MIAMI – The Chicago Bulls were healthier and, back then, had the NBA’s newly named Most Valuable Player on their side. The Miami Heat were still a relative work in progress, talented and scary but also sorting and sifting near the end of Big 3, volume 1.
The Bulls whupped that crew by 21 points in the opener of the 2011 Eastern Conference championship series, held the home-court edge and looked for a couple days as if they were headed for the Finals.
Ahem. The Heat won the next four games, the first two by double digits each, the next in overtime, the last with a 19-4 rush over the final 3:36 to win by three.
The Miami team of postseason 2013 is more dangerous and highly evolved, with the league’s best player at the peak of his powers. Chicago is missing three guys (Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich) from its preferred eight- or nine-man rotation. So there really shouldn’t be a problem, should there?
Yes, the Heat dropped the opener of the teams’ East semifinals series Monday. But LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest have trailed in five of the 10 playoff series they have played since coming together in the summer of 2010. But they have roared back four times – three times last spring against Indiana, Boston and Oklahoma City. Only against Dallas in 2011 did they slip behind (3-2) and stay behind.
That should alleviate any hand-wringing about the here and now, right?
“We’ve been there,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Our experiences have taught us a lot of things, but that does nothing for us right now. We have to fight for our playoff lives.”
The challenge for the Heat on Tuesday, practicing in advance of Game 2, was to find the right line between unruffled and overreacting. Some considered the Bulls’ 93-86 Game 1 victory a wake-up call, a shock to their system, a shot across the Miami guys’ bows. Others felt the Heat played well, that too much was made of James’ facilitating first half (just two points scored) and that extreme adjustments would be the biggest mistake the defending champions could make at this point.
“When you lose a game, your ears seem to work better,” said forward Shane Battier of the team’s mood in practice. “You seem more open for adjustments and you see to tune up the effort a little more in the next game.”
Said James: “We executed, we missed shots, we had good looks. … It ain’t about X’s and O’s in this series. It’s about the will and determination to win the series. For both teams.”
That didn’t stop Spoelstra from immersing the Heat in a lengthy video session. But what it confirmed again and again was that they got a lot of good, even open shots that they simply did not knock down. By James count, six of Battier’s seven 3-pointers were wide open, as were three of Mike Miller‘s four. Combined they made only three of those 11.
That had more to do with the outcome in James’ view than his alleged lack of aggression. He scored 22 of his 24 points after halftime.
“My shooters have gotten us to this point. They’ve made shots over the season,” James said. “I’ve got trust in them. We still had a chance to win the game, no matter what I was doing in the first half or not.
Spoelstra, James and the others did see some breakdowns offensively in the game’s final minutes and an unacceptable brand of defense (35 points allowed) in the fourth quarter. When James and Wade attacked the rim, they looked more interested in avoiding Bulls center Joakim Noah as a shot-blocker than they did in forcing the issue physically. As a result, James got the foul line less often than his defender, Jimmy Butler and Wade didn’t shoot a free throw at all.
Still, Wade said, “There were a lot of encouraging things throughout the game. That was the kind of game where you’re not playing as good as you want to be, but good teams find a way to grind it out and get the win.”
Chicago played harder and got rewarded. The Bulls, if they’re smart, will remain on the run because they have manpower issues and a roster stretched thin by injuries. Hinrich (calf bruise) still was limping after their team meeting Tuesday at their downtown Miami hotel and said he’d had only marginal improvement from rest and treatment.
Deng (spinal tap complications) still was in Chicago, posting on social media a photo of himself in his hospital bed that was a mystery to some in the Bulls’ camp (was that taken during Game 7 vs. Brooklyn? Or Game 1 Monday?) The best option with the All-Star forward would seem to be patience until Game 3 at United Center or later. As for Rose, that remains a “no,” with the faintest hint of “you’re-kidding-right?”
So the Bulls will try to remain a moving target, with the Heat likely to challenge Noah, attack Butler and pressure Nate Robinson more. Obviously, they don’t want to be satisfied with getting one of two at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“We’ve played this team a lot so we know their tendencies pretty well. But every game of thes playoff series is chess,”Noah said. “We’re going to go back to the film room, see the things that we could have done better. … it almost becomes like you know their sets before they even run them.
“We’ve been in this situation before where we won Game 1 .We were all very, very excited about it. And they ran us over.”