“What streak?” Thibodeau said.
Indeed, on a night when the only Derrick Rose appearance came via a bobblehead doll and Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli also sat with injuries, the Bulls made history disappear.
The second-longest winning streak in North American major professional sports league history is over thanks to a 101-97 victory that, out of nowhere, rekindled talk of a substantive Bulls’ postseason run.
The Bulls clinched their fifth straight playoff berth, handing the Heat their first loss since Feb. 1.
“We’ve been saying it all year: When we’re at our best, we can beat anybody,” Luol Deng said.
Deng scored 28 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter and four 3-pointers. Jimmy Butler provided big play after big play to spark the Bulls, finishing with 17 points and a career-high five assists. And Carlos Boozer added 21 points and 17 rebounds on a night the Bulls never backed down.
When LeBron James tried to smash through a Boozer screen with 3 minutes, 52 seconds left, Boozer held his ground and James, who had been pounded all night on drives, drew a flagrant-one foul.
Minutes later, Kirk Hinrich ripped a rebound out of Chris Bosh’s hands and fed Taj Gibson for a jumper and nine-point lead at the other end.
“More often than not when we play them, it comes down to exactly that, a loose ball, a hustle play,” Thibodeau said.
James led the Heat with 32 points, but Thibodeau’s defensive schemes turned him into a scorer more than his preferred role of facilitator. James had just three assists and clearly tired of the Bulls’ physical ways that included a Hinrich takedown and a Gibson horse-collar that originally got called a flagrant before being overturned after video review.
“Those are not basketball plays,” James said of the hard fouls.
The Bulls came out intense and physical with everything clicking. They sank their first four shots and jumped to a 13-2 lead. Udonis Haslem sat with three fouls in the first 5:15. Dwyane Wade, returning from a two-game absence with a sore knee, drew a technical. Nate Robinson banked in a circus shot near the first-quarter buzzer.
The Bulls led 55-46 at halftime but momentum appeared to turn for good quickly early in the third. James slammed home an alley-oop from Wade and then viciously converted a Hinrich turnover with a tomahawk dunk.
As the Bulls continued to struggle offensively, Shane Battier’s 3-pointer with 4:30 left capped a three-shot possession and gave the Heat their first lead at 59-58.
But Butler woke the crowd with an acrobatic alley-oop from Deng over Bosh that will be replayed for days. Earlier, Butler had epitomized the Bulls’ hustling mindset when he chased down Wade on a breakaway and delivered a hard foul.
And just like that, chants of “End the streak!” and “Beat the Heat!” from the United Center faithful rang out.
“I mean, everyone is aware,” Thibodeau said of the Heat’s chasing the 1971-72 Lakers 33-game streak. “But we’re more concerned about them being the defending champion. Everyone is chasing them, regardless of whether there is a streak or no streak.”
Emphasis on no streak.