MIAMI – It was an explosion that led to an implosion, an unloading that led to an unraveling, a torrent that led to torment. The game was ugly, the score was ugly, and the behavior was ugly, but the ugliest truth for the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday was this: You cannot out-tough the Miami Heat in a seven-game series.
Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, a 115-78 rout by the defending NBA champions, included nine technicals, a flagrant, and two ejections. It etched itself in the record books for both franchises, as the biggest win in Heat playoff history and the worst loss in Bulls playoff history. The lasting image will be Bulls forward Taj Gibson threatening his own immediate playoff future by cussing out referee Scott Foster on his way to the locker room after getting thrown from the game. But the lasting image should be the stone-faced silence of LeBron James, the man who frustrated the Bulls so much that all the visitors could do was yell and scream and leave town.
“Once frustration set in,” Bulls forward Jimmy Butler said after the blowout, “everything went downhill.”
In a way, the tone was set for Game 2 on Tuesday night, as James showed up at a Miami gym without any teammates to get a between-games workout in. He camped out in a studio with a couple of trainers, working on his lateral movement and his lower body strength, bands slung tightly around his waist as he stretched. Outside the room, a gaggle of women waited for their 8:30 p.m. dance class. James, full of focus and intensity, concentrated on every movement while everyone outside snuck glances at the NBA MVP.
He would not be bothered Tuesday, and he would not be bothered Wednesday. James barreled right at the Bulls from the opening tip, storming the lane against Butler and anyone else who dared stand in front of him. He scored 12 points in that first quarter, against only two in the entire first half of Game 1. Butler drew an early foul and James smelled blood, pouring it on while the Bulls scrambled for a strategy that never materialized. James’ most stunning play came late in the first quarter when he leapt along his own baseline to steal a cross-court pass intended for Nate Robinson. He gathered the ball, dribbled up court, and then took flight again for a tomahawk dunk.
The Bulls tried to stop him, but how exactly does a team do that? Even when he eases off the throttle – he finished the night with 19 points and nine assists – the Heat's ancillary contributors are dangerous as well.
So the Bulls lowered shoulders, shoved, stared and preened. Eventually that gave way to shows of anger, verbal and otherwise. Joakim Noah was tossed in the fourth quarter, even before Taj Gibson’s second-half flurry of F-bomb fury. Frustrated after the game while talking to the media, Gibson broke out six more expletives. He insisted he didn’t even remember what set him off, saying he was “just trying to talk” to referee Foster and “get his insight on the play.” A few minutes later, left alone after the glare of the camera lights went off, he calmly said, “I wish I held my composure a little better.”
He likely also wishes his team held the lane a little better. The most drastic difference between Game 1 and Game 2 was in the paint. In Game 1, the Bulls had 16 points in the lane before the Heat had 16 total points. In Game 2, Gibson admitted, “The ball got into the paint too easy; they were real aggressive getting to the basket.”
Aggressive, but never aggrieved. James had plenty of chances to lash out at the physical play and the gamesmanship. He never bit once. That was very much on purpose. “We have our game,” head coach Erik Spoelstra said, “tough, physical, clean. We tell them to promise yourselves you’ll compete at the highest level with composure.”
James put it even more succinctly, saying the sideshow “had nothing to do with basketball.”
It was a far cry from the rattled expressions on the faces of the Heat players in Game 1. Dwyane Wade admitted he and James got far too upset during that loss, and their issues trickled down to teammates.
“We let too much stuff get in our way,” Wade said. “If something happens, line up, shoot the free throws, move on.”
Can the Bulls move on? They might have to do so without Gibson, as his verbal onslaught will certainly command the attention of the league office. But even if he is fined and not suspended, there is no ready response for James if he plays like this for the remainder of the series. The whispers about Derrick Rose’s return from injury will amplify as the teams move to the Madhouse on Madison, but not even Rose could save these Bulls in Game 2. At one point, the Heat went on a 62-20 run. They led by as many as 46.
The Bulls were at their best in Game 1, and that was enough to get the needed split in Miami. But Game 2 showed the gulf in class between the two teams. James, Wade and Chris Bosh were lulled into cruise control by romping through the last three months of win after easy win.
“Going three months without adversity is new for us,” Wade said with a knowing smile.
The adversity is back, and along with it comes the kind of edge the Heat employed on its championship run a season ago.
The Bulls had that edge in Game 1. The question is: Will James and Co. allow them to regain it?
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