'The playoffs are a grind' may as well be some sort of childhood parable: It's a true-to-life sports lesson you're taught at a young age, usually the hard way, as if there is any other kind. In the Bulls' virtually flawless second half against these star-studded Miami Heat in Game 1, that allegory may have gotten buried beneath of a barrage of three-pointers, offensive rebounds, and poster-worthy slam dunks. Dare I say, Game 1 was downright easy. Chicago went on a run in the third quarter, and proceeded to step on Miami's collective throat the rest of the way to finish with a 21-point victory. But for as mesmerizing and cathartic as the Bulls' debut performance in these Eastern Conference Finals proved to be, it was also something of a false idol.
Look no further than the way LeBron James reacted after the Heat's second round series clincher against the Boston Celtics: this man's talent has always been on full display, but for perhaps the first time in his career, that post-game celebration -- while totally over-the-top -- proved James isn't messing around like last year. There's a real sense of urgency here, a Championship(s)-or-Bust mentality birthed after the game's best player became its most hated over the summer. LeBron and Dwyane Wade will not go quietly in this post-season, that much is for sure. If there's a lesson to be learned from Game 2, it's this: sit back and strap it down, as the immortal Hawk Harrelson is prone to say, because these Eastern Conference Finals will not lack an ounce of drama. Tooth-and-nail, scratch-and-claw, whatever. These games will be tense, these games will come down to the wire, and these games will likely not provide an enjoyable viewing experience. This is playoff basketball, man, and the playoffs are a grind.
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In games with stakes as high as these, sometimes the truth can be buried. That wasn't the case last night. Chicago only made 3-of-20 three-point attempts, shot a pathetic 61 percent from the foul line, and failed to dominate the glass in the way they did in Game 1. Just looking at their final number -- 75 points -- makes my eyes bleed in a game of this magnitude. After scoring 26 points in the first quarter, the Bulls would score just 29 in the second half. Their 10 fourth quarter points were the lowest in franchise history. This list can run for days, but you get the point: for an offense as limp as this one, it's a wonder that Chicago had any sort of chance late in Game 2. When the final buzzer sounded, that 73-73 mark mid-way through the fourth seemed like it was from a game played months ago.Chicago simply couldn't put the ball in the basket if Bob Love's life depended on it, and therein lies their downfall.
It's been no secret that these Bulls are an offensive weapon short, though the at times transcendent play of Derrick Rose, the league's best defense, and that gaudy regular season win total certainly provided a good amount of cover. Still, how will this team score if Rose can't do it, when 'hero ball' is stuck in neutral? It's been a lingering question stuck in the back of my mind for some time, however the moments immediately following Game 2 may have been the first time I ever took it seriously. Miami shut down Derrick Rose, and, in turn, Chicago's offense, in the most terrifying way possible: they rotated both Wade and James onto the point guard, as Rose struggled at times to even get the ball past the three-point line.
These aren't only the two most prolific scorers in the league, they might also be the two best half-court defenders. LeBron and Wade are taller, stronger, and longer than Rose, and they aren't trailing by much in either the quickness or speed department. Sam Smith dropped the Jordan and Pippen comparison today at Bulls.com, and, in a sense, he's not far off. The 90s Bulls were deemed The Doberman's because Michael and Scottie fully dedicated their tremendous athletic gifts to the defensive end. If James and Wade are to do the same, and if Rose is their sole focus in late-game situations, how are the Bulls to conquer that?
Even still, that 73-73 mark in the fourth is the silver lining. Chicago's shot-making was perhaps as piss-poor as it has been in 2010-2011, and yet they were right there with the vaunted Miami Heat late in the fourth quarter. The Bulls won't miss 17 three-pointers again this series, you can bank on that. I'm willing to bet they won't shoot below 65 percent from the charity stripe, either. As Rose said after the game, they even missed a lot of easy two-pointers they're accustomed to making:
"But I missed a lot of layups, shots that I normally hit. They just weren’t falling tonight. Everybody was missing easy bunnies that we normally hit..... Me missing lay ups, Booze, everybody just missing shots that we normally just… that’s normally just easy for us.....I missed a lot of shots that I normally hit. It was just one of those nights, I guess."
One of those nights, indeed. If Chicago is to get past Miami and reach the NBA Finals, though, Rose and his teammates better make sure they don't have too many more of those nights left in them.
As long-time TUP readers know, I'm allergic to the rhetoric of sports talk radio. I won't be listening today at all. If I had to guess, however, I'd imagine the callers are about on their deathbed after Game 2, if anyone in this city really gives a care about professional hoops in the first place. I even saw one tweet last night from a Bulls fan that said 'It's over, Miami's winning in five', and I didn't pick up any trace of sarcasm. I can't say I'm in the same boat, though. While losing the homecourt advantage is a major blow, the Bulls can overcome it. They can win this series. My confidence really hasn't changed much from the opening seconds of Game 1.
Chicago now must go into Miami and steal a win. The home of the Heat is hardly a treehouse of horrors; I have full faith that Tom Thibodeau will make the proper adjustments, that those three-pointers will begin to fall, that Rose will make the shots we're accustomed to seeing him make. For as discouraging as Game 2 was, the Bulls can still do this. It won't be easy, it won't be fun, but it's still right there in front of them. Miami is a tremendous opponent, but they're beatable, even with Udonis Haslem in tow.
If there's a bummer in all of this, it's that we have to wait all the way until Sunday to get this awful, no-good taste out of our mouths. The Bulls have to live with it, too. Knowing the way this team is wired, I wouldn't bet on another sub-standard performance in Game 3.