Bulls grab crucial road win, beat Miami 110-102

Nikola Vucevic had 24 points and 11 rebounds, Daniel Theis scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, and Coby White added 17 points as the Bulls beat the Miami Heat 110-102 on the road on Monday night. Chicago shot 53.2% from the field (compared to Miami's 42.9%) and outrebounded the Heat 51-34. Jimmy Butler led the Heat with 33 points. Up next, the Bulls (26-35) will stay on the road when they take on the New York Knicks (34-28) on Wednesday night.

The Bulls Monday came up with a winning formula for Miami, where you have to block out the sun. Call it VDT-47—Vucevic with 24 points and Daniel Theis with 23—and it was a heck of a defensive protection as the Bulls lathered up a 110-102 victory over the Miami Heat

"Our games fit and we can pay high/low a lot," said Nikola Vucevic with 24 points and 11 rebounds. "I can seal. He (Theis with 23 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two blocks) can seal. He's very good on screen and rolls. He's a good finisher around the rim. And then defensively, he also helps me. Great player. Before we played (together), he was always one of my toughest matchups.

"We play inside/out," Vucevic added. "I think that's been very effective for us, especially with Zach (LaVine) out. We miss some of that outside scoring. So we try to find different ways to make up for it. It's been good. Since him and I have been in the starting lineup, I think we've been having some success."

Nikola Vucevic shoots over Miami's Trevor Ariza in the second-half against the Heat on Monday night.

At least not being burned quite as much as the Bulls gained some ground in the positioning for a play-in spot in the Eastern Conference. Washington lost, so the Bulls and Toronto Raptors with identical 26-35 records trail Washington by one game. Indiana in ninth is 29-31.

"At this point in the season, you're going to be checking every team involved fighting for the last few spots in the play-in," Vucevic acknowledged. "We know that Washington lost, but we can't focus on that too much. We have to focus on ourselves and make sure we bring it every night and approach every game as if it's a win-or-go-home type mentality and try to take care of business ourselves. And hopefully things work out from the other teams and we're able to go in. Tonight was a great team effort."

The Bulls got 17 points from Coby White, nine in the fourth quarter with a pair of crucial three pointers after Miami opened the fourth taking at 88-81 lead. Lauri Markkanen had 12 points and Garrett Temple and Thad Young each had 10 points, Young also with nine rebounds and eight assists.

But the story was the Bulls finally taking advantage of their advantage, which is size with Vucevic and Theis and Theis' defensive play. Which they didn't do in Saturday's loss to Miami. In that game, the Bulls didn't seem to realize they had the taller players, launching 38 threes to 37 for Miami, which specializes in three-point shooting. So Monday the Bulls mercifully pulled back on the long ball, attempting nine fewer threes and at a slower place whole defending Miami's attempts more seriously. The Heat was just seven of 36 on threes and led by Jimmy Butler with 33 points. Though not looking particularly cultured in the fourth quarter with missed layups and threes while Theis with 10 points and Vucevic almost outscored the entire Miami team.

Team highlights during the Bulls' big road win in Miami.

"We showed in the second half (Saturday) and especially the fourth quarter last game that we can play with them," said Theis, who missed his career high by a basket. "We can play physical and just today we did it over most of the game and not just starting in the fourth. We kept them at 102; that's good for us. We played physical, we rebounded, we shared the ball.

"I just try to be tough down there, especially when me and Vooch play together," said Theis. ‘He's spacing a lot, he's in the post or he's spacing for three. So I just try to rebound and be physical. Clean stuff up if our guys miss, get the rebound. Or if they pass it, I try to just finish somehow. We gotta find our consistency, especially on the defensive end. That's where I see my job, especially. I'm a defensive anchor, I take defense really personal. For me, it's about getting stops."

Which suggests Theis has found a home—and for the Bulls hopefully a stop for the free agent—finally starting regularly with Vucevic. The Bulls are 4-3 in the games the two have started together. And now perhaps the return of Markkanen to his hybrid small forward spot, at least as LaVine remains out in Covid protocols?

Daniel Theis slams one home in the first quarter against Miami.

Once again, Bulls coach Billy Donovan left rookie Patrick Williams on the bench in the fourth quarter after another unequal effort. Even as Donovan tried to force the ball into Williams to start the game, the Bulls fell behind 13-5 to start. Williams had eight points, the 10th time in the last 11 games in single digits (one shot and three points with two turnovers in the second half) with the lowest plus minus among the starters. Meanwhile, Markkanen had the best plus-minus among the reserves.

The seven-foot Markkanen played energetically and intelligently, making an important three with three minutes left and the Bulls leading 101-99 after earlier getting Garrett Temple open with a tight screen for a three that tied the game at 95 for the Bulls.

Is it time to get Markkanen out of his reserve purgatory and back among the starters after coming off the bench the last 15 games? His size playing with Vucevic and Theis was imposing. And effective for the team with no discernible defensive setbacks.

"I don't think there's any question that he should be playing more minutes," Donovan conceded. "But I think with the way our team is and the way Daniel and Thad and Vooch played, what I'm trying to do is find him some more minutes at the small forward spot. He has done a really good job there and I've got a lot of confidence in him. Sometimes at the small forward spot, there are some matchups that aren't great for him. But he moves his feet well, he has good size and is a good positional defender. We need to find ways to get him out there because for Vooch and for Thad and some of the post guys, he's a floor spacer that other teams have to respect and have to honor."

Daniel Theis matches his season-high with 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the victory.

It seems like with this continuation of starting deficits there might be a place somewhere for a seven footer who has been bringing energy to the game.

Like Theis, whom the Bulls purloined from the Boston Celtics and has been just what this Bulls team needs in fierce play. He hadn't scored much starting with Vucevic, but he's that archetype teammate you want for those dark alleys of road games. Or when the Heat is turned up. Heck, on one play a defender literally was holding down one arm. So Theis caught a pass one handed and eased the ball in.
 "I asked the ref if he thinks I shoot with my left hand behind my back," Theis joked.

But he's no laughing matter for the opposition as Miami's Bam Adebayo despite 23 points wasn't celebrating many bams with a team worst minus-23. Butler was second poorest at minus-nine attempting to thwart the Bulls wall.

"I thought there were a lot of plays he made that were real physical plays whether it was blocked shots or coming over and helping, going up on the glass and getting offensive rebounds," said Donovan. "Those are energy momentum changing plays because it kind of energizes your team. He saved quite a few plays whether we didn't have a great offensive possession or we missed a shot. He finds a way to keep the ball alive, tip it back out. Our defense breaks down, he's there rotating using his length and his size; he's covering for guys. You can see those guys always pointing to him appreciating he's in those positions. Like I said from Day 1, you can always feel his presence."

Billy Donovan takes questions following Chicago's 110-102 win over Miami.

Miami, 32-30 and in seventh, did as well. The Bulls had a massive 51-34 rebounding advantage and 15-8 on second chance points. The Bulls also finally got to the free throw line with 22 attempts, ending a record streak of fewer than 20 attempts per game. There was the usual issue of turnovers without a true point guard as the Bulls committed 18 that Miami turned into 20 points. But this time it was the Heat in the shadows of the Bulls towers.

Miami did lead 26-20 after the first quarter. But with Vucevic making his first four three pointers, the Bulls moved within 53-52 at halftime and into the lead in the third quarter before Miami eased ahead 82-76 after three. Markkanen had a big hustle play to end the third when Miami scored with three seconds left and Markkanen pushed the ball down to score at the close.

Donovan pointed to a Satoransky hustle block late in the third quarter as a vital play. But this time the Bulls dominated the fourth with big plays. There was White's catch-and-shoot back to back threes to get within 90-89, Markkanen assisting a Theis score and then his own three and the hard screen to free Temple. There was Theis blocking an Adebayo layup attempt with the Bulls ahead 101-97 with four minutes left and then following up a White miss for a score with 1:49 remaining for a 106-102 Bulls lead. The Bulls then forced Goran Dragic into a wild miss and Butler blew an easy layup with more VDT-47 keeping the Bulls from getting burned.

"We don't have Zach. It's a lot of offense we're missing. So we have to find different ways to make up for that," said Vucevic. "We put up a good fight against a very good team that's also fighting for seeding. So it was a big win for us; also, to grow as a team. Hopefully we can continue on a streak. Now we face another very good team that's been very hot lately in the Knicks (Wednesday). But if we play like we did tonight, we're going to give ourselves a chance."

So you think New York has skyscrapers.