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Tom Thibodeau can’t downplay Bulls’ victory over Heat

Bulls guard Derrick Rose looks pass ball as Miami forward LeBrJames defends first quarter as Chicago Bulls host Miami HeThursday

Bulls guard Derrick Rose looks to pass the ball as Miami forward LeBron James defends in the first quarter as the Chicago Bulls host the Miami Heat Thursday April 12, 2012 at the United Center. | TOM CRUZE~Sun-Times photo

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Updated: May 14, 2012 8:23AM

It’s a good thing this wasn’t a big game. It’s a good thing this was just another game, the way Tom Thibodeau insisted it was.

Because if this had been a big game, the Bulls and the Heat would have played each other tooth and claw, would have went at each other as if it were some sort of referendum on their manhood.

Oh, wait. They did.

Try as Thibodeau might to lower the flame on the burner, Thursday night’s game was everything a game between the best teams in the Eastern Conference is supposed to be — perhaps not aesthetically but at least emotionally.

When C.J. Watson hit a three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left to help send the game to overtime, the United Center sounded like a Harley convention stuffed into a three-car garage. The Bulls went on to win 96-86. Sure. Just another game.

Watson called it one of the bigger shots of his life, “if not the biggest.’’

“It was a big game on a big stage,’’ he said. “It’s a big win for us.’’

Every coach tries to sell the one-game-at-a-time philosophy, which was around when Aristotle was in the third grade, but nobody was buying Thibs’ stab at level-headedness. We might not have witnessed the greatest basketball Thursday night, but we did witness two teams that knew this was more than another game on another weeknight in the NBA.

If it weren’t a big game, Derrick Rose would have been resting whatever it is that ails him. And after watching him struggle all night, that might not have been a bad thing.

It wasn’t wrong to take a pass on the fiction the Bulls coach was selling. Thank goodness for that. Thank goodness for two teams taking it to each other as if it were a playoff game.

Did it have meaning? It’s silly to think it didn’t. Miami has been playing poorly of late, and if you didn’t think the Heat was in need of a victory here, its tenacity should have told you otherwise. If it weren’t a big game, LeBron James wouldn’t have been playing with extra ferocity.

As for the Bulls, they had their own concerns, most of them centering on the health of Rose and whether his earlier toe injury is connected to his groin injury is connected to his current ankle problem. Answer: Nobody knows, but it was clear he wasn’t himself. It wasn’t just that he went 1-for-13 from the floor. It’s that his explosiveness had been defused. He had no lift on his jump shot, and his first step was — dare we say it? — ordinary.

It’s hard watching Rose like this, hard to watch a superhero separated from his powers. It’s why Thibodeau gave Watson more minutes and sat Rose in crunch time. Smart move, especially when Watson tied the game at 84.

“My mind was thinking something that my body couldn’t do,’’ Rose said.

Then again, who cares? The Bulls’ bench outscored Miami’s bench 47-7.

Downers? The Bulls might want to start making their free throws. They shot 11-for-19 from the line.

Even though this ended up being the Bench Mob’s night, it was nice to see the Bulls with the starting lineup they expected to have most of the season but have rarely been able to use — Rose, Rip Hamilton, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. Someday, that lineup might even be healthy.

Until then, the Bulls will gladly accept Kyle Korver’s quick release three-pointers, especially when he makes them in bunches. He rose to the occasion Thursday, hitting 5-of-6 from beyond the arc.

“That’s a fun game,’’ he said. “In the grand scheme of things, it helps us in the standings, but it’s not everything. Last year, we swept them in the regular season and we lost [in the conference finals]. So we’re not reading too much into it, but it’s really a fun game to play.’’

That quote should appease Thibodeau, who said before the game that the Bulls actually are chasing the Heat because Miami is the defending conference champion. Yet after this game, the Bulls were three up in the loss column for the No. 1 seed. You probably won’t hear that from the Bulls coach.

So a big game? Oh, gosh, no.

“Each game carries the same value,’’ Thibodeau said. “We’ve just got to be ready for whoever that opponent is that particular night.’’

The opponent Thursday just happened to be the Heat. And the Bulls just happened to be very, very ready.

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