MIAMI — Joakim Noah didn’t break out his “Hollywood as hell” depiction of the Heat. Derrick Rose didn’t play.
But make no mistake: The rivalry remains. And it remains very edgy. Noah’s horse-collar flagrant foul on LeBron James early in the fourth quarter, which the Bulls vehemently disputed, underscored that.
The rivalry might not lead to a reprise of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, but it did provide intrigue — and mutual respect — Friday night at American Airlines Arena.
And though the Bulls like to follow coach Tom Thibodeau’s cue and claim every game’s the same, a 96-89 victory without Rose lingers a bit longer than usual. The Bulls stayed overnight with a Saturday morning charter flight back to Chicago scheduled.
Hope you enjoyed South Beach, fellas.
“It always feels good to beat the Heat,” Noah said. “And we get a night out in the city to boot.”
In his second straight huge game, Carlos Boozer finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds, adding dives for several loose balls and stripping Chris Bosh on a huge possession late that he followed with a layup.
Noah returned from missing one game with flu symptoms to post 13 points and 12 rebounds as the Bulls, outrebounded in five straight and eight of 10 games, enjoyed a whopping 48-28 advantage.
“We just pounded the glass,” Noah said. “I don’t know if that small ball is going to work against us.”
Luol Deng sacrificed his offensive game to make James work for his 30 points. And Nate Robinson put his fingerprints all over the fourth quarter, finishing with 13 points.
“The fact they’re fifth in the Eastern Conference right now with their MVP out shows you the character of the team,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “They’ve had a lot of changes. Their bench looks totally different. But they still find a way, even after tough losses. They’re mentally and physically tough enough to win in any building.”
James sank four free throws after the Noah flagrant and also dunked after a Taj Gibson turnover. But Robinson sank a big leaner for a 77-72 lead, stole James’ crosscourt pass to lead to two free throws, took a charge from Ray Allen and followed with a 3-pointer.
You know, instant energy.
“That charge and trey ball?” Noah said. “I haven’t been that hyped in a long time.”
The Bulls started building their lead with a big third quarter, capped by Marco Belinelli’s 3-pointer with just under two minutes remaining.
But they still had a nervous moment late. Allen hit his lone 3-pointer and James stole a pass from Kirk Hinrich, who committed a clear-path foul on him. James hit one free throw to pull the Heat to 91-86 with 90 seconds left.
Deng followed with a steal against Bosh, and Jimmy Butler, playing critical minutes again late, rebounded his own miss to feed Boozer for a layup.
“They’re the defending champions and a great team,” Thibodeau said. “In order to beat them, you gotta beat them. They don’t give you anything. Rebounding was the difference.”
Noah said he asked for an explanation on his flagrant on James and was told he “choked him.” Friday night, there was no choke in the Bulls.
“We haven’t been playing great basketball, and this is probably the biggest win of the year,” Noah said. “We know we can beat the best and lose to the worst. It happened in the same week. But we’re going to enjoy this.”
On South Beach to boot.
By KC Johnson, Tribune Reporter