MIAMI – However far the Miami Heat go in defending their championship and chasing down another one, they will take a piece of the Chicago Bulls with them.
Probably some blood spatter too.
If the Heat players don’t look back at some point in the next month and appreciate, reflect and build upon what it was they got from that undermanned Chicago team, they won’t just be ingrates. They’ll be ingrates gone fishin’.
What started out as a cool and stylish South Beach club party got spoiled by a bunch of Chicago guys hogging the bar stools and throwing peanut shells on the floor. The Bulls outscored Miami 56-39 in those middle 24 minutes and … wait, that doesn’t quite capture what went on.
Try this instead: After digging themselves a 22-4 hole midway through the first quarter, the Bulls beat the Heat the rest of the night 87-72. Left for dead early, they sat up as surely as Michael Myers, spooking Miami with thoughts of what might have been.
“You give a team like this life, anything can happen,” said forward Chris Bosh. “It’s kind of like watching a horror movie or something, and it happens in slow-motion. You go to Chicago [for a Game 6], their crowd is waking back up again, they’re excited again and now you’re in a dogfight. They come back and win that game, now anything can happen in a Game 7.”
Anything nearly happened in Game 5.
Let’s face it, on talent and depth, the Bulls who ended this season would have been, over 82 games, a lottery team. No Derrick Rose, who went wire-to-wire in his knee surgery rehab, but no Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich over the final two weeks, either. Chicago still had All-Star center Joakim Noah and forward Carlos Boozer, but the remaining collection of role players and reserves were asked to do a little too much.
And still it worked. Oh, not overall. But often enough through Game 1, for stretches in Game 3 and over the final 41 minutes of Game 5 to grab the Heat’s attention.
“They made it to the second round – you have to be a good team to make it to this part of the season,” Bosh said. “A lot of people were counting them out. They had extra motivation throughout the whole season because Derrick was out and they had been dealing with injuries all year.
“We knew coming into it that, no matter who they put out there, it was going to be tough. That’s just their brand of basketball.”
Miami, headed to the East finals for the third time in as many years, had tried sporadically through this series to get there by staying “pretty and shiny,” as Bosh calls it. The Heat played and lost that way in the opener and they clearly wanted to win Game 5 that way. They scored the first 10 points of the night and 18 of the first 20. They were hitting inside and out, putting up points with each possession, getting stops and in control of what figured to be all validation and congratulation.
At 22-4, the fans in the white-out shirts and the team in the white uniforms were ready to tell the Bulls, “Here’s your hat. What’s your hurry?” But Miami veteran James Jones, from his bench seat, knew not to believe the scoreboard at that point.
“We knew, Chicago, they run their system regardless,” Jones said. “They can be down by 40 or up by 20. They’re going to play every possession hard. They run their stuff. They’re well-disciplined and they’re aggressive. You have to give those guys credit. I don’t care who’s up, who’s down, who’s playing. You know whoever pulls on that Bulls jersey is going to give it to you.”
And so the Bulls began to grind away. You’d have sworn you could hear coach Tom Thibodeau exhorting them with each clawed-back point. Then Jimmy Butler hit his second 3-pointer in a span of two minutes in the second quarter and the gap was gone.
It got worse before it got better. Nate Robinson, after his oh-for Game 4, hit a pull-up from 25 feet for a 53-47 halftime lead. After three quarters, Chicago was up by eight.
Miami had to play harder, grittier and more completely — beyond Dwyane Wade‘s late heroics, bench guys scored 15 of the Heat’s 25 points in the final quarter — than it had all night. It had to match and then surpass the Bulls.
No one got ejected. No one was whistled for a flagrant. But the resiliency of the team from Chicago touched a nerve in Miami that it will need soon enough.
“We learned last year that you can’t win this thing without going through some adversity. The Bulls threw adversity at us,” Shane Battier said. “A lot of times it wasn’t about basketball, it was about surviving the physicality, No question we got our noses bloodied a few times in the series. That’s good.”
Said Jones: “It was great for us. We haven’t really had a serious challenge, outside of Chicago, for the last month or so.”
Neither the season’s end nor a first-round matchup with Milwaukee held drama for the Heat.
“You can’t grow unless you compete,” Jones said. “They challenged us in some areas where we needed improvement. They humbled us in Game 1, and then progressively through the series we started to make the adjustments and get better.
“Tonight was just a gut check, where we got out with all the emotion and then they ground back and took the lead. We had to fight for it in the clutch. We had to put together an effort, and that’s the first time we’ve had to do that in a while.”
If a victor’s exhaustion is the best tribute a fallen opponent can have, the Bulls did themselves proud. “I have no energy left,” James said. “I need at least 24 hours.”
In time, the specifics of this series will fade. It will be remembered as taking only five games — wake-up call followed by a sweep. The cumulative score, 487-421, works out to an average spread of more than 13 points.
But the Bulls know better. The Heat know better, too, and they’re the ones who still can do something about it.
“They definitely sharpened us,” Battier said. “You look at the Nets and the Hawks, and how they were battling for the 4-5 spot. If the Nets or the Hawks had won that series, they wouldn’t have been as beneficial to us as playing the Bulls. We needed to get our noses dirty. An Atlanta or Brooklyn series probably would have been a little more about basketball and a little more free-flowing, and not as physical.
“This was what we needed right now.”