Bulls corral LeBron, win Game 1

CHICAGO – The unfolding of the past several days had played out perfectly for a hoarse coach desperate to find a second wind and second act for these Chicago Bulls. They had the NBA’s coach of the year, executive of the year and Most Valuable Player. They had the best record in the NBA, an unbeaten regular season over the Miami Heat, and somehow still Tom Thibodeau had done what should’ve been unthinkable: repackaged and resold his Bulls as the underdogs, the ne’er-do-wells, the formalities on LeBron James’(notes) and Dwyane Wade’s(notes) march to immortality.

As the Heat danced on the graves of the Boston Celtics on the shores of Biscayne Bay, declaring the source of ghosts and goblins gone, the Bulls privately bristled and believed something to their core: Nowhere else would the Heat meet a worse matchup, a blurring, blitzing blend of defensive ferocity and scheme. Nowhere else would the Heat’s star find a test like these Chicago Bulls.

Had these Heat come to the Eastern Conference finals expecting a coronation, a victory lap on the resurrection of a jagged season, the Bulls were waiting in the shadows of a dark alley, waiting for the whistling Heat to come strutting around the corner and catch a 2x4 upside their heads. Every day the Bulls are reminded that they were the bargain-bin leftovers in free agency, the holdovers still on the roster because James, Wade and Chris Bosh(notes) declined full scholarships. All that aggression, all the anger, all that belief bottled was delivered in a devastating 103-82 Game 1 victory at the United Center on Sunday night.

Just one game, just a 1-0 series lead, and yet the Bulls’ statement was unmistakable: They hadn’t exorcised demons against the Celtics because the Heat had yet to truly confront them in Chicago. All over the floor, the Bulls hammered the Heat. All over the floor, they were met with body blows, box outs and Thibodeau’s tried-and-true defensive schemes. Thirty-one demoralizing points had from second-chance baskets, offensive rebounds and tips kept alive. It spoke to the Bulls’ brawn and bravado.

Those isolation plays for James and Wade were met with resistance on the ball and on the way to the basket. Feet shuffling, hands probing and muscle waiting in the lane. Together, James and Wade missed 20 of 32 shots and never had a chance to steal Game 1 in the fourth quarter. No rhythm caused them to miss shots they often make, and gang defense made them miss contested shots late in the shot clock.

The Heat’s offense is constructed for Thibodeau’s defense. As one longtime associate said, “When has Tom ever lost a series to a team running delay isolation in the playoffs? Even with the Rockets, they lost to the Utah Jazz. Ball movement can attack the defense, but not isolation. It doesn’t work.”

Wade knew it was true, too. “We need to move the ball and make them work.”

The ball died in James’ hands on Sunday night, and died in Wade’s too. And when it was over, the Bulls ripped more pages out of the coach’s playbook. Boring, bland quotes deflecting praise, promising better.

“We’re going to have to clean some things up,” Thibodeau grumbled.

“We got lucky in some ways,” Kyle Korver(notes) said.

“It’s only one game,” Joakim Noah(notes) said.

This was perfect for Thibodeau: Kick the Heat’s backside and immediately retreat into the preferred role of the humble, unaccomplished underdog. One by one, the rest of the Bulls fell into cliché. This was a classic Thibodeau victory for the Bulls, replete with Derrick Rose(notes) delivering an MVP moment when no one else was watching. At halftime, it was 48-48 and Rose was livid with himself. He had turned the ball over too much, gifting easy fast-break baskets for the Heat, and this inspired a locker room confessional.

Rose stood up and declared: This is on me. I apologize. He promised to take care of the ball, and he did. Eventually, he had 28 points and six assists for the Bulls. Eventually, the game belonged to the Bulls. And yet, it was ultimately the teammate with whom Rose expressed such inordinate faith this summer – Luol Deng(notes) – who made the biggest difference. When Rose refused to beg James to join the Bulls, part of his unwillingness to recruit basketball’s most needy free agent was borne from his loyalty to Deng.

Deng guarded James brilliantly, leaving him with a 5-for-15 performance with four turnovers in Game 1. On the other end of the floor, Deng delivered an efficient 21 points. He's developed into a personification of Thibodeau's system, infiltrated through body and mind. For Deng, Thibodeau has had transformative powers. For the first time in his career, the Bulls are getting everything out of him, tapping his full promise.

“In the past, a lot of people just looked at the scoring part of the game,” Deng said. “And a lot of the other stuff that I do were kind of ignored or neglected. But with Thibs, he just kept me focused on those little things.”

No one has a bigger burden in this series, because it won’t be enough for Deng to exert himself on James defensively. Rose also needs him to be a strong second scorer. All that Game 1 reminded the Heat – reminded everyone – was that this will be a long series, that the Heat were kidding themselves to compare the Celtics and Bulls. Chicago does something that Boston could no longer do: take things away from the Heat, force them to fight through resistance.

Despite his terrific performance, Bosh was kidding himself when he refused to differentiate between Boston and Chicago’s defense. “It’s all the same,” he said. No, it’s something else here. And the Heat know that, because they’ve lost four straight times to it this season. Only, this one mattered the most. Only, this was the start of the playoffs and Thibodeau, the NBA coach of the year, and Rose, the MVP, had sold the rest of these Bulls – sold themselves – on the notion that they had been disrespected and discarded.

James had ended the conference semifinals bowing down on one knee to honor the beating back of his ghosts against the Celtics. This time, the Bulls are threatening something else, threatening to bring him to both knees. Just one game, yes, but the truth tumbled down onto the floor of the United Center, and it had to leave the Heat wondering how they could’ve ever believed they had left demons in their postseason wake. Boston’s fading, but the Bulls are on the come. The Bulls are the Big Three’s worst nightmare.

Demons? Bogeymen? For LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and these Heat, maybe they’re finally facing them now.