- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Short of watching LeBron James play basketball, or dance a fine jig, there is nothing like watching LeBron James watch a basketball game.
James was held out of the nationally televised Thursday night game at the United Center with a deadly case of "bumps and bruises." So he had to sit and watch. Or stand and watch. Or hop around and watch. Or hang over the bench and watch. It all depended on the play.
Jordan bless him, he looks good while doing it.
After James' team lost a sloppy-but-exciting 109-108 game that put the Bulls firmly into the postseason picture, James cut out early, briskly walking past reporters, headphones engaged, according to a source at the scene. Forget Beats by Dr. Dre, this was "Beat It" by James.
James told a Bulls writer during the morning shootaround, "I'll get you later." I guess he meant during the playoffs, or maybe it was another clue to his free-agent future. Every word he utters should be studied like "The Da Vinci Code."
James was held out Thursday as a way to get him some rare rest, and I doubt he's seriously annoyed about this one. He was probably texting Warren Buffet or Nelly by the time the team bus hit the highway. Do the Cavs care who they play in the first round? I think they'd rather beat the Bulls and play the Toronto Raptors without Chris Bosh, but they don't seem worried about either option.
"It doesn't matter who we play," Mo Williams said.
"We have to play somebody. It's either them or Toronto, we're aware of that."
It's safe to say the Bulls, who led by as many as 12 in the third quarter, backed into this game, which could be a harbinger for their playoff future. Despite missing four straight free throws with a one-point lead in the last 14 seconds, the Bulls managed to find a way to finish the night tied with the sinking Raptors for the eighth spot in the playoffs and the right to face the Cavaliers. Chicago, by the way, tied the season series with Cleveland 2-2.
"It came down to the wire," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "The basketball gods were with us tonight."
Forget the gods, Noah was man enough. He had 17 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks, including one that all but won the game in the waning seconds. He played 33 minutes, 38 seconds, the most time he's logged since Jan. 20. He was soaking his hobbled feet in an ice bath after the game, merrily talking to reporters.
Derrick Rose led the Bulls with 24 points and 10 assists, Kirk Hinrich scored 23 (on 8-of-12 shooting) and Luol Deng was aggressive, scoring 22 with 10 rebounds. The Bulls shot 51.8 percent and out-rebounded the Cavs 44-36.
Some will tell you Thursday's finish was the ugliest closing minutes of any high-scoring game you'll see outside of an Xbox game. But they're missing the point.
It wasn't quite Jordan-era synchronization, but the important thing was that the Bulls didn't fade, even during the half-dozen situations late in the fourth when you were sure that Mo Williams was going to make everything.
Chicago took the final lead with 1:21 to go on a tip. (Seriously, no one scored after that. Maybe the naysayers are right.)
Rose missed a deep 3-pointer with 31.9 left, and on the other side Williams missed two shots with less than 30 seconds to go, but Deng bricked two free throws. This time Anderson Varejao missed a jumper and Jamario Moon got the rebound and as he went up with the ball in the low blocks, Noah swatted his attempt to Anthony Parker, who fed the big Brazilian again. Varejao missed and Rose rebounded with 1.3 seconds left.
He missed his foul shots, too, but the last one bounced to Hinrich for the win.
"A couple bounces go your way, it's finally been a good change for us to get something fall our way a little bit," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said.
No, it wasn't pretty, but the game was exciting, and it showed the Bulls can play a visually enticing game when everyone is healthy. Deng was wrapped in ice as well, after the game, paying the price for playing a team-high 42 minutes.
I'm a little surprised how many reporters figured the Cavs, the best team in the East, would be pushovers without James, and I know fans and sports talk radio will rip the Bulls for almost losing to a James-less team.
You can't replace James' all-around game, but when a scorer like that goes down, guys like Williams are licking their lips, not to mention their shootin' fingers, to pad their stats. "Mo Shots" proved why he's a ripe second banana, scoring 35 points, shooting 50 percent, hitting 6 of
11 3-pointers and adding 10 assists. Antawn Jamison added 23 before leaving the game in the fourth with a foot injury.
Milwaukee came to town earlier in the week without injured center Andrew Bogut, and the Bucks left with a playoff-clinching 79-74 win. Noah said that NBA players can lose focus when a star is out. I don't know why that surprises me. I'm shocked when half the players ignore the Kiss Cam during timeouts.
"I didn't really think too much of it," Noah said of James' absence. "My mindset didn't change too much. I just wanted to come out and be aggressive, stay focused and understand that we learned a lesson. On any given day, anybody can beat you. Bogut got hurt and we lost that one. Just because your star player isn't playing, doesn't mean you can't lose. The natural reaction is just to let your guard down a little bit, and I don't think we did that tonight."
For those who say it doesn't matter whether or not the Bulls make the playoffs, I have no evidence, statistical or anecdotal, that proves otherwise. What I do know is that more basketball sure can't hurt, and playoff series in consecutive years would certainly provide valuable experience. Can the Bulls beat the Cavs in a playoff series? No. Could the Bulls make it fun? Absolutely.
They're not there yet. The road to the postseason isn't easy, with two back-to-backs, but the competition isn't grueling either and most importantly, the Bulls actually control their own destiny. A road game Friday at New Jersey and a trip to Toronto on Sunday kick things off. The Bulls play host to Boston next Tuesday and go to Charlotte on Wednesday to close out the regular season.
The Raptors have four games left: at Atlanta, against Chicago, at Detroit and against New York. Sunday's game will be the most important of the year, but the Bulls have to win Friday in New Jersey, where the home crowd will be quieter than the University of Chicago library during exams. (Or to be more accurate, less packed than a U of C bar during exams.)
"We've got to be on edge and realize even the worst team in the NBA can beat us," Noah said after the game, resting his sore feet in a tub of ice.
That shouldn't be too tough of a lesson, considering the Nets got their second win of the season, in December, in Chicago.
Whether the Bulls pay heed to their words will be answered Friday night. James won't be watching that one, but Bulls fans shouldn't miss it.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Actually, the playoffs do matter to these young Bulls' development.