CHICAGO – Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau could have made the safe decision.
He could have kept Derrick Rose on the court despite the reigning MVP’s nightmare game. He could have considered pride over performance and history over current events.
Instead, Thibodeau yanked Rose for backup C.J. Watson in the game’s biggest moment.
Watson delivered with a 3-pointer from the left corner with 2.2 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime, and the Bulls delivered a second consecutive Central Division title with a 96-86 win against the Miami Heat on Thursday.
The Bulls (45-14) trailed by three points with 11.4 seconds remaining in regulation time when Thibodeau called for a 20-second timeout. He made four substitutions, the most important of which was taking Rose out of the game and replacing him with Watson.
Other superstars might have pouted because of the benching.
Not Rose, who shot 1-for-13 from the field after missing 13 of the previous 14 games. He finished with a career-low 2 points in 25 minutes of playing time.
"My teammates had my back," Rose said, "and we got a win."
Thibodeau said he never worried about hurting Rose’s feeling with the move.
“Big picture, if this were his first or second year, maybe you would be more concerned with that,” Thibodeau said. “But where Derrick is now as a player, he understands the situation.
“The thing that you love about him: He was so happy we won and happy for his teammates. And that’s who Derrick is.”
Perhaps more than any other game this season, Thursday’s win showed who the Bulls are. The Bulls increased their first-place lead in the Eastern Conference to four games against the Heat (40-17) with seven games remaining by persistent hustle and a superior bench.
While Miami’s trio of LeBron James (30 points), Dwyane Wade (21 points) and Chris Bosh (20 points) combined for 71 of the Heat’s 86 points, the Bulls’ bench outscored the Heat’s bench by a margin of 47-7. Five players scored in double digits for the Bulls, including two starters (Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng) and three bench players (Watson, Korver, Taj Gibson).
For most of the overtime period, Deng was the only starter on the court.
“The thing about our team is we’ve got great character,” Thibodeau said. “When one group’s going well, the other group supports them. We have a true team.”
The Heat have superior talent, but they also had to face some tough questions after the loss.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said he never considered trying to foul the Bulls with his team ahead by 3 points and the final seconds ticking down in regulation.
“We thought we could defend it,” said Spoelstra, who spoke softly outside of the visitors’ locker room. “But clearly, there was a miscommunication, and we will learn from it.”
The Bulls improved to 2-1 against the Heat, with both wins coming on their home court. The teams’ next meeting at the United Center could arrive in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“They’re a great team,” Thibodeau said. “When you think about the last two years, I think we’ve played 11 times, and so many of them have come down to exactly like what happened tonight – the last possession, hustle play, and usually that’s what determines the outcome.
“I thought, for our team, it was a good win. But we still have a long way to go.”