in a more solid defensive showing.
“He expects perfection,” said Butler of Hoiberg. “He told us what he wanted us to do, along with the assistant coaches and we came out and executed. I’m glad we got this especially for D-Wade.”
But Wade wasn’t about to just let the night end without having some affect on the game. After a triple pushed the Heat within two, Wade was fouled by Justice Winslow — or embellished contact in front of the officials to get the benefit of the doubt — and hit two free throws to effectively ice the game.
“I get fouled a lot, so I don’t care,” Wade said. “I got the vet call and I appreciated them for giving me one.”
Butler led the Bulls with 20 while Robin Lopez scored 16 on a career-high 20 shot attempts. Rajon Rondo awoke from a slumber to hit a few crucial buckets, including a reverse layup when Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg wanted a timeout after the Heat tied the game at 84 with less than six minutes remaining.
“I was going to call a timeout and then looked over and he had called a play. He had a really confident look on his face so I let him go,” Hoiberg said. “It started with his defense, I thought he was up the floor picking up and applying pressure.”
Rondo finished with 16 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in 37 minutes. Heat center Hassan Whiteside had a 20-point, 20-rebound night, as he and Lopez traded blows all night long.
A game that had a hard time developing any definitive character, perhaps with the atmosphere being one of nostalgia along with the Bulls clearly having tired legs, they were going to have to drag the Heat down to their level to keep afloat.
The Bulls shot just 28 percent in the third quarter but their defense did enough to keep them in it, as they were tied at 70 with 12 minutes left. Luckily for them, they kept the Heat stymied as both teams shot 27-for-65 entering the fourth.
“That’s the way we want to play,” Butler said. “We want to be the toughest team on 50-50 balls, that’s the way we got to go.”
Neither team gathered more than an eight-point lead as the Bulls showed just enough gumption in Wade’s return to make it a happy one, even if he didn’t play the way he liked to.