The blueprint showed itself in the fourth quarter in Saturday’s loss to Miami, and on Monday it was executed much more efficiently, as the Bulls used the frontcourt size to outlast the Heat 110-102.
There would be no sugar-coating from Thad Young.
There seldom is.
The Bulls veteran forward was asked about the current position the Bulls have put themselves in with just 11 regular-season games left on the schedule and some serious work to do.
Specifically, what if this roster can’t capture a playoff spot or play-in game, and that big-stage game or series doesn’t happen this season?
“It definitely would be a big smack in the face if we made all these changes and adjustments to our team, and we can’t follow through or push through into the playoffs,’’ Young said.
There still might be a “big smack’’ coming, but not on Monday.
Thanks to a very simple game plan of doing all they could to use their size against a smaller Miami team, the Bulls (26-35) avenged the Saturday loss on South Beach, outlasting the Heat in the 110-102 win.
That’s why center Nikola Vucevic finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds, while fellow big man Daniel Theis had 23 points and 12 rebounds.
“We felt the last game in the second half against Miami that we could play defense, so it was a good step for us,’’ Theis said. “If the first side wasn’t there [Monday] we swung it to the other side. We just moved the ball.
I want to be physical. It’s about defense. I don’t care about stats. I just want to win the game.’’
In doing just that the Bulls have closed the lead Washington had for the final play-in game in the Eastern Conference, now cutting it to just one game after the Wizards lost to San Antonio in overtime.
Toronto did win, so the Raptors are tied with the Bulls, with the two teams still schedule to play once more this season.
“We’re definitely aware of where we are and what’s going on,’’ Young said. “[Washington is] playing really good basketball, and we’ve got to figure out ways to win basketball games. Our approach to every game has to be the same: Win at all costs because everything is on the line from this day forward.
“It’s been on the line.’’
It was for most of the game against the Heat.
The Bulls seemed to be in a game of chase with Miami (32-30) all evening, staying close, but having trouble breaking through.
That finally changed with 4:46 left in the game when Garrett Temple made a layup to put the Bulls up two. That lead became four 40 seconds later when Vucevic hit in the paint, but Jimmy Butler cut the lead in half with a short jumper of his own.
Butler, who started his career off with the Bulls, finished with a game-high 33 points.
That led to Billy Donovan calling timeout with 3:09 left, which led to a Lauri Markkanen three-pointer, giving the Bulls their largest lead of the game. After Trevor Ariza had a three-pointer of his own, Theis continued the paint dominance, scoring on the tip-in.
“I thought there were a lot of plays that [Theis] made that were real physical plays,’’ Donovan said. “Those are energy, momentum changing plays because it kinds of energizes your team. You can see the guys always pointing to him, appreciating that he’s in those kinds of positions to help.
“What I said from Day 1 [about Theis] is you can always feel his presence.’’
The Heat seemed to feel it, as they kept missing shots in those final minutes, while the Bulls did well enough at the free throw line to keep widening the lead.
In finishing with 22 free throws, the Bulls actually ended a streak of 12-straight games with less than 20 free throws per contest, tying them with the Kings (2018) and 76ers (2012).