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’.
A niggling bad habit of the Heat at various times this season showed itself again in all its unnerving glory in the middle two quartersof Game 5 Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
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. (more…)
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Steve Kerr understands the importance of every shot, every possession and every games this time of year. You don’t win five championships in your 15-year career and not comprehend the significance of each and every step you take in the middle of May.
That’s why the sweet-shooting TNT analyst was a must-get for Episode 117 of the Hang Time Podcast. With the conference semifinals winding down and the conference finals looming, a sobering dose of perspective was needed here at headquarters. We needed someone to provide a little context and perspective to what LeBron James and the Miami Heat are going through right now, what Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors are dealing with right now and what it all means in the grand scheme of things.
Things are fluid for so many of the teams still alive in the playoffs, not to mention the teams whose seasons have finished and are searching for coaches and eventually players to help them get to the point where they are still play in mid-May. Kerr breaks it all down, and more, including his assessment that Heat star Dwyane Wade is no longer an “everyday superstar” but an “every other day superstar.”
We thought Kerr’s presence might defuse the normal mid-week volcano that is Rick Fox, whose “Get Off My Lawn” rant of the week includes his debunking of the NBA’s great point guard myth (as he describes it only the way he can).
In Rick’s estimation, we might have seen the last of the point guards to win MVP in the The Finals when Spurs point guard Tony Parker did in 2007. He’ll could very well be the last of his kind, according to Rick, to find his way into the company of elite players at his position like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups, the only PGs other than Parker since 1980 to claim that hardware.
(Sorry Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and the rest of you, Rick says don’t bother.)
You get all of that and a whole lot more on Episode 117 of the Hang Time Podcast …
MIAMI – Based on who they have, who they don’t and what their depleted roster might have left in a postseason that has lasted longer than they probably had a right to expect, the Chicago Bulls appear to have hit a wall.
Naturally, they’ll do what they have done before in such circumstances. They will peel themselves off it like Wile E. Coyote after the painted-tunnel trick, do an about-face and face the Miami Heat in Game 5 of their conference semifinals series (7 p.m ET, TNT). With their backs against that proverbial wall.
“All we’re thinking about is Game 5, first quarter. That’s it,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said at his team’s morning shootaround. “You’ve got to go step by step. To me, it’s be ready for the first quarter. We understand what needs to be done. That’s all we’re focused in on. Not any of the what-if’s or any of that.”
Few teams, frankly, have more what-if’s about them than the Bulls, who again will face the NBA defending champions without forward Luol Deng, without guard Kirk Hinrich and, of course, without 2011 MVP Derrick Rose. Deng – two weeks after suffering some severe flu symptoms as well as complications from a diagnostic spinal tap – did not even travel with the club for this one. Hinrich’s calf bruise, suffered in Game 4 of the first round, still prevents him from running or playing.
As for Rose, well, if he invests the way he rehabs from knee surgery, his risk aversion would have his millions all sitting in a checking account. That’s how conservative he’s been since having his torn left ACL repaired a year ago this week.
The Bulls still standing shoulder on. They are 2-5 in franchise playoff history in Game 5 when facing elimination, temporarily fending off Detroit in 2007 and Philadelphia in 2012. This Miami team, meanwhile, is 7-1 in the Big 3 era when it has a chance to close out the opposition.
“Whatever your circumstances are, you have to make the best of those circumstances,” Thibodeau said. “This team has dealt with adversity all year. We’ve had the unique ability to bounce back. That’s what I’m expecting us to do tonight.
“Emotion’s not going to win the game. Playing well, doing your job, getting it done, that’s what’s going to win the game.”
Said guard Nate Robinson: “Last game, we didn’t make shots. First game we played here, we played hard, we made shots. That’s what it’s about, getting stops and getting buckets.”
Robinson, the instant-offense backup thrust in Hinrich’s absence into Rose’s role, scored 27 points in Game 1, the Bulls’ surprise road victory of the series. Since then, with the full weight of Miami’s defense bearing down on him, he has shot 8-for-35, including 0-for-12 Monday.
Naturally, Robinson would like to see the Bulls get Carlos Boozer and Marco Belinelli going early to shift some of the Heat’s defensive focus to them. Maybe that could open some seams for him, for Jimmy Butler and for Joakim Noah.
Because as it is, that wall the Bulls have their backs against has been built in part by them, brick by brick. They’re shooting 37.6 percent in the series. Chicago has taken 12 more shots than the Heat (298-286) yet has 29 fewer field goals (112-141).
The free-throw situation is equally illuminating. For all the grumbling and physical play, the Bulls are 81-for-107 from the line and the Heat are 81-for-105.
The biggest question for Miami as Game 5 approached was guard Dwyane Wade‘s availability. Coach Erik Spoelstra said Wade, hobbled by a bruised right knee, did fine in shootaround but that his participation would be a game-time decision.
Miami did sit Wade from the series finale against Milwaukee in the first round, giving him what wound up as eight days of rest before this series began. If he sits out Game 5 Wednesday and Miami were to win, Wade would have at least until Monday – a full week after Game 4 – and possibly until Wednesday before the East finals begin.
The Bulls finally look cooked, so complete this thought: If the Bulls get Derrick Rose back next year …
Steve Aschburner, NBA.com:… we’ll be talking about other guys’ injuries. Or Rose’s injuries other than his left anterior cruciate ligament. This wasn’t a case of one-and-done in Chicago this season – the Bulls have struggled with hurt and missing players for a while now. Rose only played 39 games in the post-lockout schedule of 2011-12. Luol Deng has missed all or parts of three playoff runs. Kirk Hinrich is a walking Ace bandage and Joakim Noah seemingly isn’t built for 82 games-at-35-minutes per. Coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t sweat the 2 1/2 hours he uses his guys on game nights because he expects them to be professional about body maintenance the other 21 1/2 hours. But something has to give, either in Thibodeau’s minutes distribution, in the trainer’s room or in Chicago’s new policy for 2013-14 of team-sponsored three-week sabbaticals for each starter, staggered from January through March.
Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Assuming Rose can dunk off his left foot by October, the Bulls are right back as a — maybe “the” — prime challenger to Miami in the East. Thibs will see to that.
Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: They will be an Eastern Conference contender. How can they not be? No way can they suffer a season like this again, not just with Rose out, but with the myriad of injuries and craziness (spinal tap gone wrong?). Jimmy Butler is only going to get better and Rose should — I say, should — be back for training camp primed for a huge seasons.
Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com:… they will open as the second-best team in the East. That’s with the assumption that he comes back healthy. It is impossible to make predictions without knowing the summer moves, and not just for Chicago, but there is still a lot to like about the Bulls moving forward. As much as Rose has come off like a drama queen as the saga dragged on, I don’t question his ability to make a major impact and make the Bulls better.
John Schuhmann, NBA.com:If? Ugh. They will a top-three team in the East. But they’re not necessarily better than Indiana if they can’t add some more depth. Thibs is going to be Thibs and ride his guys, but they need competent back-ups at the three and five spots to ease some of the burden on Luol Deng and Joakim Noah and keep those guys fresh throughout the season.
Sekou Smith, NBA.com: If? If they get him back next year? Are you trying to start a riot in Chicago? The Bulls are definitely going to have the services of Derrick Rose next season and that will ensure their status as one of the top four teams in the East for the 2013-14 season, provided he and a few of his friends can stay healthy for the majority of the season. Rose knows that he owes Bulls fans a season they won’t forget, especially after the way things were handled this season. The epic grind they showed throughout this season and into the playoffs should be proof to Rose and his camp that there is plenty of talent around him to help win at the highest level. The assembly of said talent doesn’t guarantee anything, as we’ve seen in so many other cases (Los Angeles Lakers this season). But it does mean you have a chance to compete at the highest level. And that’s where these Bulls belong with a healthy Rose in the lineup.
Lang Whitaker, NBA.com:… they become the second-best team in the East. In some ways losing Rose for this season could end up being a net-gain, as the other Bulls have all had chances to carry bigger loads and, in turn, mature and improve in ways that probably would have taken longer had Rose been dominating the ball and shouldering his usual load.
Davide Chinellato, NBA.com/italy:They will have a shot at the Heat. But they need to reshape their roster. I’d probably start using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer, using the cap relief to bring another big man to Chi-town. Then I’d re-sign Marco Belinelli (he’s had a real good year) because he would form a terrific backcourt with Rose. And I’d see if there’s anything we can find that’d say why they had so many injuries — what caused them to break down physically — in the most important time of the year. [Davide Chinellato is the editor of NBA Italia (nba.com/italy)]
Eduardo Schell, NBA.com/spain:Who knows what the future holds for the Bulls. Maybe Rose playing again ends up as a setback for Krypto-Nate, Jimmy Butler (or others), who both have stepped up and performed well beyond expectations. With D-Rose, the Bulls’ playing style might change and there can be a big ‘ego’ problem. Again, who knows. Teammates, though they’ve claimed to understand, might even harbor some resentment for how Rose handled this postseason. There have been lots of talks during the season regarding Boozer and Deng so lets see how they come into play. Lets put it this way: adding pieces doesn’t always end up being a great result. But there’s an ancient Chinese saying: the most beautiful flowers blossom during the toughest times. [Eduardo Schell is the editor of NBA España (nba.com/spain)]
Selçuk Aytekin, NBA.com/turkey: Derrick Rose is one of the best basketball players on the planet. If a healthy D-Rose came to the Chicago Bulls or virtually any other team in NBA, that team would become a contender. I have questions about his current physical health, so hopefully he is 100 percent ready to play, as his doctor’s said. But, yes, if he’s back to full strength, the Bulls will be talking about the Larry O’Brien Trophy. [Selçuk Aytekin is the editor of NBA Turkiye (nba.com/turkey)]
That has been Dwyane Wade‘s mostly successful approach since suffering a deep bone bruise to his right knee against Orlando in early March. Heck, that has been Wade’s approach more or less since he reached the NBA and got busy with that fall-down-578-times, get-up-579 business.
The Miami Heat star shooting guard has had good days and bad days since initially injuring the knee. He has aggravated it, pampered it, fought it, ignored it and, through Miami’s first eight games this postseason, made peace with it. It’s not getting noticeably better, it’s not forcing him to miss significant time in the Heat’s quest to repeat as NBA champions. Stalemate.
Until the second quarter of Game 4 against the Chicago Bulls Monday night at United Center, anyway. When Bulls defender Jimmy Butler banged knees with Wade, Miami’s guy lost in the collision. The pain showed on Wade’s face and he quickly subbed out, getting some treatment and a fresh taping on the Heat bench. He returned and scored six points in the third quarter – but they were his only points of the night and Wade played just 2:39 in the fourth, compared to LeBron James‘ nine minutes and Chris Bosh‘s six down the stretch of the blowout victory.
After Wade’s 10-point performance on 5-of-7 shooting in Game 3, he and coach Erik Spoelstra reminded reporters of Wade’s adjustment and growing deference to James over the past three years. It wasn’t exactly a cover story but it was a diversion, a tale of teamwork and chemistry fit for a two-day break between games.
But after Wade’s 3-of-10 effort in Game 4, a tale of noble motives gives way to the urgency of his injury, his prognosis and timeline for healing and his availability not just for what’s left of this series – the Heat lead the Eastern Conference semifinals, 3-1, with Game 5 Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena – but what’s left of Miami’s title defense.
Spoelstra got defensive on behalf of his star and friend when talking with reporters, as chronicled by the Sun Sentinel’s Shandel Richardson:
“He’s helping us win right now,” Spoelstra said Tuesday. “OK. One of these days boxscores will have your plus-minus impact and maybe eventually people will start to look at a boxscore differently and eventually a new generation of fans, the media, staff will see that’s the most important one and he’s having that impact.”
The Heat have lost just once in the playoffs despite Wade averaging only 12.3 points, nearly nine below his season average. After Monday’s six-point effort against the Bulls, he is averaging 11.3 points in the series.
Wade, 31, ranks fourth in scoring for Miami this postseason and isn’t even the top scoring Marquette product in the series (Butler, 23, is averaging 12.8 for Chicago). But that’s the sort of comparative stuff that rankles Spoelstra.
“I understand the interest level in it, but what you dislike about team sports is people lose sight of the main thing being the main thing,” Spoelstra said. “Dwyane’s proven himself as a warrior, he’s helping us win and at the end of the day we’re up 3-1 with a chance to close out. We knew going into this series that it wasn’t going to be about averages and that was one thing we had to have a discussion about before the series.”
Wade is considered day-to-day, though a guess at his status for Game 4 might be possible, based on the previous round. The Heat were comfortably in control through three games against Milwaukee, so Wade sat out the finale of that sweep. As undermanned and overtaxed as the Bulls are, skipping Wednesday’s game could be the smart option, allowing maximum treatment time before Miami faces the eventual winner of the New York-Indiana series in the East finals.
It’s not as if Wade hasn’t missed time with injuries previously or that the Heat struggle in his absence (they were 12-2 this season when he did not play). Even if his knee doesn’t heal completely in the coming weeks, he’ll do what he can to play through it.
The Bulls, however, don’t have enough firepower or depth to make a diminished Wade a serious problem. That might change in the next round or in The Finals. Also, nagging injuries can sometimes lead to the same outcome as debilitating ones, as James talked about after Game 4 Monday. Remember his aching right elbow and how much attention that got in his final playoff run with Cleveland?
“It lingered throughout the whole playoffs,” James said. “You just try to go out there and give it all you got. It sucks because you know you can do things that the injury isn’t allowing you to do it.
And then there’s Chris Bosh, the man who Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstrainsists has been his team’s most important player for quite some time. Yeah, Spoelstra’s right. Bosh might not look like the stand-alone star he was in Toronto, but he has become the Heat’s X-factor. His nightly performance often pushes them over the top and allows the Heat to “play our game,” as the coach explained earlier in this postseason when he was trying to describe Bosh’s role in Miami.
LeBron is a machine who gives the Heat everything you’d expect a four-time MVP to give in the playoffs. And no one is suggesting that Bosh is challenging LeBron as the Heat’s most valuable player. But Bosh’s steady presence at his position is what unlocks the box for the Heat, who need to be able to spread the floor and attack to play at their best. He’s made Bulls forward Carlos Boozer the invisible man in a battle that is as one-sided as the Heat’s 3-1 series lead.
Bosh struggled in the series opener, finishing with just nine points and six rebounds as the Bulls shocked them at AmericanAirlines Arena. Since then, he’s schooled the Bulls routinely. He dropped 13 points, five rebounds and three assists in that Game 2 blowout win, 20 points, 19 boards, four assists and two blocks in that grimy Game 3 win at the United Center and another 14 points, six rebounds and four blocks in Monday night’s Game 4 rout.
Even more impressive than the numbers, though, is Bosh’s presence and the way he has stressed the Bulls. Wade has been a shell of himself in this series, which would provide an opening for teams good enough to still be participating in the playoffs. But not when Bosh is the threat he has been in this series.
“Hell, yeah, of course. I’ve been a Hall of Famer like four years ago,” he said. “And I say that very serious, though. I’ve talked about it before with my friends.”
I’ve talked it over with a few of my friends as well, and, to a man, they disagree with Bosh. They still have a hard time seeing him as a true Hall of Famer. But I’ve come around to Bosh’s side over the last two seasons. I remember the Heat wobbling last year while he was injured in the playoffs and the boost both he and Wade provided when they got healthy and helped the Heat put away the Oklahoma City Thunder in The Finals.
The Hall of Fame isn’t a far-fetched notion for a player with Bosh’s credentials: career averages of 20 points and nine rebounds, eight All-Star nominations (and counting) and who knows how many championship rings he ends up with during this run with the Heat.
CHICAGO – Nate Robinson unwrapped yards of elastic bandages from around his left shoulder, the bandages finally revealing and releasing a large ice bag on his left shoulder. Robinson had taken a hit from Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole or one of the other Miami Heat players who landed on top of him as if — like Robinson’s Chicago Bulls teammates — he might ride the tough little point guard through what was left of this series.
Robinson winced then and he winced now, nearly an hour after Chicago’s 88-65 loss in Game 4 Monday night at United Center. There were all sorts of miserable franchise playoff records set by the Bulls’ discombobulated offense — fewest points in a game, fewest in a quarter (nine in the third), lowest shooting percentage (25.7 percent) … sputter, gasp, fizzle. Robinson himself was a hot mess: an 0-for-12 night, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range. He had four turnovers to go with four assists, never got to the foul line and played 32:04 without scoring.
The instant-offense backup Chicago had turned to so many times this season and particularly this postseason was, this time, the battery in need of a jump start. No one else had the spark, either, so as their Energizer bunny ran down, so did everything the Bulls hoped to accomplish offensively.
You hold a team to 88 points — 34 in the second half — you ought to be able to win a playoff game. The Bulls never got close. They trail 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 Wednesday night in Miami.
Robinson, the crush of cameras and reporters finally gone, his sore shoulder finally freed, wadded up the elastic bandages and from the chair in front of his dressing stall, fired them hard to the floor. Well, at least he hit that. He dropped his head into one hand and kept it down for a while.
“Couldn’t make shots,” Robinson said. “You go out there and try to execute, you try to shoot shots that you make every day — every day — and it doesn’t fall, it takes a toll on you. Then you don’t want to feel like you’re hurting the team by shooting the ball, and that goes not just for me, I could see it on other guys’ faces.”
The Bulls trailed 11-2 in the first five minutes. They fell behind by 10 early in the second quarter and then, in the third, the bottom dropped out. They took 13 shots and missed 11. Robinson went 0-for-6. The nine points they did score stirred ugly echoes of their 10-point quarter against Miami in a 2011 East finals game that didn’t go well either.
By the end, their half of the stats sheet was whack-a-doodle: Twelve assists, 17 turnovers, 19 field goals. Miami had nine steals, blocked nine shots and contested or cut down angles on just about everything else. And the focal point of it all was Robinson, who got the sort of treatment normally reserved for Derrick Rose. (more…)
CHICAGO – This ongoing attempt by the Chicago Bulls to unseat the NBA defending champion Miami Heat, an outsized task for an undermanned team, might be going better if Dwyane Wade were 27 years old.
True, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that a younger, healthier, more vibrant and assertive Wade – who launched an average of 22 shots a game in 2008-09 while leading the league in scoring (30.2 ppg) – might actually make the Heat less dangerous rather than more. But that Wade, even with one NBA title tucked away, still had things to prove.
He wasn’t as inclined to wrestle with his ego in those days and, when he did, he lost more than he won. LeBron James? Four and five years ago, Wade saw him as a friend, sure, but also as the competition. James would have remained so even if they had teamed up back then.
And now? Wade can laugh about taking just one shot in the first half of a playoff game played in his hometown, can joke about the “efficiency” of his 5-for-7 performance for a mere 10 points. As Game 4 against Chicago Monday drew near, Wade was fine with his numbers because the Heat’s numbers – six victories down, 10 to go in their quest to reach and win The Finals – were right where they needed to be.
Funny how much wiser 31 can be than 27.
“You only play this game for so long and, when you leave this game, what memories are you gonna have?” Wade told a cluster of reporters after Miami’s workout Sunday at a University of Illinois-Chicago gym. “The memories I want to have are memories of success as a team. That’s why you make decisions like this. It’s not easy. It’s hard.
“Would I have ever thought I’d be in a playoff game, that I’d take seven shots and hit five? Hell no. But at the end of the game, was I [ticked off] about it? Nope. We won the game, moved on, had a great dinner. Now I’m looking forward to Game 4 and hopefully having a different output.”
Hoping for a different outcome was what triggered all this. Back in 2010, four years after Miami’s Wade-and-Shaquille O’Neal push to its first NBA title, the shooting guard dubbed “Flash” by his big buddy was – whoosh! – there and gone from the postseason that spring. He averaged 33.2 points in the first round against Boston and still got bounced in five games. Wade vowed it never would happen again. Two months later, James and Chris Bosh signed on for their big-time buddy ball.
“If I was a selfish player, this team never would have been assembled,” Wade said Sunday, while sitting an arm’s length away from James, dealing with his own media scrum. “If I was a selfish guy, it would have never worked.
“Once we made a decision to play together, that first year, we both were trying to be alphas at the same time and it worked at times and it was hard a lot of times. You just had to look and say, ‘OK, what is going to be best for this team?’ I felt I was a person who’d had to play different roles before, so I understand more a little bit than LeBron how to take a back seat and be a Plan B or be a 1A.”
James’ career arc, after that blip of adjustment in 2010-11, soars again. He is at the peak of his powers and has added two more MVP awards to the pair he won in Cleveland. Wade probably never will win one. But his chances of winning another ring? Those look better than ever.
All he has to do is cope with his aching right knee – there’s no mending that till summer now – and occasional snarky stuff in the media about how disengaged and low-impact he has looked lately.
“I don’t worry about that,” Wade said. “Now if I shoot 5-for-17, it’s a different conversation. But I took seven shots. You’ve got to look at my touches, more so than anything. WhenI had opportunities. … It varies from game to game. I’m a big boy. I know I can shoot a shot any time I want to. That’s not a problem.”
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra and Wade both said the challenge against Chicago’s stingy defense is to get those five guys moving side to side and, ultimately, a little less tied together. So far, Wade has been effective at that, typically probing and drawing a second defender, then passing out to Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers or James for more open opportunities.
The Heat might run a few more post-ups for Wade, given his advantages down low against Bulls counterpart Marco Belinelli. He’s almost certain to get to the foul line more if they do, though boosting his scoring average (13.0) in the series is nobody’s priority. Not the Bulls’, not the Heat’s, not his.
“As long as we’re in position to win and we’re playing good basketball, I will never complain,” Wade said. “Even though we all to an extent have egos, we all have a little selfishness in us as humans, I’m able to take myself out of it at times and try to do what’s best for the team. Even in the moment if it don’t look good.”
As for Game 4 and what’s left of the series and Miami’s postseason, Wade said: “I wouldn’t bet that I’ll shoot seven shots again. I can’t say I won’t, but I wouldn’t bet it would be seven.”
. CHICAGO – Nate Robinson has been doing a Derrick Rose impersonation for the Chicago Bulls lately, which is tough enough against a Miami Heat defense that often makes life miserable for the real McCoy. But where that really hurts Chicago is off the bench, where no one is available to mimic Robinson’s instant offense and energy in reserve.
The closest thing this Eastern Conference semifinal series has to a Robinson impersonator, in fact, comes from the Miami side. His name: Norris Cole. The Heat’s backup point guard scored 18 points in the home rout of Game 2, but backed that up with 18 more – in far more clutch circumstances – in Miami’s 104-94 Game 3 victory Friday at United Center.
The flat-topped point guard in his second season from Cleveland State played all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter and, with seven points, outscored everybody in Chicago’s lineup in the period. Cole’s driving finger-roll with four minutes left got the Heat’s cushion to four points and his 3-pointer two minutes later bumped the lead to 96-88, essentially the game-winner.
“Norris is a tough competitor,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “He was most noticed for his 3s and driving down the lane tonight, but he made big plays for us all night.”
Cole, with starter Mario Chalmers, has made life difficult for Robinson the past two games, throwing traps at him and working to get or keep the ball out of his hands. The 5-foot-9 irrepressible force hustled his way to 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds but needed 42 minutes to get them; Cole worked more in Robinson’s normal range and ratio, his 18 points coming in 24:27.
“He kind of got hot late,” Chicago’s Taj Gibson said. “When you’re playing with three future Hall of Famers, guys are going to get open looks. … That team has a lot of guys playing with a lot of confidence.”
Shooting that way, too. Cole has taken eight 3-point shots in the series so far and made them all. He has hit 10-of-13 this postseason, including the four-game sweep of Milwaukee in the first round, and he is shooting 64.1 percent overall (57.7 on 2-point attempts).
“I think it’s just the reps,” Cole said of his accuracy after Game 3. “I work a lot with coach Dan Craig before practice and every night back in Miami. I have my shooting session late at night. I just am putting up a lot of reps and understand the spacing of our team. And have the confidence to knock it down.”
Last year, Cole averaged just 8.9 minutes in the Heat’s 19 playoff games, his role diminished by Spoelstra’s use of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade as de facto point guards. This postseason, Chalmers and Cole (22.3 mpg) have handled their position and duties more fully, with the backup earning his increased responsibility.
“With experience comes comfort,” Cole said. “I’m seeing things more than one time and I’m able to adjust.”
The Bulls have seen Cole as a problem for two consecutive games now. They’d better be able to adjust.
CHICAGO – Shorthanded from their first practice of training camp through the 104-94 Game 3 loss to the Miami Heat Friday night at United Center in their Eastern Conference semifinals series, the Chicago Bulls have remained stoic throughout — sphinx-like, even.
At no point during a season defined as much by who hasn’t played as who has – no Derrick Rose at all, no Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich for about half of this playoff run now – have they whined. No grousing, no feeling sorry for themselves, no covetous glances or comments about the relative health of their opponents.
The Bulls have fallen in line behind their coach, Tom Thibodeau, who replays the same half dozen or so responses to any questions he fields about the team’s shortage of healthy players. More than enough to win. Do your job. Next man up. More than answers, they’re mantras and affirmations, repeated so often now that the fellows in Chicago’s dressing room truly believe.
Only it’s gone on too long now. The manpower disadvantage Chicago drags onto the court each game in this series against the NBA’s defending champions is starting to seize up on them. It’s frustrating, facing mighty Miami outnumbered and undermanned, and it’s starting to poke through not as woe-are-we grumbles about their injury plight but in a creeping sense of persecution.
Maybe it’s not merely the unfairness of relying on the same seven or eight players night after night, the Bulls more than hinted after Friday’s defeat, while the Heat can draw a rotation from 10 or 12. Maybe it’s the impossibility of winning basketball games five-on-eight, when three on the other side have whistles.
Yes, for the last few days, Thibodeau and the Bulls have gone there.
“We’re well aware of what’s going on,” the coach said after a game in which his backup center Nazr Mohammed got ejected for pushing Miami’s LeBron James in the second quarter and his starter Joakim Noah got called on what might have been an offensive rebound in the final minutes.
The former, a stunning moment that saw the NBA’s Most Valuable Player toppling backwards (and looking for the best place to land as he fell), cost Chicago Mohammed’s services, which typically provide 10 or 15 minutes rest for Noah. The latter, with the Bulls down 88-83 with 3:15 to play, might have triggered a four- or five-point swing when Noah’s foul coughed up the ball and the Heat’s Chris Bosh sank two free throws.
“When you play this team, you have to have a lot of mental, physical and emotional toughness,” Thibodeau said. “And things aren’t going to go your way. We’re not going to get calls. That’s reality. We’ve still got to find a way to get it done. And we can.”
That might read like typical Thibs-ese, but there are insinuations in it of a double standard at work. Thibodeau has dropped in comments about the Bulls “not getting calls” each day since their 115-78 meltdown in Game 2 Wednesday, when Chicago players were slapped with six technical fouls and both Noah and Taj Gibson were ejected.
Fact is, the sense that Miami might try to muscle up in this series dates back to Chicago’s streak-busting victory on March 27. After that game, in which the Heat’s run of consecutive victories ended at 27, James complained publicly about the Bulls being overly aggressive – particularly two “not basketball plays” in which Hinrich tackled him and Gibson knocked him down awkwardly in the lane. James acted out his frustration that night, slamming into Bulls forward Carlos Boozer to earn his own flagrant foul.
But the tone was set.
Game 1 flew below the radar, Miami searching for its game and its edge beneath some layoff rust and a lack of urgency dating back weeks. But Game 2 got snarly – in the tradition of Dwyane Wade pushing Rip Hamilton into the seats last season – and Game 3 wanted to go that way, too, if not for referee Joey Crawford, and his notoriously short fuse, working as the night’s top cop.
Still, it didn’t stop Mohammed. After the backup center fouled James to prevent a fast break, the Miami star pushed back – harder – sending the bigger man to the floor. Mohammed got up and, without even realizing James had just earned a technical foul for that move, shoved back. James went reeling, lost his balance or folded in a little theatrics exaggerating the impact enough that Mohammed was a sure goner from the game. Easy ejection.
The Bulls, however, didn’t see it that way.
“From my angle, I just saw a guy basically flop,” Thibodeau said. “And … I’m gonna leave it at that.”
Only he didn’t. Asked specifically about the refs’ decision to eject Mohammed, the Bulls coach said: “I didn’t think it warranted an ejection. I understand a flagrant foul. I understand that. But an ejection? No. No. Nope.”
Mohammed said he never imagined he would get tossed, given James’ shove triggered his reaction. And that’s where the context of what had happened – the way the series has gone, the way most of the games between Chicago and Miami have gone the past three seasons – bubbled to the surface.
“I look at some plays that have happened through the series already,” Mohammed said. “Guys jumping on [Nate Robinson's] face. [A] Guy tackling Marco Belinelli out of bounds. Guy takes out Nate first play of the game. I mean, there have been a lot of plays that didn’t [get] ejections.
“I’m disappointed in myself. I let my teammates down, I could have been out there to help. I’m disappointed in myself also because my son was probably watching the game. I don’t want him to see that type of behavior on the court. But I’m also disappointed it warranted an ejection for something like a push when I got pushed down first.”
There also was a heated moment late in the first quarter when Miami’s Chris “Birdman” Anderson fell atop Robinson along the baseline and wasn’t getting off him fast enough to suit Noah. The Heat do seem to aim their falls so they land on opposing players, so Noah rushed over and shoved Andersen, as he was untangling from the Bulls guard. It was a sneak preview of the Mohammed-James altercation.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra brushed aside questions about the dust-ups, calling them “inconsequential” to the outcome. And, mostly, Spoelstra was right. Chicago could not get stops when it needed them down the stretch and the Heat got a big game from Bosh, unexpected help from backup guard Norris Cole and timely scoring late from James.
But the Mohammed and Noah incidents did matter to Chicago, same as nudge foul by Jimmy Butler on James for a three-point play that made it 99-90. The series is one of attrition for the Bulls, so more than doling out free throws, any disparity in how fouls are assessed further shortens their bench and dictates which players Thibodeau can keep on the floor, for fear of maxing out with six.
Miami can play with abandon, as the Bulls see it, because it has numbers on them. Its stars rarely veer into foul trouble – James had only three games this season of more than three fouls and never fouled out, while Wade had one disqualification and five more with more than three – and there is depth for everyone else.
“I’m watching how things are going,” Thibodeau said. “I see how things are going. I watch very closely. And what I’m seeing, we’ll adjust accordingly.”
Coming from a guy who’d rather sing the anthem pregame than make excuses or shift responsibility anywhere but within, it was telling. A sign, it seemed, that the toothache of missing players had pounded on too long.
Also telling: Noah’s reaction when asked late Friday if that March 27 game and James’ gripes about it had bled into how Miami was playing and the refs were calling things now.
“Nah, I don’t think so,” the Bulls center said.
His words said one thing. His eye roll, broad enough for Broadway, said another.