Former Heat player Alonzo Mourning was speaking to group of people at the opening of a Microsoft store in Miami when he was asked to comment on the endlessly spinning LeBron James versus Michael Jordan debate. Instead of taking a pass — probably the smartest move he could have made — Mourning said:
“You know, Scottie Pippen and I, we were just at Michael’s 50th birthday party, hanging out for a week, and we were talking. I’m going to tell you what Scottie said. I’m going to tell you what Scottie said. Scottie said that LeBron would’ve kicked MJ’s ass.”
After the expected cheering and applause, Mourning continued:
“I said, I said ‘Scottie, you’re right.’”
Following the laughter elicited by that comment, Mourning provided a little clarification:
“I said, ‘but because LeBron is my size.’ I mean, he’s 265, so when he’s playing point guard, it’s like a freight train coming. I couldn’t imagine doing the things he’s doing at my size.”
Nothing groundbreaking here. This is the standard response by people in the Pro-LeBron camp of this particular debate. Size and strength would be LeBron’s primary advantage in this theoretical one-on-one battle. But it’s all theoretical and not really worth digging into too deeply, even if people will never be able to stop taking about it.
Hey, I was a kid once, so I know action figure battles are crazy fun. When you have the toys, you want to see Hulk versus Superman. Snake Eyes versus Storm Shadow. Optimus Prime versus Megatron.
Past that, you sort of expect Mourning — who is considered one of the great players in Miami Heat history — to side with LeBron. That said, it was a little surprising that dragged Pippen into it, given that this was probably a private comment Scottie never intended to see in print. He’ll see it now.
“Michael Jordan is probably the greatest scorer to play the game. But I may go as far as to say LeBron James may be the greatest player to ever play the game because he is so potent offensively that not only can he score at will but he keeps everybody involved. You have to be on your P’s and Q’s on defense. No guy on the basketball court is a threat to score with LeBron James out there. Not only will LeBron dominate from the offensive end as well, but he’s also doing it on the defensive end, which really makes him the complete package. He’s able to get in those passing lanes, shoot those gaps and create transition opportunities where he is pretty much unstoppable.”
Naturally, the Pro-Jordan camp exploded at this seeming betrayal, and even former Bulls player Horace Grant (and good friend of Pippen) spoke up:
“Pip is my man, and we will always be close but I totally disagree. LeBron is going to be one of the top players to ever play the game. But Michael Jeffrey Jordan, who we bumped heads with at times, is I think in my era, the best who ever played the game. I’m kind of at a loss for words because Michael Jordan … when you win numerous MVPs and you’ve taken the team to six championships — and probably could have been eight if he didn’t retire those two years — and MVPs in the playoffs … and he made us better. Believe me, he made myself, Scottie, B.J. [Armstrong], even Bill Cartwright who I love, he made us better players. He gave us that confidence. But first we had to earn his trust. And once we earned his trust you saw championship after championship.”
Things got ugly enough that Pippen eventually defended himself with the following tweets:
“For all of you that don’t know, I played the game you keep watching and cheering.”
“Don’t get me wrong, MJ was and is the greatest. But LeBron could by all means get to his level someday.”
None of what any of these men said is all that unreasonable. People have opinions and they’re free to express them. Personally, I think these “versus” debates do a disservice to NBA history and the players themselves, but they’re always fun talking points…even if in the end none of it really means anything.
The Bulls went into their do-or-die Game 5 in the Miami both with and without the usual cast of characters.
Derrick Rose missed the game and by extension missed the entire season, leading at least one writer to describe his much hyped “Return” packaged by Adidas as a hoax. On top of that melodrama, Kirk Hinrich (calf) and Luol Deng (illness) never recovered enough to play a single second round game, which had to be extremely frustrating for the both of them.
Meanwhile, four starters — Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Nate Robinson — logged 40+ minutes, with Robinson sitting for less than a minute and a half and Butler again going the full 48.
The only surprise of the night was the unexpected resurrection of Rip Hamilton. Not only did Hamilton log 35 minutes off the bench in place of an increasingly ineffective Marco Belinelli, he scored 15 points on 12 shots and compiled a game-high plus-minus score of +12.
The Bulls were coming off the worst offensive performance in their playoff history, so virtually anything would have been an improvement, but they were actually pretty effective on offense. thanks largely to strong games from Boozer (26 points, 10-for-19, 14 rebounds), Robinson (21 points, 4-for-7 on threes, 6 assists) and Butler (19 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals), the Bulls scored at a rate of 108.7 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference).
And, believe it or not, the Bulls were in good position to win this game.
Despite a disastrous first seven minutes that saw them fall behind 22-4, the Bulls did what these Bulls have done for the entirety of the Tom Thibodeau era.
They refused to panic.
By the end of the first quarter, Chicago trailed by only nine points. After outscoring Miami 32-17 in the second quarter, the Bulls took a six-point lead into halftime. That lead expanded to 11 points (75-64) with just under two minutes left in the third quarter. And it seemed like the miraculous was about to happen.
Then Miami cranked up their intensity.
On offense, the Heat went to their old standbys. Shane Battier knocked down two threes thanks to a couple drive-and-kick moves by LeBron James. Norris Cole had a brief hot streak, hitting from 17 feet and then serving up a facial at the rim. Dwyane Wade — who had to retreat to Miami’s locker room between the third and fourth quarters to have his knee re-taped — emerged from his funk to hit two of his patented running one-handers and later had a putback dunk of a missed Cole jumper. And between all those plays, LeBron was directing traffic, driving the ball and drawing fouls.
In all, the Bulls were outscored 24-15 in the fourth quarter but still managed to be down only three points and have possession of the ball with 26.4 seconds left. Unfortunately, Thibodeau had already used all his timeouts, and the Bulls were forced to freelance on that final possession.
It was not a smooth possession by any stretch of the imagination. The Bulls players were running around helter skelter in a frantic attempt to get any kind of clean or dirty look at the rim. Robinson squeezed off a three-pointer that missed badly, but Boozer corralled the offensive rebound. The ball ended up in Butler’s hands. After freeing himself up with a few ball fakes, Butler jacked a triple of his own, which also missed badly. Robinson somehow ended up with the rebound, but there wasn’t enough time left to get any kind of shot.
Said Noah: “We kept fighting. And kept fighting.”
Added Boozer: “We grinded it out. We had chances. We just fell a little bit short.”
Just a little bit short in this game. And a lot short in this series.
And yet, despite the loss, Chicago’s performance in this final game far exceeded expectations. Which is something the Bulls had been doing all season.
Said Thibodeau: ”Obviously we’re disappointed in losing the series. But I was never disappointed in our team. I thought our team fought hard all year long. There was no quit in them.”
Added Boozer: “We’ve got warriors here. If we’re healthy next season, we’re going to be pretty good.”
Of course. But good enough to defeat the Miami Heat?
ESPNChicago’s Nick Friedell doesn’t think so. Not as presently constructed. Of course, the Bulls won’t return next season as presently constructed.
For starters, barring an unforeseen calamity or setback, Rose should return in 2013-14.
Furthermore, Hamilton probably won’t be back — the third year of his contract isn’t guaranteed and I just can’t see the Bulls paying Rip $5 million next season — leaving the former Piston to wistfully consider what might have been.
Said Robinson: ”I would love to [come back]. Honestly, I really would. But knowing the guys that we have here, I know it’s probably limited space for me, but we’ll see how it goes. [I'll] talk to my agent and stuff like that and figure out what’s the best plan for me. God has blessed me this far [to] continue to play the game that I love. I love this team, I love these guys, and if I could stay here it would be wonderful.”
Although Robinson had a strong season and was often the team’s best offensive player, there are several reasons the Bulls might not bring him back. For starters, there could be a logjam in a backcourt that includes Rose, Hinrich, Butler (at times), Belinelli (if he is re-signed) and Marquis Teague.
Will the Bulls — a notoriously fiscally responsible team (read that: cheap) — want to pay him? Especially if they end up bringing Belinelli back?
And will Belinelli be back? Management likes his skill set, but Marco shot a career-low 35.7 percent from three-point range, and his Effective Field Goal Percentage also dipped to a career-worst mark.
Then too, the Bulls desperately need more three-point shooters. They ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 29th in attempts this season. That won’t cut it in today’s NBA. And anyway, Rose will need shooters to space the floor for his drives, assuming he returns to anything like his old form.
There are big questions and big if’s heading into this offseason. And, for better or worse, most of the improvement will have to come from within. The Bulls don’t have the financial flexibility to sign any high-caliber players, and they still wouldn’t be able to do so even if they used the amnesty provision to offload Boozer’s contract, so you can probably expect Carlos to return for at least one more season. My guess is that the Bulls will amnesty Boozer in the summer of 2014 when Deng and Hinrich’s contracts come off the books.
So while the roster will likely be shifted around and tweaked where possible, management will probably field mostly the same team with an eager eye toward the following offseason. Meaning the Bulls and their fans will have to rely on improved health, internal development and maybe one or two key role players who might be able to contribute.
To what result? Nobody knows.
Said Noah: ”It’s hard right now because we just lost. And it’s always hard to sit here knowing that your season’s over but there are a lot of positives. We’re a young team that has experienced a lot at a young age. When you see what a guy like Jimmy Butler brought to the table. … We’re going to come back healthy, we’re going to be able to compete with these guys for a long time and I think that one day we’ll get our shot.”
In pretty much a must-win game, Chicago put in its worst performance of the year, as well as one of the worst postseason games in the franchise’s history. Now they find themselves in a true must-win situation, facing elimination as they hit the road.
You can’t blame the Bulls too much, I guess, considering the number of injuries they are fighting through and that their third string point guard, who is known only for scoring, wouldn’t have been able to hit a shot on a Fisher Price net (which is more his size, actually).
Nate Robinson went 0-12, the Bulls shot 25.7 percent as a team, scored just nine points in the third quarter and finished with 19 made field goals. Oh and the Bulls point guard combo of Nate and Marquis Teague scored more points for Miami (two) than for Chicago (zero).
Tom Thibodeau was so desperate for offense that he played Rip Hamilton 22 minutes. Rip hadn’t seen the floor since Game 6 of the Brooklyn series—a series in which he played ten total minutes. So Rip Hamilton played 22 minutes in a single game after playing ten minutes in a seven game series—a series which included a triple overtime game. And the worst part about it: Rip ended up as the Bulls’ third leading scorer.
“Nobody said this was going to be easy,” Robinson said. “We’re professionals for a reason. We’ll go back to the drawing board and figure it out.” I’m not sure what the Bulls can draw up that will win them three straight games, unless Vladimir Radmanovic turns into a LeBron James clone. I’m not ruling that out, but I’ll say it’s unlikely.
The worst part about Chicago’s Game 4 no-show has to be the timing. Not just that it came at home in the postseason, but because this was a very winnable game. Miami didn’t play all that well, but then again, they didn’t have to. Dwyane Wade continued to struggle, finishing 3-10 from the field with six points. Chris Bosh shot well (7-10), but didn’t have a huge stat line (14 points, six rebounds). Norris Cole wasn’t hitting everything in sight (2-4, seven points). And Shane Battier could have been a member of the Bulls with his shooting (1-6).
“I don’t want them looking backwards,” Thibodeau said. “I don’t want them looking ahead. Just lock into the game that’s in front of us and concentrate on winning that game. We know we’re capable.”
The Bulls seemed capable to make this an entertaining series coming in and actually stole home court after Game 2, but they’ve lost the three games in this matchup by an average of 23.3 points per game. Too much might be piling up against the Bulls: too much talent on Miami, too many injuries for the Bulls.
Kirk Hinrich, still dealing with a calf bruise, and Luol Deng, recovering from an illness, are both expected to be out of Game 5.
It’s not just Game 5 the Bulls need to win now though. It’s Game 5, Game 6 and Game 7…against the defending champs. It’s been an uphill battle all year for Chicago, playing without their best player, working through a variety of injuries to a number of different players, but this particular hill is too big to climb.
There aren’t any moral victories in the playoffs, and if the Bulls continue to play like they did at home in Games 3 and 4, there won’t be any actual victories either.
If the Bulls do go down, they’ll go down fighting. But I tonight is their last game of the season, let’s just hope they shoot at least 30 percent.
MVP (Most Valuable Player): LeBron James did what an MVP does. He recorded 27 points (9-20), seven rebounds, eight assists and two steals. The Bulls as a team recorded just 12 assists, although Chicago only had 19 baskets—so not many chances to get an assist.
LVP (Least Valuable Player): No one player earned this. It should go to the entire Bulls team. They started 1-12 from the field, were even worse in the third quarter (more on this in the next section) and put up some historically bad numbers. Nobody shot well for the Bulls, who went 25.7 percent from the floor. Nate Robinson did go 0-12 from the field, so only a handful of people in history shot worse than him. We really shouldn’t be surprised that Nate came crashing back down to earth.
Defining Moment: The nine points in the entire third quarter are probably a pretty good summary for this game. The Bulls went 2-13 from the field in the third frame, or 15.4 percent. They also turned it over seven times for good measure.
X factor: The Bulls point guards score scored more points for Miami (two), than for Chicago (zero). Shout out to Adam Reisinger for pointing this out. Marquis Teague tipped in a pass on defense to score two points for the Heat, but went 0-2 at the end he was actually supposed to score. That was nothing compared to Nate Robinson’s 0-12, though.
That Was … history: The Bulls set franchise records for fewest points and lowest field goal percentage in a playoff game. Their nine third quarter points were also a franchise low for the postseason. It was the worst shooting percentage for a playoff team since 2004 (Hornets, 24.4 percent). The Bulls worst playoff field goal percentage coming into tonight was 31.1 percent against Detroit in 1990.
In short, that was one of the worst playoff performances ever. At least he Bulls have an excuse of being injured. This very long, frustrating season could have just one game remaining, as the series heads back to Miami.
On the defensive side of the ball, Chicago forced the Heat into exactly what they wanted: midrange jumpers in Game 3. The only problem is, Miami didn’t get the memo that they were supposed to miss those shots—or at least not all of Miami did.
Tom Thibodeau’s game plan worked against LeBron James, who went just 1-7 from midrange. That’s 14.3 percent. James didn’t have a great shooting night from the field, going 6-17, but hit all 11 of his foul shots and added eight boards and seven assists because he’s LeBron James. Stopping the MVP is where it starts, but that’s just part of the battle.
Miami’s third banana, Chris Bosh, hit 5-9 from midrange, and went 8-16 overall. As a team, the Heat hit 50.0 percent of their midrange jumpers (13-26), nearly 10 percent better than the league average from the area.
The unfortunate part of all this is that Chicago did a very good job of defending the rim. The Heat went just 11-21 (52.4 percent) at the basket, almost 20 percent lower than their season average. Miami led the league in field goal percentage at the rim, hitting 71.5 percent of their shots from in close, according to Hoopdata. LeBron shot a staggering 77.7 at the rim on the year, but the Bulls held him to 50 percent (3-6) last time out.
Unfortunately the Bulls couldn’t capitalize because of the midrange jumpers mentioned above and the fact that Stephen Curry is wearing a Norris Cole skin-suit for this series. Cole is a perfect 8-8 from three in the three games, and was 6-7 overall in Game 3, contributing 18 off the bench.
So what can the Bulls do next game? Well, maybe closing out on Cole at the three point line a little quicker would be a start. But other than that, they probably won’t change much. Chicago will always give their opponent the midrange jumper, because it is the least efficient shot in the game. They showed this in the Nets series, when Brook Lopez hit three consecutive 20-footers but there was absolutely no change in the way they defended it.
They don’t want to give up easy shots, which they didn’t in Game 3, although the Heat did get to the line 30 times. The Bulls also want to run you off the three-point line, which they didn’t do great, but when the defense is over-compensating for LeBron James some open threes will happen. Also when Nate Robinson is on the court or when Carlos Boozer has to guard a small forward.
The Bulls were right there, they just faded down the stretch, which isn’t surprising considering their short bench. Don’t expect them to have any more healthy bodies for Game 4.
According to K.C. Johnson, Luol Deng couldn’t practice on Saturday without throwing up, and on Sunday stopped after just warming up.
“I did some individual work (Saturday) and I started throwing up a little bit. I couldn’t finish the workout,” Deng said, probably with a trash can within reach. “I tried to practice with the team (Sunday) and the same thing. My body, my system is not reacting well to anything I’m doing right now.”
Of course to Thibs, this mean Deng is “day-to-day.” I can’t believe they haven’t shut down Deng when he is having trouble eating solid foods.
Kirk Hinrich didn’t do much either, riding a stationary bike and getting a few shots up and is officially the same status as Deng.
With that news, Chicago will have the same guys healthy to play as they look to even the series at two games apiece (presumably with more than just two and a half minutes of Nazr Mohammed).
Among the “things that went right” for the Bulls was Carlos Boozer finally getting word that the second round started. Boozington scored 21 points on 10-16 from the field after scoring just 14 points in the first two games combined. He was finally being somewhat aggressive, and it paid off when he did. Boozer went 4-4 at the rim and 7-8 overall in the paint. If that right there doesn’t jump out to Boozer to start getting to the hole, then I don’t know what will. And while he was 7-8 in the paint, he was just 3-7 from midrange. That’s not a terrible midrange percentage, but he often has a size advantage in this series and he needs to take advantage of that (without throwing elbows and getting called for charges).
Don’t wake the beast: The Miami Heat are 10-0 following losses in Game 1 of playoff series during the Big Three era. After dropping Game 1, they won four straight against Chicago in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, four straight against the Thunder in the 2012 Finals and have now won two straight against the Bulls in this series.
MVP (Most Valuable Player): In a game where LeBron James (6-17 field goals) didn’t shoot great and Dwyane Wade (ten points) disappeared for stretches, Chris Bosh picked up the slack. He had an enormous double-double with 20 points, 19 rebounds and added two blocks and four assists for good measure.
LVP (Least Valuable Player): Carlos Boozer finally showed up and got himself out of the LVP spot. But it was quickly overtaken by Nazr Mohammed. And I mean quickly. Nazr got himself tossed after playing just 2:31 in Game 3. He committed an odd foul on LeBron at mid-court, and then when LeBron was about to get a technical, Nazr decided it would be best to push James down. Nazr got tossed and it did the Bulls no good.
X factor: Going into the series, the Bulls’ biggest worries were Bosh, James and Wade. Well, add Norris Cole to that list because he hasn’t missed from three yet. Cole is averaging 14.3 points per game and is shooting 80 percent from the field. When you’re over-compensating for LeBron James, someone is going to be open and it shouldn’t be Ray Allen. But if Cole keeps knocking down shots, the Bulls’ will have to make an adjustment.
X factor 2: The Bulls held Miami to 52.4 percent at the rim, which is 7.5 percent worse than the league average (and the Heat have a guy named LeBron James). That is a huge win for the Bulls and the focus of their defense. However, Miami hit 50 percent (13-26) from midrange, nearly 10 percent better than the league average. The Bulls executed their defensive scheme, but Miami, led by Bosh, was hitting the shots they were given. If a team is connecting at that rate from midrange, it’s going to be tough to beat them. When that team is the Miami Heat, it’s even tougher.
That was … better: Heading into the fourth quarter, the game was tied. But Chicago got outscored by ten in the final frame, which has to do, at least partly, with rest. Following Game 2’s blowout loss, the Bulls responded well and even though they didn’t get it done, they stuck right with the defending champs. If Miami hadn’t been hitting so well from midrange, the Bulls could be the ones with a 2-1 series lead.
Hold on one second, I’m still adding up all the fouls from last game. 51 personal fouls, nine technicals, two ejections and one flagrant. According to my math that adds up to…one lopsided victory.
Lots of people said this is what “playoff basketball” is all about, but it’s a stretch to say that what the Bulls were doing for parts of Game 2 can be considered basketball. Chicago shot 35.5 percent, while Miami hit 60.0 percent from the field. Look at any stat from Wednesday night and the Bulls would be losing in it, unless it was “players thrown out.” Thanks for that Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson (although when they got tossed the game was out of reach).
“Not only Joakim, but our entire team,” Thibodeau said. “We’ve got to do better, do a better job with that. You can’t get sidetracked. We know how it’s going to be called. We’re not going to get calls. We just got to be tough mentally, physically, emotionally. We’ve got to be a lot stronger.”
Although the calls didn’t go their way, and probably won’t even with the series shifting to Chicago, the Bulls might gain something out of getting under Miami’s skin. Anytime LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and company are thinking more about a hard foul or revenge than playing basketball, that’s an advantage for the over-matched Bulls. Chicago won’t get the superstar calls in this series, but they can irritate those superstars and hope to know them out of their game.
But this time, Chicago needs to keep their cool and know when to stop, because they can’t afford to lose anyone to an ejection with all of their injuries.
Luol Deng probably won’t be able to go again. “I don’t know. I want to play, but I don’t know what I can do,” he said. “I just, I haven’t done anything.” Deng apparently lost 15 pounds because of his recent illness. I think the Bulls should play it safe and shut Deng down. It’s not worth risking his health any more. Losing that much weight in such a short amount of time is bizarre.
But of course, that won’t happen. “Still day to day. He’s feeling a little bit better,” Tom Thibodeau said. “We’ll see tomorrow.” I don’t know if Thibs is just pretending like he will play Lu to mess with Miami or whether he thinks Deng might actually be healthy enough to go. I truly hope it’s the former. Everyone praises Thibodeau’s never say die attitude—it’s gotten them to the second round of the playoffs and tied 1-1 with the Heat—but this is a case which you should worry about the player more than the game.
The 15 pounds loss is scary, but the fact that this is still lingering for Deng is even worse. “I’m weak and I have headaches,” he said Thursday. “When I’m moving around a lot, my headaches increase.” Sounds like facing the Heat would be the perfect answer to this, right? The timing is unfortunate, but Deng looks to be out the rest of the series.
While on the topic of injuries, Kirk Hinrich had a second MRI on his calf and is still listed as doubtful.
No Deng means Jimmy Butler is stuck with the task of guarding LeBron James the rest of the way. LeBron had his way in the first quarter of Game 2, going 6-6 for 12 points. For the game, James was 6-7 at the rim, 0-2 from midrange and 1-3 from beyond the arc. It’s easier said than done, and it takes an entire team, but keeping James away from the basket is going to be the key for Game 3.
Not only does he score at a high rate at the rim, but when he drives the defense is forced to collapse, which leads shooters open. Miami, who as a team was 24-29 at the basket, also hit 50 percent of their threes. That was up from 29.2 percent in Game 1.
Stopping Miami is just part of the battle, because if the Bulls can’t score like they couldn’t in Game 2, the defense won’t matter. Only Marco Belinelli and Taj Gibson made more than four field goals in the game and Gibson (4-6) was the only Bulls player with more than five field goal attempts to shoot 50 percent or better. Miami had six such players. Chicago’s offense doesn’t have any secrets–Nate Robinson has to create, Butler and Belinelli have to hit open shots and Noah has to facilitate.
But the guy who has been a no-show so far in the second round is (not surprisingly) Carlos Boozer. Boozington is 6-20, and even though he is being guarded by Shane Battier for stretches, he refuses to drive. Boozer has to stop settling for midrange jumpers, especially if it’s not falling. If he doesn’t start putting the ball in the basket somehow, the Bulls could be in for another possible blowout.
“It’s just one game,” LeBron said. “Even though you got dominated the game before and you didn’t do things right, it’s still one game. You don’t get two wins if you win by over 30 or over 40. You only get one game.
The Bulls got dominated in Game 3, but it’s still an even series and Tom Thibodeau has always been good at getting them to respond to losses—and after Chicago was embarrassed last time out, they should be hungry to prove they deserve to be here.
MVP (Most Valuable Player): LeBron James pretty efficiently sliced the Bulls defense, scoring 19 points on 7-12 from the field, and also posted five rebounds and nine assists. He did this all in 32 minutes. Unlike in Game 1 where LeBron was content to facilitate early, the MVP was attacking from the start Wednesday night. James was 6-6 for 12 points in the first quarter, with two assists and two steals.
LVP (Least Valuable Player): Pick your favorite (or least favorite) Chicago player. Carlos Boozer was 3-9 and refused to drive to the basket even though his jumper was off and he had Shane Battier guarding him for stretches. Non-savior Nate Robinson showed up, as he went 3-10 and turned the ball over four times. Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson both lost their cool and got tossed in the fourth, long after the game was lost. Marco Belinelli shot 4-13 as no Bull scored more than 13 points.
X factor: The Bulls pride themselves on defending the paint and the three-point line. Tonight they did neither.Miami scored 56 points in the paint, compared to just 18 for the Bulls. As a matter of fact, the Heat had 16 points in the paint in the third quarter, nearly topping Chicago’s effort for the game in 12 minutes. And after missing lots of open shots in Game 1, Miami shook off the rust. They hit 9-18 from deep, led by Norris Cole (4-4).
That was … terrible: It was the Heat’s largest margin of victory in a playoff game, as well as the Bulls’ largest margin of defeat.Chicago shot 35.5 percent, while Miami hit at a 60.0 percent clip. Miami had 29 assists, the Bulls had 17.Every stat was in favor of the Heat except “number of players tossed.” With all that said, this only counts as one loss and the series is even going back to Chicago. The Bulls have a lot of adjustments to make, but that’s what Tom Thibodeau does.
No Deng, no Hinrich, no Rose? No problem. Against the Miami Heat, winners of 41 of their last 43 heading into Game 1? Seriously, no problem. The Bulls have Nate Robinson, Jimmy Butler and Marco Belinelli to fill in after all, that should be more than enough. And surprisingly to outsiders, it was enough as the Bulls took Game 1 and stole home-court advantage from the top seed.
It’s hard to say how many believers this team has outside of the actual members of the team.
The Bulls have every right to be content with where they are in the playoffs. No one expected them to win 45 games in the regular season with all their injuries. No one would have blamed them if they had failed to make the second round without their star player and with others facing injuries as well. This season is already considered a success—but the Bulls continue to fight and scrap because they aren’t content.
That starts with Tom Thibodeau, who, for good and bad, never thinks the Bulls are out of a game. And Joakim Noah has had the same mindset his entire career. Nate Robinson has it as well. He also believes every shot he takes is going in, which causes problems. Although, if there is one thing the Bulls have needed this year it is just that: a confident scorer.
Robinson came up huge in Game 1, scoring 29 points, including the final seven for the Bulls, to go with nine assists and ten stitches in his busted up lip. Robinson’s scoring, Jimmy Butler’s defense and Noah’s everything helped the Bulls pull off the huge upset because not a single one of those guys will back down.
And because of that mindset, Chicago has had recent success against the Heat. In Miami’s last 44 games this season they are 2-2 against Chicago, and 39-1 against other teams. At this point, the Heat know the Bulls go all out every time they meet, so there is no excuse for Miami to get caught off guard.
Even though the Bulls struck first, they still have a ton of work left—and history is not on their side. In each of the other two times the Heat fell behind 1-0 in a playoff series in the Bosh/James/Wade era, they went on to sweep the next four games. That includes last year’s NBA Finals, with the Thunder, as well as the last time the Bulls met the Heat, in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“We haven’t lost in a while, so it was very different to come in here and deal with a loss and to deal with it in the playoffs at home,” Wade said after a practice. “It was different from the standpoint of what we’ve been used to lately, but not anything different from what we’ve been used to as a team. We’ve been in tough moments. We’ve lost games before.”
Although the Heat have obviously lost before, the Bulls did some things that Miami hasn’t seen much this season. Chicago scored 35 points in the fourth quarter, the most the Heat have given up in a quarter all year. Miami also shot 39.7 percent from the field, it’s second-worst showing this season.
All eyes will be on Miami tonight, to see if they make the adjustments necessary to even the series, and that starts with hitting open shots. Shane Battier, normally reliable from deep went 2-7 from beyond the arc as Miami struggled overall, shooting 7-24 (29.2 percent) from long range.
Jimmy Butler will have the task of slowing LeBron James again after doing a solid job of it in Game 1. James wasn’t looking for his shot early, seeming content to be a facilitator (he finished with eight assists). That changed in the second half, as James finished with 24 points and got to the line nine times. Luol Deng has not yet made it to Miami, so he will join the team when they return to Chicago. Whether or not he will play in this series is still unknown.
Kirk Hinrich is a game-time decision for Wednesday with his calf injury, but is considered doubtful to play.
Playing without guys has become old hat for the Bulls. Let’s see how they do playing from in front.
If you’re currently experiencing an intense and overwhelming feeling of stunned amazement at what they Bulls are doing in these playoffs, don’t be alarmed.
It indicates only that you are still sane.
You know the drill by now. The Bulls are a depleted team. No Derrick Rose. Kirk Hinrich is day-to-day with a bum calf. Luol Deng had a spinal tap last week and tweeted a picture from his hospital bed last night. Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis) and Taj Gibson (knee) are playing through injuries. Gibson and Nate Robinson recently battled the flu.
All that and two days after winning a do-or-die Game 7 on the road, the Bulls had to face the defending (and presumed future) champs in Miami.
Mission impossible, right?
Never impossible. Not with this group. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau ripped the page with the word “quit” right out of the team dictionary, burned it, and buried the ashes.
At times, Thibodeau’s mantra of “more than enough to win” has seemed laughable in the face of the many injuries and misfortunes that have plagued the Bulls this season. But it instilled a sense of commitment and responsibility in every player on this team, from the front of the bench all the way to the end of it.
Take Nate Robinson.
The Bulls signed Robinson last summer as a last-minute afterthought. He was supposed to be a part-time player at best. With Rose and Hinrich both out, Robinson started at point guard, playing 40 minutes and 29 seconds. Little Nate finished with game-highs in points (27) and assists (9). He had more free throw attempts (10) than LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined (9). According to ESPN Stats and Information, Robinson became the fourth Bulls player in the past 25 seasons to have at least 25 points and 9 dimes in a playoff game, joining Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, and Scottie Pippen.
Not bad company. Especially considering Robinson is doing it for a little over $800,000 this season.
But wait, there’s more. Robinson scored or assisted on 25 of Chicago’s 35 fourth quarter points…and he scored 7 in the team’s 10-0 run to close the game. His clutch performance made him the only player in the last 15 seasons with at least 11 points and 6 assists in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. All this despite getting 10 stitches mid-game after busting his lip in a loose ball collision.
Said Thibodeau: ”He got knocked around a little bit, couple stitches, it’s all good. Get out there and get it done. … He’s about as confident as they come, and that’s the thing that makes him good. If he misses a shot, he has a very short memory. He always thinks he’s hot, never afraid, and will step up in a big situation. He has the courage to take and make.”
Now take Jimmy Butler.
Forget Robert Downey Jr. Butler is Iron Man. Incredibly enough, the second year man out of Marquette has played the full 48 minutes for three straight games, making him only the fourth player since the NBA-ABA merger to go the limit in back-to-back-to-back playoff games (per Elias Sports Bureau). In his previous two games, he spent those long minutes guarding Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Last night he guarded LeBron and D-Wade all night. While contributing 21 points (on only 13 shots) and a game-high 14 rebounds.
Said Butler: “It’s all about being tough. We’re always going to be the underdogs. We take pride in that. Everybody can overlook us, but we feel like we’re good enough to hang with a lot of these teams. I talked to Lu before the game. He was like, ‘Take up his space, make everything tough for him, challenge every shot.’ Of course, no layups. I feel I don’t want to give layups to anybody, make them earn it from the stripe. Lu’s going to rest up and we want him back. But until (then) I guess I’ll be stuck guarding him.”
As Huey Lewis might tell Butler: The Bulls and their fans are happy to be stuck with you.
Said Noah: ”I’m really proud of him. [He's a] young player, but he played huge against the best. He’s like a brother and to see him shine the way he’s been shining in these playoffs … I knew he was ready but the sky’s the limit for that kid.”
Added Gibson: “He’s really talented and he goes out there and does the job, doesn’t talk back, just grits it out each and every night and he’s getting better each game I think. … He understands his role, he understands what this team needs. Whenever we’re down we can always count on Jimmy. Without Lu in there Jimmy just stepped up big and we just helped him. Whenever a guy needs help, we just help each other out.”
Helping each other out. That’s what this team does.
Whether it’s Noah with a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 1 blocked shot) and great interior defense, or Marco Belinelli hitting the boards (7 rebounds) to make up for his poor shooting (3-for-10) or Gibson giving the team a big lift off the bench (12 points, 4 rebounds, 1 blocked shot, +9).
And there there was the defense.
In the first quarter, Miami was held to only 15 points on 5-for-19 shooting. They improved only marginally in the second quarter (8-for-20). The Heat did shoot 50 percent (10-for-20) in the third quarter, but they were only 8-for-19 in the fourth, including 0-for-5 in the final two minutes.
For the game, Miami shot a miserable 39.7 percent, including 29.2 percent from three-point range.
Most importantly, the Heat converted only 59 percent of their shots at the rim, per Hoopdata. Mind you, Miami led the league in field goal percentage at the rim during the regular season at 71.5 percent.
The Bulls played great individual and team defense, but much of the credit goes to Noah and Gibson, who both protect the paint and can switch out on perimeter players better than most big men in the league. Just ask Ray Allen and Shane Battier, who combined to go 4-for-14 from the field and only 3-for-11 from downtown.
Maybe the Heat players were simply rusty after a long layoff. They did miss several open shots in the early going. But the Bulls also dominated the glass, outrebounding the Heat 46-32, with a 26.5% to 15.9% advantage in Offensive Rebounding Percentage (per Basketball-Reference). In fact, Butler (14 boards) and Noah (11 rebounds) both outrebounded Chris Bosh (6 rebounds), Udonis Haslem (3 rebounds) and Chris Anderson (1 rebound) by themselves. Rebounding is about effort. And Chicago simply fought harder than Miami in this game.
Said Robinson: “I’ve played on some tough teams, but this one is a little different. There’s something special about this group. For me, it feels like we’ve been playing together 10 years. We love to play for each other, regardless. A couple of times in the game me and Jimmy had miscommunications and he told me on a switch to make sure to go under, little things like that. You make adjustments and you don’t need the coach to tell you. He’s younger than me and is telling me that. He’s helping me out. That’s how it is with each guy on the team. It makes it easier to go out and play, and it’s fun. I love the energy and passion. Teammates joke with me and it gives me confidence to go out and play with energy. I love the energy and passion. This is probably the best season I’ve had with this group of guys. God is good. I’m blessed and thankful to be on this team.”
And Chicago fans are blessed and thankful to be rooting for this team.