If there were a first-round KO in basketball the Miami Heat would have scored it.
Five dunks in the first eight baskets. Mean dunks, dunks with intent. Players can say all they want that regular-season games don't much matter, but this one did. You could read it all over LeBron James' face and hear it in his voice in the time leading up to tipoff. This was a game Miami wanted to take -- and tried to take -- but couldn't, even with James and Dwyane Wade playing in all their splendor.
At some point in Thursday's 93-89 win, the Chicago Bulls decided they were tired of being dunked on and run past, that it was plain foolish to play that way against two of the greatest athletes in any sport. The Bulls decided they would be smart to take their chances with in-your-shorts defense, half-court execution and a player who now is close to being the equal of LeBron and Wade, the willful Derrick Rose.
You watch Rose enough, every game and most every practice as Bulls bosses John Paxson and Gar Forman do, and perhaps you become convinced you don't need to make any flashy trades at the deadline. Rose's numbers Thursday -- 9-for-24, five rebounds and six assists -- as usual don't adequately convey the kid's impact, his greatness. A few fools out there like to point out what Rose doesn't do, such as play lockdown defense like Rajon Rondo or pass the ball like Steve Nash. All Rose does, all he did against Miami which came into the game with the No. 1 defense in the NBA, was get away from LeBron, get away from D-Wade and beat Miami's double-teams and switches and traps. All he did on the most important play of the game was get his shoulder inside LeBron on a left-handed dribble, sucker D-Wade to him as though he was going to go all the way to the rim, and kick a pass to Luol Deng for the wide-open 3-pointer with 16 seconds left that won the game.
You can make this complicated if you want. You can come up with stat-based arguments and cases built on how good Miami is now and how Cleveland has dropped off the table without him. You can waste time with that foolishness or you can simply look at what each of these two teams does against the best teams in the league. Against top-five teams, LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh (three All-Stars) have a record of 1-7. Against the top-five teams, D-Rose (playing with no other All-Stars and missing either Joakim Noah or Carlos Boozer all but 11 games this season) and the Bulls are 7-4.
The Bulls, for those of us disappointed they didn't make a trade for a shooter -- and yes, you can count me among them, though I'll bring you Forman's very, very smart case for standing pat in a bit -- keep plugging along. Maybe it doesn't matter all that much who plays shooting guard, whether the Bulls can stretch the floor or that they decided to pass on making a deadline deal. Maybe all Rose needs, even against the best teams in the league, are contributions here and there, a two-way performance from Deng, a shot here and there from Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, control of the glass from Noah and Boozer.
On a night when the Heat beat the Bulls up and down the court to the tune of a 34-18 advantage in fast-break points, on a night when James and Wade combined for 63 points and started the game with the clear intent of trying to score a first-round KO, the Bulls made essentially one simple adjustment -- get the hell back on defense, no exceptions! -- and came back from as much as 11 down to win. James and Wade weren't messing around, but once the Bulls made their defensive adjustment, Miami had no counter. Chris Bosh -- and I know this won't happen again -- missed 17 of 18 shots. That's right, one basket in 18 shots. LeBron and Wade were the only Heat players to score in the third quarter. This has been apparent for a while now. But it has become more important since the NBA season is about to enter the month of March: Miami is very average, if that, when it comes to playing half-court basketball. It's all free-style, get-it-and-go. And when Deng and Rose got back, Miami had nothing. "It made me mad to give up all those fast-break points," Rose said.
By way of contrast, Rose diagnosed the Bulls' final play as it was unfolding: Here comes Wade, duck a shoulder, Luol's open, BANG!
The Heat? Not so much. It's doom when they're flying down the court on you, but it's Miami that has trouble when the fast-break option is taken away. I get the feeling Rose totally trusted Deng, Korver or Boozer to take the shot if he couldn't get open. LeBron and Wade, as mean a tag-team as that is, couldn't beat that. And it raises the question of whether teams are going to let Miami get-it-and-go in the playoffs.
As has happened quite frequently over past seasons, the league's personnel movement, this time at the trade deadline, overshadowed the actual games for a while. Even in the United Center in the 90 minutes before a rather significant game between the Bulls and Heat, a potential playoff matchup, so much of the conversation was about trades, specifically what in the world the Boston Celtics were doing dealing away Big Kendrick Perkins.
Most players, Miami's and Chicago's, were straight up stunned. "I'm just as surprised as everybody else," James said. Getting specific, he added, "I've always thought Jeff Green is underrated and it makes them younger."
LeBron wasn't going to go any further and say what he was thinking, which was likely, "THANK GOD, THEY JUST GAVE AWAY THEIR BIGGEST ADVANTAGE OVER US!" That's what Miami's traveling party was thinking and some members privately said so: Are the Celtics nuts? Size is what set them apart. Size is what Boston had and Miami did not have. One Bulls player said, "Their size negated the Lakers' size and gave them the advantage over Miami."
One of the few people in the building who had a different take was Scottie Pippen, the Bulls Hall of Famer who believes the new Celtic, Jeff Green, is exactly what the Celtics need, a versatile and agile two-way player who gives Boston a fresh set of legs for the playoffs. Pippen was the only NBAer of consequence I could find who felt this way, but Scottie is a whole lot smarter than your average bear and his basketball IQ demands at the very least a serious listen.
Personally, the wildly divergent views on this trade were, well, confusing. My first thoughts are that if Danny Ainge made this deal because the Celtics weren't sure they could sign Perkins. But whether or not Perkins could be locked-down contractually has nothing to do with whether the Celtics can win this season, which is all Team Geritol ought to be concerned with. I've heard Doc Rivers say a dozen times that the Celtics' lineup that won the NBA championship three years ago -- Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rondo and Kendrick Perkins -- deserved a shot to defend that championship while healthy. OK, they're healthy. They had the best record in the tougher conference -- the Eastern Conference -- at the All-Star break. They owned the Miami Heat, 3-0, in the regular season. They had the sixth man of the year, so far, in Big Baby Davis.
It was all working, all of it. And then the Celtics told the guy who could stand in against Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol they didn't really need his services. Of course, the Celtics' veterans had to be angry and of course you could detect little smiles on the faces of the Miami Heat players. And they played like it to start the game: five dunks and two layups in a 14-2 run that established a double-digit lead.
A little closer to sweet home, the Bulls' refusal to make a move was the story. Gar Forman said the Bulls were on the phone having serious discussions right up to the deadline, "but I don't know that we ever got to the five or 10-yard line."
It seems the Bulls, even with their impressive record against top-five teams in the league, need a scorer to help Rose who still could be overburdened in the postseason when his team needs an easy bucket. But that's why I'm writing a column while Forman and Paxson are running a successful basketball team.
Forman states his case quite eloquently. The Bulls already have $3 million in salary cap room and something like $17 million in expiring contracts. Teams don't know the terms of the next labor contract, don't know whether the league will be adopting a hard cap, meaning that absorbing too much salary now can kill a team for years to come. And the Bulls have a team, which they reminded us of Thursday night, that can finish No. 1 in the Eastern Conference with this roster, with the players already on hand. Omer Asik, who I probably would have traded earlier in the day because he'll average about 10 minutes a game while Courtney Lee (just to pick a name) would average closer to 30, nonetheless grabbed 11 rebounds in 20 minutes. As if to say, "Trade this!"
Forman explained quite patiently that the Bulls "didn't want to make a move that made us marginally better. We'll have opportunity to strike when the time is right. There's [a] big window of opportunity for us to be good for a long time ... We want to stick to a plan. We're trying to build a team, and we want to do it at the right price."
When asked about the importance of chemistry, the relationship of the players on hand now, to winning, Forman called it "critical."
Rose, told of his conversation, nodded furiously in agreement. You hear Rose say it, you hear Noah say it, you hear Deng and Boozer and Coach Thibs and Forman say it. "We like our team." And they mean it in that collegiate, one-for-all, all-for-one kind of way. They practice like demons. They listen to the coach. They make adjustments willingly. Nobody is about to be suspended for having too many technical fouls. OK, I'm drinking the Kool-Aid. Victories like this one, like the one over the San Antonio Spurs, like the one over the Celtics have a way of doing that.
But it was Juwan Howard, a Miami player, who said on Chicago radio recently that Rose, not LeBron, is the MVP of this season so far. And Rose is certain about the ensemble cast around him. And though that can change come, say, May 1, it's in full effect now.
In the other victories over top-five teams, the Bulls, Rose leading the way, have tended to downplay their successes. But this one, 24 hours after losing to lowly Toronto, was not to be downplayed. "This," Deng said, "was a big game. This was a playoff-type game from the start. Miami came to play. And we're so close in the standings, we wanted to win this game."
Someone asked Deng if the Bulls care about the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and he wasted no time in answering. "We are gunning for the best record," he said.
Nearby, Rose was saying essentially the same thing. "It's time," he said, "to ball out. They had all their players [well, not Mike Miller, but they had the biggest players] and we had all ours. The first time people said, 'OK, the Bulls won, but LeBron didn't play [sprained ankle]." Well, what are they going to say now?
Michael Wilbon is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.