. 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.
CHICAGO – Symbolically at least, the changeover crew at the United Center should have left the hockey boards up for Game 3 of the Chicago Bulls’ Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat Friday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Given how significantly the intensity and physical play were dialed up for Game 2 in Miami – a 115-78 Heat victory that not only stuck the Bulls with the most lopsided loss in their NBA playoff history but punked them, too – the shift to Chicago’s home ice, er, court figures to ratchet up again.
“Because of the technicals and ejections, there might be a perception it’s going above and beyond basketball – it’s not,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You have two physical teams. Type A personalities.”
Two alpha dogs that don’t particularly like each other. “They don’t like us. We don’t like them,” LeBron James said. “We have to carry that same aggression, that same attitude into Game 3.”
The Bulls got worse than they gave in Game 2, from the scoreboard, from the stats sheet (pounded 56-18 in the paint, coughing up 28 points on 19 turnovers), from the referees (six technical fouls and ejections of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson) and from Miami in general in first strikes and aggressiveness. The Heat presumably won’t show up Friday night with Birdwoman – the snarling blonde matron who displayed her singular talent in Noah’s face – but they will have Birdman Andersen, as well as a roster full of defending champs and first-time ring seekers eager to meet their first serious road challenge of the postseason (Milwaukee, for two quick games in Round 1, was embarrassingly hospitable in every way).
Meanwhile, the Bulls — already undermanned without Luol Deng (illness), Kirk Hinrich (bruised calf) and Derrick Rose (knee rehab) – will have to calibrate their physical play; they don’t have the manpower to absorb needless ejections, technicals or personal fouls. They will, however, have crowd muscle in their packed, raucous arena.
For fans at the United Center, upraised middle fingers are part of the daily commute, so they’ll be antsy to up the ante or, at least, the decibels. And as far as that league-wide trend this season of Heat “hate” dissipating – in apparent appreciation of James’, Dwyane Wade‘s and other Heat players’ excellence, along with more folks in Miami garb infiltrating more buildings – let’s just say Chicagoans never got that memo.
It’s a potentially combustible mix: a road team determined to not get pushed around the way it did last time in the UC (the end of Miami’s 27-game winning streak), some cranky hosts ready to assert home court, a boisterous, Friday-night crowd primed to play some role in the series and three referees bringing fresh eyes to a pivotal contest toting two games’ worth of baggage.
Somewhere within that Chicago will have to find ways to protect the rim better – a 41-28 rebounding disparity and no blocks/few altered shots against the Heat’s heavy interior attack proved fatal, even before all the jawing and theatrics at ref Scott Foster and his crew.
“I don’t want to put it on the officials,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “If it doesn’t go your way, you can’t allow it to impact your next play. You can’t allow it to get you sidetracked so you don’t do your job. You have to have the ability to do your job all the time. You have to have great concentration.”
One area of concentration for Miami after Game 1 was Nate Robinson, the fireplug Chicago guard who was a reasonable Rose facsimile that night (27 points, nine assists, 10 free throws). Heavy defensive attention from James never was needed, but the Heat’s own point guards and other defenders made life more miserable for Robinson. He finished with 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting and four turnovers to two assists.
“They’re the world champions for a reason and they played like it,” Robinson said. “We just flat-out sucked.”
At the other end, Miami had to be please that it played fast, hit 3-point looks that clanged off in Game 1 and shook some extra rust off Wade, who scored eight of his 17 points in the decisive 30-15 third quarter. He shot 7-11, hitting his final six after a 1-for-5 start.
In personnel, the series grinds on as a mismatch – Miami boasting three of the top league’s top 20 players (and No. 1 overall), Chicago missing three guys from its preferred eight-man rotation. In intangibles, the Bulls do have the homecourt edge now, though United Center was where the Heat snuffed Chicago’s postseason in Game 5 of the 2012 East finals.
“It’s more than just not liking them,” Noah said. “It’s just two teams that want to win.”
So expect contact. Expect booing. Expect basketball. Expect whistles. Expect whining. Expect double-digit leads and comebacks. Expect single-finger salutes, too – right now the series stands 1-1-1.
If there’s any player participating in the Eastern Conference semifinal series between Chicago and Miami who could afford to lose 15 pounds in a week, it might be the Heat’s Chris Andersen. And even then only if it was all ink.
Instead, it was Bulls forward Luol Deng reporting that sudden weight loss — just one of the ill effects of his battle first with illness and then with complications of a spinal-tap procedure performed last week to rule out viral meningitis. Deng, a two-time All-Star, has not played since Game 5 of the first round against Brooklyn, his condition worsening and requiring multiple trips to the hospital after his body was found to be leaking spinal fluid from the initial diagnostic procedure.
He underwent a “blood patch” treatment to stop the leak but told reporters at the Bulls’ practice facility in north suburban Chicago that he had lost 15 pounds and still was suffering from headaches as his body heals from the ordeal. As Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald reported:
Deng appears to be on the mend, but his body is low on spinal fluid, which surrounds and helps protect the brain. There’s really no telling when he might be able to play basketball again.
“I wish whatever you take out, you could put it back in,” Deng said. “It’s just your body’s got to make the fluid back up. I’m doing everything I can. I’m staying hydrated. The biggest thing is, really, eating. I’ve got to try to get my appetite back and eat as much as I can.”
Coach Tom Thibodeau called Deng’s status day-to-day, but there’s no chance he’ll play in Friday’s Game 3 against Miami at the United Center. After that, the teams will get two days off before Game 4 on Monday, and even that seems unlikely for a return.
Not having Deng – an all-purpose player on whom Thibodeau leans more even than a healthy Derrick Rose – is just one of Chicago’s manpower problems. Rose remains out — despite countless rumors, criticism and backlash defenses — from the knee injury he suffered April 28, 2012. Rose’s replacement, Kirk Hinrich, had a second MRI exam on the calf bruise that has sidelined him since Game 4 vs. the Nets.
Then there was forward Taj Gibson, who was waiting to hear if the NBA would further penalize him after his ejection from Game 2 at Miami Wednesday. Gibson probably will be fined for his profane outburst at referee Scott Foster and slow departure from the court but it’s possible the league could suspend him for a game.
The Bulls’ suffered the worst playoff setback in franchise history at AmericanAirlines Arena Wednesday, falling 115-78 as the defending champion Heat pulled even at 1-1 in the best-of-seven series.
HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – With each of the four conference semifinals tied at 1-1 (for the first time since this round went to seven games in 1968), it’s a great time to mine the lineup data provided by NBA.com/Stats for trends, anomalies, and whatever information might be useful … or at least interesting.
The eight teams remaining have only played between six and nine games, so we’re not looking at very big sample sizes here. But small sample sizes are all you have to go on in the playoffs. Decisions have to be made on how players or player combinations have played in that series and against that opponent. Even if you include numbers against the opponent in the regular season, that’s at most four additional games of data.
We’ve already seen some of these teams change lineups mid-series. And sometimes, like when the Dallas Mavericks decided to start J.J. Barea in Game 4 of the 2011 Finals, a lineup change can make a big difference.
So, as we take our first day off of the playoffs, here are some notes from 53 games worth of postseason lineup data…
It was a plus-48 in the first round and a plus-5 in both Games 1 and 2 of the conference semifinals. The problem, of course, is that the Indiana bench stinks. In 216 minutes, all other Pacers lineups have scored 93.1 points per 100 possessions and allowed 105.8, for a NetRtg of -12.7 in the postseason.
Indy coach Frank Vogel talks often about his emphasis on defending without fouling. That’s key to not only keep the Pacers’ opponents off the line, but also to keep their starters on the floor.
Over their eight playoff games, every Pacer starter has a positive plus-minus and every sub has a negative one. So maybe the Pacers can benefit as much from three days off as the banged up Knicks can, with an ability to use their rested starters for heavy minutes in Game 3 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).
Time for OKC to go small?
Setting a minimum of 35 minutes played, the best lineup (offensively, *defensively and overall) of the postseason has been Oklahoma City’s small lineup of Reggie Jackson, Derek Fisher, Kevin Martin, Kevin Durant and Nick Collison. This unit of two point guards, two scoring wings, and a versatile big has outscored its opponents by 46.5 points per 100 possessions and had its best run in Game 6 in Houston, outscoring the Rockets 31-20 in 14 minutes. It was a plus-7 in seven minutes of Game 1 against the bigger Grizzlies, but Scott Brooks didn’t use it at all in Game 2 on Tuesday.
If you remove Nick Collison and just look at the four smalls together, they’ve been just as effective (OffRtg: 130.2, DefRtg: 80.9, NetRtg: +49.3) in a slightly larger sample of 51 minutes (43 against Houston and eight against Memphis).
With Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder have other small-lineup options. And thus far against the Grizzlies, they’re a plus-13 in 14 minutes playing small. They’re a minus-17 in 82 minutes playing big and their starting lineup (Jackson, Sefolosha, Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins has shot a brutal 13-for-47 (28 percent) in its 28 minutes together.
That, of course, will be something to keep an eye on as the series heads to Memphis for Saturday’s Game 3 (5 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Small works in the other West series too Both Gregg Popovich and Mark Jackson changed their starting lineups for Game 2 in San Antonio on Wednesday, moves that worked out better for the Warriors. Their (small) lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut is a plus-17 in the series (plus-12 in Game 2), the second-best mark of the conference semifinals thus far.
It was a mini lineup of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw that pulled off the Spurs’ amazing comeback on Monday, racking up a plus-13 in 10 minutes over the fourth quarter and two overtimes. With Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter healthy, Popovich didn’t use that lineup at all in Game 2.
Supersubs in Chicago
Obviously, Wednesday’s blowout in Miami makes for some funky lineup numbers in that series, but the Bulls do have a lineup – Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah – that’s a plus-14 over the two games (plus-13 in 16 minutes in Game 1 and plus-1 in three minutes in Game 2). It was a plus-7 in 21 minutes in the first round and was a strong plus-20.3 points per 100 possessions in 129 minutes in the regular season. If Kirk Hinrich and/or Luol Deng return for Game 3 on Friday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), it will be interesting to see how much time that lineup plays together going forward.
A change of fortune in Miami The Heat had a killer lineup – Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh – that Erik Spoelstra used rather sparingly (only 112 minutes), but outscored its opponents by 30.3 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. That lineup was a plus-12 in 10 minutes in the first round against Milwaukee, but is a minus-13 in six minutes in the conference semis, having allowed the Bulls to shoot 6-for-9 (3-for-3 from 3-point range) in the closing minutes of Game 1.
Offensive struggles in New York The best offensive lineup in the regular season (minimum 200 minutes) was the Knicks’ lineup of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, which scored 119.3 points per 100 possessions in 269 minutes together. With Kidd, Smith and Anthony all struggling, that unit has scored just 86.6 points per 100 possessions in 18 playoff minutes, and has been even worse defensively.
MIAMI – The Derrick Rose Watch is in its final hours, so all that huffing and puffing that the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat heaped onto Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series at AmericanAirlines Arena wasn’t all for naught.
It served to move Wednesday night closer to Thursday morning, which gets everything more quickly to Friday’s Game 3 tipoff, the point at which this long rehabilitative sideshow ends once and for all. Either the Bulls’ injured point guard goes for something Hollywood and steps through the darkness onto the court at United Center to a booming embrace … or he emerges again after another pregame shooting session in a suit and sits his way straight into the offseason.
Truly, it is now or it is never. There can be no middle ground.
The “never” part of that equation should have won six weeks ago but has shown itself to be a tough out. Months of daily talk shows and Twitter timelines keep alive the chatter of Rose coming back. This weekend will officially become 12 months after surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee.
The waiting game sucked most of the air out of the Bulls’ regular season – remember, the conventional wisdom suggested Rose would be back in late February or early March – and here it is, still laying claim to what at times has been a remarkable postseason precisely because of his absence.
But it all ends Friday night. Fortunately. (more…)
MIAMI – While much of the NBA still is in its introductory phase with the Chicago Bulls’ fresh small forward/shooting guard – meet Jimmy Butler – LeBron James and the rest of the Miami Heat have moved on to the next stage of a young player’s career.
That is, beat Jimmy Butler.
Butler, a second-year guy out of Marquette and the last player drafted in 2011′s first round, earned some serious individual acclaim for the Bulls’ team victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series Monday. Matched up with the reigning MVP, Butler pestered James, stuck to him as much as possible and funneled him toward help defenders when he couldn’t. All if it contributed to a performance in which, yes, the Heat superstar eventually burst through for 15 points in the fourth quarter but was contained to just nine prior to that.
Butler did well at the other end, too, scoring 21 pints on 5-of-13 shooting and getting to the foul line 10 times, more than James (nine) and Dwyane Wade (zero) combined.
Oh, and he played every second of the Bulls’ 93-86 victory in the series opener, the third straight game – dating to Game 6 against Brooklyn in the first round – in which he has logged 48 minutes. So often, given his reputation and world-weary ways, Wade is the player who seems like the new “hardest working man in show business,” in need of some James Brown crew and robe to get helped to his feet. But lately, it’s been Wade’s fellow Marquette product in the J.B. role.
“To be able to play that many minutes in a row, obviously a lot of guys can’t do that and still be aggressive on the offensive end and defensively be able to guard different guards,” Wade said as Game 2 Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, TNT) approached. “Obviously he has [something special]. That’s why Marquette chose him.”
Butler admitted he’s a little tuckered. But he added: “You learn to fight through it, when you do it so often. And it’s easy ’cause you have guys on your team that are in your corner when you are tired. You look at Lu [Deng], he does that 82 games. It’s definitely tough, but it’s all about your mental state. If you know in your mind that you can do it, your body will follow.” (more…)
Who’s your favorite playoff underdog, the Warriors or Bulls?
Steve Aschburner: The Bulls. Being based in Chicago, I’ve seen this team more than any other — and most of the time, it is overcoming some injury, mishap, illness or absence. It’s no longer just a Tom Thibodeau phenomenon, their coach stubbornly and without excuse driving them through adversity. It’s the whole team manning up without Derrick Rose, without Kirk Hinrich, without whomever, and new guys without much track record for grit (Marco Belinelli) or selflessness (Nate Robinson) pulling on the same rope as if they’d been in that locker room for years. From Game 7 in Brooklyn to their Game 1 on Miami’s court, the underdog Bulls already have experienced a level of exhilaration and accomplishment that talented, three-star championship teams never know.
Fran Blinebury: You love these “Which of your children do you like best?” questions. Let’s face it. While we can admire and respect the work ethic, the attitude and the intensity of the Bulls, what little kid ever grew up in the backyard or on a schoolyard fantasizing about grinding out possessions and getting bloody fighting for rebounds? In the game of our dreams, it’s all about being Steph Curry hitting ridiculous, unbelievable shots from anywhere on the court, Jarrett Jack being utterly fearless, Klay Thompson getting it done at both ends and everything being played at warp speed. I’d be happy to watch the Warriors play into June, July, August or September.
Joakim Noah (by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)
Jeff Caplan: No question it’s the Bulls. Hey, I love the Warriors just like everybody else, but they’re essentially a young, healthy team (Brandon Rush was lost at the start of the season) on the come and led by an emerging superstar. They’re a great feel-good story, but the Bulls have proven time and again to be the ultimate warriors. How in the world is this banged-up and depleted club, one that keeps absorbing blows — a spinal tap gone wrong for Luol Deng, I mean, WTH? — in the second round and up 1-nil on the champs. Because nobody outworks the Bulls. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Scott Howard-Cooper: I’llgo Golden State, even with the running start of Bulls 1-0 and Warriors 0-1. Chicago is pretty special at dealing with, or even ignoring, adversity, but is still bigger underdogs than Golden State. The Warriors are closer to the Spurs in talent level, have the hottest hand of the postseason (Stephen Curry) and are doing fine at ignoring as well. The Warriors had more of a chance from the start. One game doesn’t change that, for either option.
John Schuhmann: Well, the Bulls are the true underdog, aren’t they? They’re facing the defending champs, the world’s best player, and a team that had lost just two of its previous 43 games before Monday. They’re a M.A.S.H. unit of injuries and illnesses. They’re carried offensively by a guy who’s barely taller than Sekou. Their best (active) player has a ponytail, wears le coq sportif shoes, and shoots a jumper like he’s playing paper football. And they have the most disheveled-looking coach in the league! This is no contest.
Sekou Smith: This is a tough one. It’s like asking who do you like better, Miss America or Miss Universe. You’re right no matter who or what you choose. I love the Warriors’ style and the fact that Steph Curry can turn a game upside down in minutes with his scoring and shooting. But my pick is the Bulls. Any team capable of doing the things they’ve done, under these circumstances, has earned my attention and the favorite status. Tom Thibodeau has turned the bottom third of his roster into a wicked playoff machine over the the past five days. They’re doing it with defense, fueled by the relentless Joakim Noah and the surprising Jimmy Butler. But they’ve also got the best fourth quarter scorer in the playoffs (Nate Robinson) driving the bus late in games. How can you not love what the Black-and-Blue Bulls are doing?
Lang Whitaker: The Warriors are obviously fun to watch, but it’s hard to root against the Bulls. They’ve got more guys missing than they have healthy, or at least it feels that way. Also, the Bulls have a cast of characters who we’ve seen try and fail with other franchises, from Nate Robinson to Marco Belinelli, so it feels as though there’s some great quest for redemption. Also, it doesn’t hurt that their coach, Tom Thibodeau, looks like he’s being played by the King of Queens, Kevin James.
What do you make of Miami’s Game 1 trip? What’s ahead in this series?
Steve Aschburner: Rust. A dearth of games with urgency not just in recent days but recent weeks. And an adrenaline-charged Chicago squad. Those things conspired against the defending champs in Game 1. I expect that Miami will snap back to form — most talented, most dangerous team in the NBA — and advance in no more than six games. I just hope it’s earned on the floor, not with a parade to the foul line. Also, the Heat’s stars need to be careful, because whining about no-calls and even winning too gleefully might cast them as bullies again against the plucky-underdog Bulls, just when we all thought the “hate Miami” theme had run its course.
Fran Blinebury:The Bulls, the layoff, the fact that despite the absurd standard to which the Heat are held, really nobody wins them all. Come in off the ledge. Miami in six, maybe even five.
Jeff Caplan: I attribute it to a remarkable effort by the Bulls’ players and coaching staff. Miami had a long layoff and didn’t bring the proper focus and determination to get the job done against one heck of a stubborn opponent that is going to bring physical play and hard effort as long as it’s on the floor. I certainly expect the Heat to bounce back, understanding that Chicago — and I’d give the Bulls more of a chance if it seemed at all that Luol Deng will be healthy but it does not — is going to mentally and physically exhaust them for the full 48. In a seven-game series, the more talented team is going to come through and I fully expect the Heat to advance in six games.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Well, stuffhappens. The Bulls played like a team on a mission — as Tom Thibodeau clubs do — and the Heat played like a team that has had opponents aiming for them every night since November. It was wrong to think they would go undefeated in the playoffs. It is not wrong to think they will regain control of the series and win.
John Schuhmann: It was pretty obvious that the Heat were out of rhythm after an eight-day layoff. That put them in a grinder of a game with the Bulls, a situation that no one wants to be in. They still had a chance to win, but Dwyane Wade forgot that he’s one of the worst 3-point shooters in NBA history. I expect them to win the series in five or six games and it wouldn’t surprise me if they win the next two by 15-plus.
Sekou Smith: The cause for the Heat’s Game 1 performance was a nasty mix of the Chicago Bulls, the long layoff after the first round sweep of Milwaukee and a classic case of fat cat syndrome. Heat star Chris Bosh was the only guy willing to say it out loud. But the Heat couldn’t get the car out of cruise control against the Bulls. All the trainingcamp style practices in the world cannot prepare you for a physical and feisty opponent like the Bulls coming at you from opening tip to final buzzer. The Heat thought they had things under control late but miscalculated. I expect them to be fully prepared for what comes next in Game 2 and the remainder of this series, which I predicted to go six games with the Heat advancing.
Lang Whitaker: The thing about the Heat losing Game One wasn’t that they weren’t prepared — they got the shots they were looking for, including a bunch of those corner threes that Chicago defends so preciously. They just didn’t make a lot of those shots. Also, defensively the Heat can (and will) make some adjustments, such as using LeBron in a way that he’s not just standing around on the help-side and instead will be actively defending the ball.