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Bulls overtaking Heat as Finals favorite

Image: Chicago Bulls guard C.J. Watson (7) and Luol Deng celebrate (© Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo)
C.J. Watson (7) comes up huge as Derrick Rose struggles in return to Bulls.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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CHICAGO

This was the turning point of a rivalry. In fact, it might also have been the moment the Miami Heat realized that they even have a rivalry with the Chicago Bulls, who are more than some little kid to pat on the head.

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Less than a minute left Thursday night, and the Heat were trying to put the game away with the heroics of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Bulls? Coach Tom Thibodeau was perfectly comfortable benching his star, Derrick Rose, who was having the worst game of his life.

Remember the moment, because it was a moment of trust. The Heat were not just killing time until the playoffs. They wanted this game. So while they were trusting in two guys, the Bulls were trusting in one:

Thibodeau.

Despite all the star power, the Heat could not beat a bunch of guys from the Bulls bench, guys who always find themselves in the right place at the right time, confident they can do the right things.

Chicago won 96-86 in overtime. Rose sat out the entire overtime.

The Bulls now are ready to beat the Heat in a seven-game conference final, and this is a prediction that they’ll do it. They are overtaking Miami. The Heat are in major trouble.

Wade saw it, too.

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“We’ve got to trust our (bench) guys more, give them a little more confidence, because we’re going to need them,” he said. “No matter what kind of game myself, Chris (Bosh) and ’Bron have, we need our guys to have confidence when they come in, make shots.

“That’s why Coach is tinkering with the lineup now, to make sure that when we get in the playoffs, he’ll know who he wants to put in the rotations.”

Now? Erik Spoelstra is just figuring that out now with nine games left in the season? Thibodeau has been figuring that out all year, as Rose has missed 23 games with various injuries, nearly 40 percent of the season so far. And the Bulls have the best record in the NBA, at 45-14.

With Thursday night’s win, they all but locked up the No. 1 seed in the conference, meaning they’ll have home-court advantage in the likely rematch of last year’s conference final against the Heat.

Rose, trying to come back from a sprained ankle, did not have his usual drive or burst. Or his jumper. Or his anything. He shot just 1-of-13 for a career-low two points.

“If I’d have seen this coming, I wouldn’t have played,” he said with a laugh. “I thought I was going to come out and do all right.”

Rose kept searching for some way to help out, but he never was going to find it. He was even too slow to defend. But in some ways, it was important for him to stay out there as long as he did. He showed his teammates that it wasn’t all about him, that even though he was having an awful game, he was willing to stay out there and keep fighting.

Rose has talked before about what he wants his legacy to be. He wants to be the guy who finishes games. But he has been that already, and sometimes, you just don’t have it. So when Rose sat down for the end of the game without complaint, that was a sign of faith and respect in Thibodeau, too.

“I’m not worried about my stats or anything,” Rose said. “My shots weren’t falling. Shots I normally hit, I wasn’t hitting. My teammates had my back. I’m happy I have them on my team.”

Meanwhile, the Heat raised questions again about whether they have the killer instinct. James (30 points) hit a clutch 3-pointer with 49.3 seconds left in regulation to put the Heat up 83-81.

That’s when Thibodeau benched Rose. The Heat never made another field goal, even through overtime. James missed an easy, open jumper and one of two free throws. Then, Rose’s backup, C.J. Watson, patiently found space and made a 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left to send the game to overtime. And the Heat were done.

It was thanks to jumpers from guys such as Kyle Korver and Watson, the defense of Taj Gibson, the rebounding and blocked shots of Omer Asik. Thibodeau even put in rookie Jimmy Butler for the first time all night with 25 seconds left in regulation.

The Bulls can stop the free fall so much better than they could last year in the Eastern Conference finals, when the Heat just started to roll and the Bulls froze. Rose was too tired, and he wasn’t strong enough to break through James’ defense or the Heat’s traps.

Now, the Bulls have experience, but also options and faith. And they just grind it out too much to let a Heat run last several games in a row.

You wonder if this is a new trend for the NBA. Or maybe just something for this season. But this season is turning into a testament to great coaching. The Boston Celtics believe in their coach. The San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks. It might have something to do with the rigors of the compact schedule after the offseason labor troubles.

Or course, that’s just a theory. It’s also possible that the best players will be the ones to dominate the postseason. The Heat believe in one-on-one, and in Game 5 last year in Chicago, Wade and James were unstoppable.

If they can do that again this year, then they can fly over any philosophy, bench or belief system again. They can just see the Bulls as that scrappy little team again.

But things just seem different now. The Heat are in big trouble. And the Bulls are ready.

Tagged: Bulls, Heat, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose

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