The Bulls will kick themselves for losing this game, although probably not as hard as I kicked my coffee table after watching Chicago blow easy shots and multiple free throws before coming entirely unglued on offense late in the fourth quarter in Wednesday night's 85-75 loss.
It was one of those dreadful shooting nights for the Bulls (which come more frequently than they should for a team with championship aspirations), shooting 34.5% from the floor, 3-20 from three and worst of all, 61% from the free throw line. This is the frustration of the Bulls, in that on the nights when shots fall they seem nearly unstoppable, only to come back a few days later unable to hit the broad side of a barn.
Credit the Miami defense, who kept Derrick Rose out of the lane and stymied any chance for the Bulls to establish an inside-out rhythm and get the ball moving from side-to-side. Rose had 21 points on 7-23 shooting and he wasn't the only Bull to struggle to find the range. Luol Deng was 5-15 for 13 points, Carlos Boozer hit 3-10 including several missed lay-ups, causing me to make a red, handprint-shaped mark on my face, and Kyle Korver, the Bulls only other consistent threat on offense, had three points on 1-7 shooting and was consistently targeted on defense by Miami.
The story of the game for the Heat was the return of Udonis Haslem, who had 13 points but more importantly provided the blue collar effort on the interior that Miami lacked in Game 1. Once he entered the game the Bulls dominance on the offensive glass came to a screeching halt and the momentum of the game turned. LeBron James carried his team offensively in the fourth, finishing with 29 points, ten rebounds and five assists and Dwyane Wade chipped in 24 points of his own.
The Bulls made a late third/early fourth quarter run with a Rose/Ronnie Brewer/Deng/Taj Gibson/Omer Asik lineup, which clamped down defensively and kept the Heat from scoring for nearly 12 minutes. Asik especially was a rock on the interior, defending the paint about a million times better than Joakim Noah, who was, frankly, ineffective on the defensive end tonight. On more than one occasion coach Tom Thibodeau chastised him for a poor play or missed block out, finally benching him before the fourth quarter. Asik might have stayed in for the duration, but was cut on the chin late in the fourth, putting Noah back in the game. Noah played well enough on offense early in the game with a nice jump hook and a beautiful high-low feed to Boozer, but the Bulls need him to anchor the defense first if they are to succeed in this series.
Ultimately, the Bulls had a shot to take this game despite their awful shooting night, but for the first time this season were out-rebounded by the Heat 45-41. Chicago still had a stellar offensive rebounding game with 17 (largely inflated by all the brick-laying), but struggled mightily on the defensive end, notching only 24 boards to the Heat's 35. Late in the fourth, after defending the entire shot clock, the Bulls could not secure a rebound when they needed it most.
It's a tough loss to swallow, as the Bulls seemed set to take the game late despite their off-night on the offensive end. Unfortunately, the Heat became the aggressors late, getting to all the loose balls and absolutely discombobulating the Chicago offense. With the series tied at 1-1, the Bulls have lost the home court advantage and will need to find a way to win one in Miami.
With an opportunity to grab control of the series and put a team with questionable resolve on its heels, the Bulls ceded the driver's seat on Wednesday night. They'll have to earn it back by beating a re-energized team that hasn't lost at home yet this postseason.
Easy as they've made it seem at times, the Bulls still prefer to do things the hard way. Such is the way of youth.