A win worth savoring

CHICAGO -- It felt like summer outside Wednesday, 80 degrees and sunny. And it felt like summer basketball inside the United Center.

Bulls-Heat, a close game, a full house, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade getting buckets, and a Chicago Bulls point guard lighting people up.

Sure it's only March, the game is just another regular-season win, and that Bulls point guard was John Lucas III instead of Derrick Rose. But sometimes you have to live in the moment. The Bulls certainly owned their moment and it was impressive.

The Bulls' 106-102 win over the Miami Heat only tied the season series. So it doesn't count for an Eastern Conference finals victory, but it sure felt like a playoff game if you were there.

"It's a big game," Luol Deng said. "I'm not going to tell you it's not. It's a big win, having Derrick go out, and coming out and playing this team that beat us in Miami and beating them."

Even Dwyane Wade's father was fired up. He was ejected from his seat near the floor for refusing to stop using profanity, according to sources. I'm not sure what he was angry about, maybe all those Lucas baskets. Maybe he expected better against a Rose-less team.

If Wade noticed -- he blew by me going to the shower when I tried to ask him about it, and a Heat PR staffer said he was unaware of the incident -- it didn't hurt his game. He scored 19 of his game-high 36 points in the fourth on 8-of-9 shooting as the Heat tried valiantly to mount a comeback.

James, everyone's favorite late-game target, had only two points in the fourth. But he finished with 35.

I'd like to believe there is psychic value to getting a win over a fully healthy Miami team sans Rose, but who can be sure of the future? The Bulls swept the regular-season series last season but got knocked out in five games in the playoffs.

The good thing about the future is that it will come soon enough, and we can stop down-playing every Bulls victory. Chicago is 36-9, the best record in the NBA. The Bulls certainly stepped up their game with Rose out, diving after loose balls, attacking the offensive glass and playing with poise, even when Miami made its expected runs.

For now, this was a win worth savoring. Give it 24 hours at least. The win gave the Bulls a 3½ game cushion in the race for home-court advantage in the East. I'm sure Tom Thibodeau snuck in a smile and a fist pump before breaking down tape of the imploding Portland Trail Blazers.

If you're a Heat hater, this was a perfect game to celebrate. James and Wade combined for 71 points, but a balanced Bulls team outlasted their heroics.

With every injury, one of Thibodeau's media mantras is that the Bulls are deep enough to win. Like any good mantra, the Bulls buy it too. They could have Lucas playing one-on-five, and they'd believe it, that's for sure.

"We believe that," Thibodeau said. "It's what our team has done all year. Guys on our team are the right guys. They have the right attitude and the right approach, and there is a belief that we can win when we've had guys out, because the next guy steps up and does the job."

All 10 Bulls who played scored, from Carlos Boozer's 2 points to Lucas III's 24. It was a career night for Lucas. He scored 11 in the fourth, including a drive on James that is probably still being replayed on the United Center scoreboard.

But if you're into that big-picture strategizing, it's a bit of a red herring. After all, who is more important when these teams face off again in June, Lucas or Boozer? Those two obviously aren't mutually exclusive, but this was a game you'd like to have seen Boozer take over, especially with how strong he'd been playing offensively.

Boozer wasn't a total no-show. He had a decent first half in complementary stats (seven rebounds and all five assists came in the first half), but was invisible offensively, taking just four shots and not going to the free-throw line. He played just 4:07 in the fourth.

But Boozer's blandness didn't stick out because his teammates picked him up.

Aside from Lucas, five other Bulls scored in double figures: C.J. Watson and Luol Deng had 11, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer had 12 and Joakim Noah, who played an excellent all-around game, had 14. The Bulls already lead the league in assists, and eight players combined for 20 on 36 baskets.

The Bulls also had a significant rebounding edge, 50-34, because every Bull had a board. But none had double digits. Boozer and Taj Gibson had eight apiece, and Noah and Brewer had six each. Lucas even had four, the same as the Heat's starting center, Joel Anthony, and one more than Chris Bosh.

Guarded tightly by Noah and the Bulls' bigs, Bosh went 3-for-15, an ugly night that didn't have the panache of his 1-for-18 performance here in February.

Bosh's teammates picked him up too, as James and Wade were amazing at times. They combined to score all of the Heat's 23 points in the first quarter, while six Bulls scored 19.

That set the tone for the rest of the game. Call this a victory for team basketball, if nothing else.

You might not think the Bulls got any closer to the NBA finals Wednesday night. But they sure didn't hurt their chances.