Joakim Noah

The Miami Heat, in a series, should do away with the Chicago Bulls, just like they have in recent years. But in regular season games, especially in the United Center, quality makes less of a difference and the slump the NBA champions and their MVP LeBron James are in continues after an overtime loss.

For the Bulls it was once again Joakim Noah with the kind of special performance it seems he’s the only big man in the league capable of giving. Not just the stat line of 20 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 blocks. But it’s the way he runs the open floor to both ends, and the leadership simply oozing off of him as the Bulls are carried on his exhaust fumes into a playoff-like effort and performance, coming away with the 95-88 win, trampling the Heat in overtime after looking overwhelmed for much of the game.

It’s not all clean and fun basketball. Facing the Heat brings out the dirtier side of these Bulls, a very physical team on most days. Jimmy Butler made the most of getting tangled up with LeBron James on the floor, kicking him in the face before the two got double technicals for the altrecation. It seemed the Bulls focused all their energy on making things uncomfortable for James, who has averaged only 19.3 points in the three games (all losses) since scoring his 61 points against the Bobcats last week. He finished with 17 on 7-of-18 from the field against Chicago, getting most of his points by muscling his way through a bruising defense instead of via basketball plays.

Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 25 points and Chris Bosh added 17, but not getting any help from the bench or the role players hurt. Losing 13-6 on the offensive glass hurt, and turning the ball over 17 times wasn’t beneficial as well. The Bulls, on the other hand, moved the ball very well and got out into the open floor on fast breaks just as much as the Heat, cancelling Miami’s biggest advantage over them.

It was a big night fro D.J. Augustin with 22 points on 8-of-13 from the field. Not just his shooting (4-of-6 from beyond the arc), but putting a spotlight on Miami’s declining defense this season, especially from Norris Cole as the heat looked very bad when most of their bench guys (except for Chris Andersen were on the floor), forced to play in lineups they’re not used to, trying to cancel out the Bulls’ advantage in the paint. Kirk Hinrich scored 11 points and Jimmy Butler, playing 48 minutes, added 16 to his excellent defense.

The East is still going to be Indiana-Miami at 1-2, despite their current slides. But Miami are showing weakness signs we didn’t see from that last season at this stage. Maybe it’s about knowing when to let go and take it a bit easier, but it might be something else. Chicago seem to be following Noah’s lead, in terms of the kind of basketball they play when he’s good and the energy that seems to move on to other players through him. Championships aren’t won in March, but later on. However, some worrying signs show up before the playoffs, and the Heat are trying to understand what to make of theirs.

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