Column: Chicago Bulls are heading back to South Beach with another win-or-go-home game vs. Miami Heat

Column: Chicago Bulls are heading back to South Beach with another win-or-go-home game vs. Miami Heat

Things seemed to be setting up quite nicely for the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night in their return to the play-ins.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler sprained the MCL in his right knee in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, making the Heat vulnerable if the Bulls could beat the Atlanta Hawks to earn a trip to South Beach.

It was Butler who scored 13 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter of last year’s play-in game against the Bulls, bringing the Heat back from the dead in the closing minutes of a 102-91 win that sent them to the playoffs as the No. 8 seed.

With no Jimmy Time to worry about, maybe the Bulls could rewrite the script in their rematch.

Coby White made sure the Bulls at least would get a chance at revenge, pouring in 42 points on 15-of-21 shooting with no turnovers on a near-perfect night in a 131-116 win over the Hawks.

Now come the Heat on Friday in another win-or-go-home game.

Alex Caruso, who played only 17 minutes because of a sprained left ankle, conceded that many of the same faces will match up against each other.

“Hopefully we can use a little bit of that experience and go in and take care of business,” he said. “We’ve played close games with them every year I’ve been here at their place, and we know what to expect. We’ve got a good couple years of history of film to watch.”

The scars from that loss haven’t fully healed. The Bulls had the game in hand until Butler took control.

“I remember that plane ride back home vividly,” DeMar DeRozan said. “Everybody was just frustrated. That finish sucked. For me that was the one thing on my mind once I realized we were going back to Miami. Not to have that same feeling (again).”

Photos: Chicago Bulls beat Atlanta Hawks 131-116 in NBA Play-In Tournament

Nikola Vučević, who scored 24 points with 12 rebounds Wednesday, recalled the Bulls “felt like we played a pretty good game for 46 or so minutes.” Unfortunately the game was 48 minutes.

“And then Jimmy hit some big plays at the end,” Vučević said. “It sucked. We were so close but yet so far in the end. Regardless, any loss like that is difficult to deal with because you have to go home. We hope this time around is going to be different and if we’re in the same situation we can close out a game.

“Hopefully we’ll learn from it. We can’t think about the end, we have to think about the whole 48 minutes. They’re a hell of team and we have to bring our best. We’re going to have to be even better than tonight.”

The Heat announced Thursday afternoon that Butler and guard Terry Rozier (neck) are out for Friday’s game. In Butler, the Heat will be missing a premier player who excels in the postseason like few others.

“He’s one of the great competitors of this league,” Caruso said. “He turns this time of year into his time. If he can’t go, that would be a significant loss because he’s kind of the head of the snake, the heartbeat for them.

“But they still have plenty of talented, capable guys that can play. Obviously if he’s in or out, it will change a little bit of what we do. But we still respect the Miami Heat and what they bring.”

As much as it might help them, however, the Bulls had hoped Butler could play.

“It sucks seeing anyone get hurt, especially him,” DeRozan said. “You don’t want to see nobody with a major injury or anything.”

Added Vučević: ‘He’s a tough guy. You never want to have a guy miss games and be injured. We’re all a brotherhood in this league.”

The Bulls managed to shut down another superstar Wednesday to get to this point. Hawks guard Trae Young had 22 points but went 4 of 12 from the field with six turnovers and even put up an air ball in the third quarter, getting serenaded by the raucous crowd at the United Center.

“We just told Coby and Ayo (Dosunmu) to be aggressive whenever he was out there, try to attack him in as much stuff as possible and create offense for us,” DeRozan said. “And it worked out for us.”

When the Bulls raced to a 40-22 lead after the first quarter, shooting 59% and hitting four of their first nine 3s, it looked as if they had found easy prey. This Hawks team finished 10 games under .500 and would’ve been focusing on the draft if they weren’t in the Eastern Conference.

But this was the Bulls, and naturally nothing would come easily for them. Drama is their calling card, so it was no surprise when the Hawks put up 45 points in the second quarter, pulling within six points at halftime.

Though the Bulls already had four players in double figures at halftime and had set a play-in record with 73 first-half points, it was apparent this was going to be a slugfest. That’s when White stepped up to say “enough.”

Related Articles

The beginning of the end came late in the third, when White went into hyperdrive. A driving, spinning layup started it off, then White stole a pass, grabbed an offensive rebound on the other end and fed Javonte Green for a thunderous slam, followed by another driving layup.

Suddenly the Bulls lead was back to 18 at 105-87, and the Hawks looked as if they were stuck in a phone booth after spending their last dime. When White hit a 3 to make it a 21-point lead with just less than seven minutes left, the crowd chanted “Co-by, Co-by.”

It was approaching 11 p.m. in Chicago, but no one was leaving. Let the kids sleep during math class Thursday. Play-ins or not, these kind of special performances don’t come often.

“We’ve got guys on this team that, when the lights turn on and they’re bright, they step up to the challenge,” Caruso said. “I’ve had moments like that in my career. DeMar has had countless numbers. Vooch has played playoff basketball before. Ayo has shown times this year he can step up and help us.

“I think that’s one of our great strengths. We have guys that can go any given night. Coby has put the work in. People talk about Most Improved (Player award), and I think he rightfully deserves that. It’s not surprising to us because we know how good he can be, and that’s how confident we want him to play all the time.”

Vučević said the Bulls defense was the reason they scored 131 points, adding they need to be that aggressive again Friday.

“Coby obviously had an amazing game, went for 42 and made some big shots,” he said. “But a lot of it came from us being really aggressive, playing the right way. We have to really do that against Miami. They’re much better defensively, and we’re going to have to be prepared for that the whole game.”

So it’s back to South Beach one more time, with another shot at making the playoffs.

The drama kings wouldn’t have it any other way.