CHICAGO – For most of his basketball life, Pat Riley had watched the game’s greatest talent destroy him in the final minutes of Eastern Conference playoff games. It was Michael Jordan who obliterated his championship chases with the New York Knicks. Now, these somber, silenced Bulls fans were pushing past the emperor of the Miami Heat in Section 120 of the United Center, trudging to the exits. LeBron James(notes) had gone pure M.J. in the final, furious minutes and one of those shiny championship rings of Riley’s sparkled as he clapped in the gathering silence on Wednesday night.
This had been the James that Riley and Erik Spoelstra had demanded to see this season: Engaged everywhere, electric with the ball and on the defensive grind. Derrick Rose(notes) had come and snatched James’ MVP trophy this season, and now LeBron had unleashed his most resounding counterpunch of the season. Big shots, big stops, big boards in a telltale Game 2. Whatever the Heat needed, James delivered in this 85-75 victory that tied the Eastern Conference finals 1-1.
This was something straight out of Jordan’s postseason playbook for LeBron. He gladly took turns defending Rose, a point guard, and held him to a putrid shooting performance. Miami needed him on the boards after the Heat’s Game 1 rebounding debacle, and he ended up grabbing 10 out of the cluster of brawny Bulls bodies. Most of all, James delivered nine of his 29 points in the final 4½ minutes, including the 3-pointer that pushed the Heat to a late lead they would never lose.
This was clutch, winning basketball out of James. As closers go, this was pure Jordan, pure heartbreak.
Most of all, James undid the damage of a Game 1 loss to the Bulls. Gone was the Bulls' lockdown defense on James and Wade on Wednesday night. Gone was the dominance on the offensive boards. Gone was the perfect record that these Bulls had on the Heat this season. And gone is home-court advantage in these Eastern Conference finals.
All along, this was the Bulls' fear: They couldn’t muster the scoring to fight the Heat over a long series. And when the Heat’s defense makes Rose miss 16 out of 23 shots, holds him to two points in the fourth quarter, Chicago’s doomed. Carlos Boozer(notes) is killing the Bulls now, the $75 million man with seven points and a seat on the bench in the fourth quarter. If Chicago can’t get its offense going at the United Center, what’s to think it can shoot much better in Games 3 and 4 in Miami?
This was a night to deliver a message to the Bulls: When the Heat defend at their highest level, the Bulls will struggle to find scorers to survive the James-Wade onslaught. And with Udonis Haslem(notes) finally rejoining the Heat as a force for the first time on Wednesday night – 13 points, five boards and two bodacious dunks – the Heat have a rare opportunity to get better this deep into the season.
Riley always believed he could win a championship surrounding those three stars with role players, and it was so easy to see why in Game 2. Two stars beat one in the fourth quarter, the Heat turning to James when the Bulls had clogged the rim on Wade.
Riley had to share the NBA’s Executive of the Year award with Chicago’s Gar Forman, and it’s hard to believe he lost an outright claim to the award on much beyond jealousy and spite. Just give the Bulls one of the Heat’s stars with Rose – James, Wade or even Chris Bosh(notes) over Boozer – and you’d probably be fitting them for rings this spring.
Chicago lost out on the three of them, and blew the $75 million on Boozer who seems to shrink with every challenge here. Everything’s played out in a way that’s justified the Heat’s choices.
Riley and Forman shared 11 first-place votes, but three former NBA executives of the year say they voted for Riley. As one says, “It should’ve been unanimous. I’m not close with Pat, but I’m embarrassed how that went.”
As the Heat moved within three victories of the NBA Finals with the series returning to Miami, the sight of Pat Riley standing with his wife, his assistant GM and team owner Micky Arison spoke to the undeniable truth of these modern Miami Heat: For all the talk about Wade as the lead recruiter, the most important selling point of the Heat is that Riley lords over them. That franchise is relevant because of his presence, his stature in the game. Wade sold a partnership to James and Bosh, but Riley engaged everyone in the kind of bigger, broader vision that only he can.
Once, it was Michael Jordan closing out these playoff games in Chicago, breaking Riley’s heart with the Knicks. Everyone stayed and cheered and taunted Riles right off the floor, into the tunnel and toward another playoff exit. Now, everyone was passing Riles in Section 120 of the United Center, moping to the exits as Chicago had suffered a familiar springtime ending here.
Greatness had risen in the fourth quarter and made the game his own in every possible way. Once, it was M.J. Now, it was LeBron James, Riley’s revenge.