Bulls need more than health to conquer Heat

To overcome Eastern Conference champs, Rose and Hamilton have to jell

On one side of the Bulls locker room late Thursday night, C.J. Watson joyfully jogged his memory and came up with nothing.

On the other, a frustrated Derrick Rose racked his brain.

Neither Bulls guard could recall having a game quite like the 96-86 overtime victory over the Heat at the United Center.

Only Watson enjoyed making personal history. While Rose quickly will bury scoring a career-low two points, Watson figures never to forget making a 3-pointer with 2.2. seconds left to send the game into overtime.

"That's the biggest shot I can remember hitting,'' Watson said. "That's what teammates are for. We saw Derrick was struggling a little bit and wanted to bail him out.''

It also marked the first time Watson commanded similar postgame attention as Rose in a game both played. That was one scene impossible to forget from a victory that likely clinched home-court playoff advantage for the Bulls.

This was the other: Before leading the Heat onto the floor, LeBron James gathered his teammates in the hallway for a huddle where tall men extended their long arms.

"Nothing else matters,'' James told the players surrounding him. "It's all about us.''

Even after the Heat lost to a deeper Bulls team, I find it hard to argue with that declaration from King James.

Everything really is about the Heat, and not just on SportsCenter. How deep the Bulls go into the playoffs still depends more on the team with three healthy stars than the team with one who is hobbled. That will be true until the Bulls make it false, and the soonest they can disprove it is June — not one weeknight in April.

The team with more superstars traditionally gets the edge in the playoffs and the Heat have three. Only a basketball fool would say the Heat still aren't dangerous. The Bulls won because superior balance offset Rose's subpar game. Team depth beat individual talent on a fun night at 1901 W. Madison but what did it mean?

The Bulls did little more than remind everybody they have a deeper bench, more significant over a compressed regular-season than a seven-game series. It speaks well to the roster Gar Forman built that the Bulls beat the Heat in March thanks to John Lucas III and in April because of Watson. But are we any closer to knowing how the Bulls will fare against the Heat following Rose in June?

We already knew the Bulls had better reserves. The biggest thing the first game between both teams at full strength proved was that Rose and Rip Hamilton need more time in the same backcourt. More rest only would add another layer of rust — a fact reinforced by Rose's shaky 1 of 13 shooting.

More than anything, lingering injury issues have prevented Rose and Hamilton from jelling. To think those medical problems suddenly will disappear once the NBA calendar flips into postseason borders on blind faith. If Bulls officials honestly ranked team concerns as the regular season comes to a close, health might rank ahead of defense and rebounding. Last year the sight of Rose produced chants of "M-V-P!" This year, we think MRI.

Rose has yet to play in more than 11 straight. Hamilton's longest consecutive games streak is five. Can the Bulls feel comfortable knowing Rose and Hamilton both will be playing by the Eastern Conference finals? Anybody in the Bulls organization who answers yes has a rabbit's foot in his pocket and a four-leaf clover on his lapel — and is fibbing.

If the Bulls are lucky they never will need Watson more than they did Thursday. Healthy, I agree the Bulls will enter the playoffs more equipped than last year to beat the Heat. They improved more. They have more motivation fueled by last year's loss and a better head coach. They likely will enjoy home-court advantage.

Meanwhile, a less oppressive Heat have their own concerns. They are now 5-6 in its last 11 games. Inconsistency forced coach Erik Spoelstra to change centers — Joel Anthony was benched for newcomer Ronny Turiaf, who was replaced Thursday night with Udonis Haslem. Their bench never will deserve a nickname and Shane Battier, the biggest addition since last year, looks old enough to have guarded Reggie Theus.

Enough valid reasons exist to think the Bulls can overcome the Heat at the end of a season where only that matters. But until they do, it's OK still to doubt they can.

Tom Thibodeau might even appreciate the skepticism, especially after beating the Heat on a night his backup point guard will never forget. And his struggling superstar will try.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
 

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