LeBron James knows that the onus is on him (Getty Images)
It’s true that the first game of a conference semifinal series isn’t the typical “shock the world”-type setting, but the Chicago Bulls truly did shock the NBA with their Game 1 victory over the Miami Heat on Monday. The Heat had won 41 out of 43 games prior to that defeat, including the team’s first round sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks, and yet a gritty, determined Bulls team managed to hand Miami its third loss in 44 tries.
With that win in place and the Heat’s ears most assuredly perked up, shouldn’t we expect the defending champs to return to form in Game 2? To startle the still-filling-in home crowd with a quick pounce and eventual blowout win? To destroy a Bulls team working without four former starters in Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton, and Luol Deng?
Sure. Then again, these are the Chicago Bulls we’re talking about.
Of those three losses in 44 attempts, two have come at the hands of these underdog Bulls. Joakim Noah’s absence in the first (regular season) defeat, somehow, didn’t matter. Deng and Hinrich’s absence in the Game 1 contest, somehow, didn’t matter. Somehow, the Bulls have put together 50 wins in 90 tries this season while working without Derrick Rose. Somehow, the team threw out a youngster in Jimmy Butler, one that barely played last season, out to just about match LeBron James’ production in Game 1, on the night LBJ was given his fourth MVP trophy.
As a result, you’re correct in not counting the Bulls out. That doesn’t mean all the pieces aren’t in place for a 30-point Heat win.
The Heat were noticeably rusty to begin Game 1, missing scores of open perimeter looks from the three-point corner, an area the Bulls are notorious for obsessing over defending. Deadspin’s Tom Ley did fantastic work in detailing just how out of sorts the Chicago defense was on Monday, and how damn lucky the team was when it came to all those Miami three-point attempts that spun out:
The Bulls allowed the fewest number of corner threes (3.8 per game) and three-point attempts in general (15.9 per game) this season. And yet there were the Heat, hoisting up 24 shots from distance. What's more, the Heat were able to get up a good number of their favorite shot (and the Bulls' anathema): the corner three. During the regular season, the Heat were the most dangerous team shooting from the corners, leading the league with 8.8 attempts and 3.8 makes per game. Last night, they took eight shots from the corners and hit three.
Where things went awry for the Heat was along the wing. They shot 37.6 percent on wing threes during the regular season, but hit only 25 percent of them last night.
But did the Heat get all of those outside shots by design or by failure? Watching each of the Heat's open three-point attempts on Synergy, I counted only three that came in transition situations and one that came as the result of a totally blown assignment. The rest were the result of how the Bulls chose to handle the Heat's small-ball lineup. When Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer, and Joakim Noah found themselves matched up against shooters like Mike Miller and Shane Battier, they chose to help crash the paint on the Heat's drives to the basket rather than stick to their man at the three-point line. But these are the sacrifices that must be made by the Bulls, who are missing their two best perimeter defenders in Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will probably conclude that Noah and Gibson, two long and versatile defenders that have done well to match up on the perimeter in the past, are more than capable of both minding the drives, and paying attention to the shooters.
Gibson, beset by both sickness and a knee injury, is not himself, as we discussed entering Game 1. And though Noah remains an inspirational figure for this Bulls team (averaging 15.4 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 3.6 blocks per game over his last five contests, playing over 38 minutes a contest during that span), he still is clearly not at one hundred percent as he works through his plantar fasciitis injury. The cover-every-angle nature of Chicago’s defense just isn’t fully there, and wouldn’t be there even if Deng and Hinrich were healthy and playing, because so much is predicated on Noah and Gibson’s ability to move.
Nate Robinson could be guarded by LeBron James in Game 2 (Getty Images)
James wasn’t settling for the sorts of long jumpers that marked his past playoff frustrations in Cleveland or with Miami in 2011, but there were several plays that left you wondering why he wasn’t better utilizing his size and speed over Jimmy Butler, or initiating more pell-mell drives to the hoop. Look for that to change in Game 2, early, which is why Butler (who hasn’t sat for a minute, astoundingly, in his last three playoff games) could finally earn some rest after picking up some early fouls.
Again, all the pieces are in place for Miami to go all-out, and destroy these Chicago Bulls.
And, again – these are the Chicago Bulls we’re talking about.
This is a team that didn’t spend Tuesday’s practice talking up its victory in monumental terms, and this isn’t a squad smitten with stealing one in South Beach. Both the Bulls coach and players likely saw all the near-mistakes that led to a potential Heat win in Game 1, and they’re looking to improve. Not coast.
Mainly because Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau can’t drive 55. From Rick Morrissey, at the Chicago Sun-Times:
‘‘There’s no magic to it,’’ Thibodeau said. ‘‘You have to put the work into winning. If you do that, you can put yourself in position to win. There are five things we always talk about and try to get established in every game: the defense, the rebounding, lower turnovers, inside-out and share the ball. [If] we do that and everyone does their job, we feel we’re going to have a chance, no matter where we are, no matter who we’re playing against.’’
‘‘He’s always ready,’’ Noah said. ‘‘He’s always prepared. He’s always going at 150 percent. There’s no denying the guy wants to win really bad.’’
Don’t expect a letdown in Game 2, then. Don’t expect the same turnout from Miami, though. The defending champs are good enough to win in a walk even with the Bulls at their best.
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