CHICAGO – The scene in the corner of the Bulls locker room looked like a whodunit about 90 minutes before tipoff Wednesday.
On a patch of wall space in the corner between Jimmy Butler and Marquis Teague’s lockers, a magnetic white board listed the Eastern Conference standings.
The Bulls were listed in the No. 1 spot. The Miami Heat were listed in the No. 6 spot.
This made no sense. Someone must have switched the teams.
Then the badly shorthanded Bulls went out and knocked off the Heat, 101-97, in what easily was the most exciting game of a long and painful season. If you closed your eyes and listened to a sellout crowd of 23,014 fans release a high-decibel roar at the United Center, you would have sworn that you had just witnessed a critical playoff game.
The Bulls (39-31) clinched a playoff berth for the fifth consecutive season with the victory. The Heat (56-15) lost for the first time in almost two full months.
“We did a great job,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who seemed to come oh-so-close to cracking a smile for what might have been the first time in months. “Great job.”
In a crowded Bulls locker room after the game, the magnetic board remained unchanged.
Yet everybody in the building knew the Heat were the top team in the league. The Heat entered Wednesday’s game with a 27-game winning streak, the second-best in NBA history and only six shy of all-time record of 33 that was set by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.
Likewise, everybody in the building knew the Bulls were in the bottom half of the conference’s playoff picture. The Bulls entered Wednesday with six losses in the last 10 games and an injury list that could have filled a shelf at the Harold Washington Library.
It was time to compile a mental list of suspects for the board switch.
Although their lockers were closest to the white board, Butler and Teague seemed too young and too low in the Bulls’ pecking order to commit an act so brazen. The next closest lockers belonged to Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose, neither of whom is prone to instigate.
No, this seemed like the act of an emotional player such as Joakim Noah.
But my theory was flawed: Noah had yet to arrive in the locker room when I spotted the switch before the game, and it wasn’t for another few minutes that the injured center hobbled in with a bum foot and a bummed disposition.
It probably wasn’t Noah.
Nor was it likely the Bulls’ other injured players, Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli. They joined Noah and Rose to form an inactive list with enough talent to reach the playoffs.
Not recent arrivals Malcolm Thomas or Daequan Cook. Not low-key elders such as Nazr Mohammed (in actual age) or Luol Deng (in perceived age). Not Vladimir Radmanovic.
That left Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson.
I could see either player promoting the Bulls and demoting the Heat in the locker-room standings as a spur-of-the-moment act of defiance. Robinson and Gibson are fiery and feisty on the court, and maybe this was their way to pump up their teammates.
Yet the board was pretty high off of the ground, especially to reach the No. 1 seed.
So it probably wasn’t Robinson, who stands 5-foot-8 in the right pair of shoes.
I settled on Gibson as my primary suspect. Tall enough, passionate enough, veteran enough.
I asked him about it after the game. He smiled and shook his head sideways.
“Nah, I don’t get into that,” said Gibson, who recorded his first career game with at least five points, five rebounds and five assists. “I just know we’ve got to win. We’re just fighting for our lives trying to get in the right place at the right time with the right team.
“We’re just grinding right now. We’ve got a lot of guys banged up, but we’re just all bandaged and stitched. Keep playing.”
Maybe Butler saw something. If so, he wasn’t telling.
“It’s just a board,” Butler said. “I don’t ever look at that thing.”
So I wasn’t going to crack the case.
But the Bulls snapped the streak.
And, if only for a day, they deserved top billing ahead of the Heat.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.