MIAMI (AP)—The road to the NBA Finals will go through Miami.
Dwyane Wade matched his career-high with 39 points and the Heat easily overcame Shaquille O’Neal’s absence in beating the Chicago Bulls 104-86 on Tuesday night, a win that assured Miami the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage for the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Udonis Haslem added 16 points and 15 rebounds before being ejected late for Miami, which has won 18 straight games at home—the league’s longest run since Sacramento won that many three seasons ago. The last East team to win at least 18 straight at home was Indiana, back in the 1999-2000 season.
Chicago, seeking its first 10-game win streak since Michael Jordan’s final championship season seven years ago, got 14 points from Andres Nocioni and Ben Gordon, and 13 from Jannero Pargo. Chicago shot 36.4 percent as a team, its fifth-worst performance of the year.
The Bulls, who will likely earn their first playoff berth since that 1998 season, were undermanned; Eddy Curry remained out with an irregular heartbeat, Luol Deng is out for the season with torn wrist ligaments and Othella Harrington missed the game to be with his wife, who’s expecting a child.
And clearly, they were missed. But Miami didn’t skip a beat without O’Neal.
The Heat made 12 of 15 shots and scored 38 first-quarter points—matching one-quarter season bests in both categories, and representing the most allowed in any quarter by the Bulls this season. And Miami’s 64 first-half points was another season high; the lead was 20 at intermission.
Damon Jones—who hit five 3-pointers and passed Tim Hardaway for the franchise’s single-season record—was 4-for-4 from 3-point range in the opening 12 minutes, and Wade added 11 as the Heat ran out to a 14-point lead.
Chicago scored the first seven points of the second quarter, and was within 44-36 with 6:55 left in the half after Gordon hit consecutive jumpers. But the Bulls missed their next eight shots, and Miami went on a 16-2 run to build a 60-38 lead with 1:40 left in the half.
In the fourth, with Chicago lurking and down by just 11 after a 22-10 run, Wade had consecutive baskets to push the margin back to 15—and join Glen Rice as the only players in Heat history to record three straight 30-point games.
The game had an ugly ending. Haslem was ejected with 2:52 left after retaliating for a hard foul committed against Wade by Nocioni.
Wade drove into the left corner and was fouled hard by Nocioni, who then struck Wade a second time—this time in the back, knocking him to the floor. Haslem charged toward Nocioni and shoved him, sending him sprawling over some cameramen seated near the baseline.
Nocioni was called for a flagrant foul and a technical. He was not ejected, but was escorted off the court by Bulls team personnel.
Of the last 35 NBA champions, 26 owned their conference’s top record. Yet Miami knows no assurances accompany the No. 1 seed; the Heat had it in 1999, but lost to the New York Knicks in the first round. … Chicago has lost 11 straight games in Miami. … The last No. 1 seed from the East to win the NBA title was Jordan’s Bulls in 1998. … The Bulls used their 12th different starting lineup of the season. … Damon Jones now has 208 3-pointers this season. Hardaway’s record was 203 in 1996-97. … Bulls G Kirk Hinrich was 0-for-7 from the field in 16 minutes, and had no assists. Miami’s starting backcourt of Wade and Damon Jones outscored Chicago’s starting guards, Chris Duhon and Hinrich, 56-5.