The Chicago Bulls had what may have been their greatest performance of a season full of them in their Game 1 win over the Miami Heat in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.
There are times when a sporting event can feel so large in scope that just getting the conversation started feels like a daunting task. This is rarely more true than it is right now with the Chicago Bulls taking on the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Sports are forever more intriguing when placed in the correct context, and the back story to this series is almost overwhelming. From here, it begins in late June when World Wide Wes, the man perceived to be in LeBron James' ear more than any other, boldly proclaimed "We're going to Chicago, and Chris Bosh is coming, too". These words should feel harrowing in retrospect, but that hardly proved to be the case. Everything that has happened since to both franchises -- from Derrick Rose making good on his impossible preseason MVP threat to Miami's regular season full of immense peaks and valleys - has led us to a series of games with as much hype as any in recent memory. Bulls-Heat *should* feel big, and it really does. On Sunday, Chicago turned in a performance worthy of the magnitude of the night.
There are seemingly one million compelling storylines in this series, but perhaps the most protruding pits Miami's
Big Three pair of world-class basketball assassins against Chicago's 'sum is greater than the whole' mantra. If these Bulls have a dirty secret, it's that they're so much bigger than late-game isolations for Rose: 'hero ball' may be the most thrilling formula to win games, but it's also the most unreliable. The Bulls didn't get to where they're at today because Rose carried the weight of the world, at least not directly. Chicago did it with the league's best help defense, an ambitious supporting cast, and a coach that treated every possession, no matter the score, like life and death. All of it came to a head on Sunday, as the Bulls dominated Miami in the second half to secure a 21-point Game 1 victory.
The Bulls had yet to locate the gene that carried them to the NBA's best regular season record in these playoffs, but the entire package was on display on Sunday. This was a team effort of the highest order. Their comrade was never more evident than when cameras showed Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah going wild on the bench in the early fourth quarter as the second unit continued to push Chicago's lead. While Miami pins all of its sky-high dreams on three All-Stars and prays everyone else doesn't screw it up, the Bulls place value on each member of their rotation. They're all held accountable by a coach who falls somewhere between psychotic and unsatisfiable. This is how Chicago beat Miami on Sunday: the entire team came ready to play, and the Heat simply didn't have the horses to matchup with the Bulls' depth. Chicago showed impeccable ball-movement punctuated by steady shot-making, a blustery half-court defense, and enough heady play to halt Miami's momentum before it even began. Really, the Heat never had a chance.
The Heat have proven to be at their most destructive this season when they can run. Coach Tom Thibodeau preached ball security in the buildup to Game 1, and his team followed through in a big way. After a pair of fast-break dunks by LeBron and Dwyane Wade started off the first quarter, the Bulls cut out their giveaways and began executing their halfcourt offense to the max. When the self-proclaimed 'Bench Mob' showed they weren't going to get blinded by Miami's star power, the Heat were stuck with only their uninspiring half-court offense. While isos for James and Wade may be enough to get past teams with vastly inferior talent, Chicago wasn't about to let Miami's two transcendent wings get to the rim with the ease they're accustomed to.
Taj Gibson will make highlight reels across the country for his pair of incredible slam dunks, but his fortifying interior defense was every bit as important on Sunday. He and Joakim Noah, in particular, clogged up the middle and gave Wade and James no clear paths to the lane. Luol Deng chipped in what may have been among his most impressive performances in a wonderful season: he held LeBron to 15 points on 15 shots, and supplemented his D with four three-pointers in a 21-point night. Derrick was Derrick, getting buckets whenever he needed to. Boozer did enough for the second consecutive game to calm the worries of some fans that their starting power forward was already eroding. Everyone did their part.
Yes, this is the best the Bulls have played in the post-season; hell, it may be their most impressive win in a season full of them. Chicago didn't just defeat Miami, they beat them down. You have to wonder how Miami will deal with such a decisive loss. The Bulls have now played the Heat four times this season and yet to lose. James and Wade may each be known for their cocksure attitude, but at some point, you have to figure the Bulls might be in the Heat's collective head. This didn't look like the same group that deemed themselves The Heatles just a few months ago: they were discombobulated, stymied, and frustrated. Chicago won't always have it so easy in this series, but their incredible team performance in Game 1 serves as an indelible reminder that, when firing on all cylinders, they not only can compete with Miami, they can outclass them.
This series is only getting started; we're hardly going to make wide reaching conclusions from a single game. But what a game it was. This series is important, and the Bulls proved they're fully aware of it. If they bring as much energy and enthusiasm every night, Miami might be buried before they know what hit them.