Chicagoans have never been accused of being short on civic pride, with buzzwords like 'grit', 'toughness', and 'resilience' serving as a sort of unofficial syllabus for so many local sports fans who champion this city's blue collar. Those values are passed onto our athletes, no matter where they're imported from. It's all kind of silly, mind you, but I can't help but think this unwritten code is buried somewhere deep in the heart of these Eastern Conference Finals. Miami is the perfect foil for our great city in so many ways: their sports fans show up late, bail when the bandwagon isn't hot, and simply just don't *care* as much as Chicago does, as if any metropolis could.
Such ideals are said to be embedded in each of these teams, too. The Bulls have been lauded all year for their old school, defense-first approach, and their ability to grind out wins. The Heat? A bunch of mentally fragile jokers who are more concerned with their suntans than offensive sets. But if one thing became clear in Miami's Game 3 victory over the Bulls, it's that these Heat aren't nearly as brittle as Chicago would like to believe. It appears Miami isn't going to sabotage itself any time soon in this series. Time for the Bulls to turn to Plan B.
If there was a team that lacked focus on Sunday, it was Chicago. I feel like I've jotted down 'no offensive rhythm' in my notes for nearly every game during this playoff run, and it was particularly evident last night. Chicago's tight execution of several staple offensive sets has helped this team overcome its scoring issues throughout the season, but they looked more disjointed than ever in Game 3. There was a real lack of cohesion. Errant passes, poor spacing, and an apparent lack of communication led to several offensive possessions in the second half that resembled a bad playground game. Nearly every trip down for Chicago felt taxing. Credit Miami's stellar half-court D, sure, but the Bulls won't find success against an opponent as good as this one until they can convert a healthy amount of easy buckets. Save for the second half of Game 1, it hasn't happened much.
Yes, Chicago is struggling because of its offense, no matter what their head coach believes. The Bulls were able to persevere past their glaring shooting guard hole this season mostly due to the excellence of Derrick Rose, but it's becoming more of a problem as the post-season continues and the competition gets stiffer. As Blog-a-Bull noted, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson and Keith Bogans *combined* for 12 points on the evening, a disadvantage too sizable to overcome when Rose isn't at his most destructive. The MVP was again kept in check last night, finishing with 20-5-5 in what may have been his quietest game of the playoffs. The Bulls were revered this entire season for their ability to grind out wins, but this makes it two games in a row when a modest margin at the beginning of the fourth quarter turned into an insurmountable one within a few minutes. Perhaps the formula only works when their star can bail them out in late game situations, and lately, it hasn't been happening. Rose was nearly non-existent in the fourth, and his teammates simply don't possess the firepower to match wits with the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
So the question becomes -- and really, has been -- who will score for the Bulls besides for Rose? It's the most hotly debated topic of this post-season, save for the T-Mobile girl. In Game 3, Carlos Boozer turned in his best game of the playoffs with 26 points and 17 rebounds, but still caught flack from pundits who argued his baskets weren't 'meaningful' or 'impactful' enough. I'm not sure what that even means; they all count the same, you know, but even if Boozer's return from the dead is here to stay (not banking on it quite yet), Chicago still needs to find supplemental scoring. There was a time not long ago when Kyle Korver was connecting on 80 percent of his three-pointers in these playoffs, but that feels like years ago now. Korver has been a non-factor throughout this series, and was a borderline embarrassment last night after getting clowned by LeBron on a late fast break. Joakim Noah could once be counted on for around 12-15 points a night as well, but has provided nothing offensively against the impressive interior defense of Joel Anthony. While Luol Deng hit some big shots, he'll have to score more than 14 with the rest of this troupe struggling so much.
Alas, I've ignored his stupid face for as long as possible, but we can't close the book Game 3 without mentioning the work of the Heat's embattled power forward. For as long as people will talk about Miami's win last night, it will be known as the Chris Bosh Game. This series started with Boozer's 'two great players' comment, and here's hoping those words don't read as apocalyptic when it's all said and done. While the Bulls kept James and Wade in check -- at least by their own lofty standards -- Chicago had no response for Bosh. He simply couldn't miss from the field, converting a number of jumpers and finishing a few more around the rim thanks to quality feeds from LBJ. Let the record show that Boozer's 26 points do not matter if he gives up 34. While this isn't the day to rip into Boozer, his complete inability to defend his man is a real drain on the Bulls' title hopes. You pray Bosh won't remain so hot forever, but if he does, Chicago could find it nearly impossible to defeat these Heat three more times.
So here the Bulls sit, down 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, with a larger-than-life Game 4 in Miami set for Tuesday. I don't need to tell you it's the biggest game of the year, that much should be clearly written on the forehead of Tom Thibodeau by tip-off time. Still, the Bulls came to Miami only needing a split, and they still have an opportunity for that. This team hasn't lost three games in a row the entire season. This would be an awful time for that to change.
If you're looking for a ray of hope, it has to be that for all of the Bulls' struggles the last two games, they remained very much alive until deep in the fourth quarter. Game 4 will be no cakewalk either way, you can be sure of that. After riding with this team for nearly 100 games, I have faith in them to pull out a crucial victory. But until Rose gets his gets his groove back or his supporting cast finds its pulse, the cards will be stacked against Chicago. If it doesn't happen soon -- read: right now -- there may not be enough minutes left in the season to right the ship.