Bulls burn Miami in Game 1


May 16

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They’re supposed to come up with nicknames for games like this, the Bulls stunningly impressive 103-82 Eastern Conference finals Game 1 rout Sunday of the Miami Heat.

Sunday Night Smackdown!

May 15 Massacre!

It’s Cryin’ Time Again for Miami!

“We took it on the chin tonight,” acknowledged Miami coach Erik Spoelstra.  “Virtually all the effort areas, obviously, the glass, second‑chance points. Offensively we got away from things we normally do.  We went a little sideways. They’re a great defensive team. Because of losing a lot of those effort areas and the second chance points, it really deflated us and we lost our concentration on the offensive end and the game got away from us. All of those tip‑ins after 16 to 20 seconds of solid defense really took away some of our focus.”

Took it on the chin! Sideways! Deflated! Lost concentration! Took away focus!

That would take most of it in as the Bulls broke from a 48-48 halftime time and absolutely dominated the favored Heat. LeBron James with 15 points was vastly outplayed by Luol Deng with 21 points, seven rebounds and four steals. Deng’s defense on the game’s best talent was relentless, textbook stylish closing on shots, fronting, pressuring, moving.

“Lu should have been an All-Star this season,” said Carlos Boozer. “He’s our unsung hero.”

Dwyane Wade, posterized by a Taj Gibson dunk and frustrated in chasing around Derrick Rose, who led the Bulls with 28 points, had 18 points. Wade was scoreless in the fourth quarter and James had two points in the third, five in the second half.

The Bulls had a 45-33 rebounding edge, 19-6 on the offensive boards and a shocking 31-8 in second chance points. Two teams were at the United Center Sunday; one competed. The Heat actually shot better at 47.1 percent, but had fewer free throws, 15 to the Bulls 20, as the Bulls brilliantly kept Miami in a halfcourt, one-on-one my turn game. The Bulls had 23 assists to 11 for the Heat.

The defensive plan was so good it worked.

The Bulls may have played that 48-minute game coach Tom Thibodeau always talks about symbolized by a Gibson putback dunk with 38.3 seconds for the Bulls final points of the game.

Early in the second quarter with Miami ahead 25-22, Deng picked off a jittery Mario Chalmers and passed ahead to C.J. Watson. He found Gibson sprinting down the lane against a retreating Wade and dunked the ball over Wade with Wade tumbling into the basket support.

Their reactions were telling about the kinds of teams the play for and how they see the game.

I asked Gibson after the game which dunk he liked best, the one over Wade that was one of those they make a poster out of. But he said it was the last one with the game long decided. Why?

The put back,” said Gibson, who had nine points, seven rebounds and two blocks in 23 minutes in relief of Carlos Boozer. “That showed no matter the score or how much time is left in the game you never stop playing. You play until the clock runs out. Thibs’ motto is to play 48 minutes and tonight we wanted to show we could come out and play 48 minutes of tough basketball.”

Wade was asked about the dunk over him by Gibson.

“Yeah, that was a good one,” said Wade.  “But that’s a great ratio for me.  That’s the first time I’ve been dunked on all year.  I’ll take my 90-to-1 dunks this year.  It was a very athletic play. I knew I didn’t have a chance when I was back pedaling.  He’s very athletic.  This won’t be the last time I get dunked on.” 

It’s just some post game comments, but the point was Gibson talked about doing something for his team and Wade talked about how it affected him.

And that might summarize Game 1, if not the series.

One game, we all know, doesn’t make a series. There have been teams blown out in Game 1’s and come back to win the series, like the Lakers in the 1985 Finals in the famous Memorial Day Massacre, losing Game 1 by 34 and winning in six and on the road.

But all of a sudden the Bulls are a lot more cuddly and popular than they were a few hours ago when they were such huge underdogs. Every one of the TNT halftime commentators picked the Bulls to win the series. Yes, that certainly meant it wasn’t the ESPN show. It was on TNT, and Charles Barkley, never a master of subtlety, decided unless the Heat trade for Dwight Howard this week they are done. He said the Bulls were the best defensive team he’d ever seen, basically forgetting the 90’s Bulls and every team he didn’t play for.

Still, this was a fabulous defensive game for the Bulls that flummoxed and frustrated the previously haughty Heat. When James and Wade broke out for fast break dunks in the Heat’s first two possessions, you sensed they began deciding whether they wanted a parade or rally and how many diamonds in their championship rings.

But by game’s end Heat players were arguing with one another, Chalmers and James Jones yelling at one another about blown coverages and James’ shoulders clearly sagging after turning to watch Bulls big men get multiple offensive rebounds, and even with his own mistakes.

Early in the fourth quarter with the Heat having absorbed a 24-15 third quarter, they were hanging on down 74-66 after a James three. Deng lined up a 10 footer, which came up short hitting the rim. James moved out to contest and stopped, but Deng kept moving. He saw the ball going short and followed his shot (my gosh, fundamental play!). Deng grabbed his own miss with James standing in the spot where Deng first shot. Deng laid the ball in as James’ shoulders sagged. Teammates looked forlornly at James.

That play was the final backbreaker for the Heat.

Ronnie Brewer, who added eight points, stripped Chalmers as the Bulls’ were active in most every way. Chalmers fouled for a clear path violation and Brewer made both free throws. Brewer then ran the baseline, as he constantly does and Miami seemed to have no idea. Watson found him behind the defense for a dunk and four point play for an 80-66 Bulls lead.

The Heat were in total one-on-one mode now, though the Bulls handled it beautifully all game. The Bulls big men are unusually athletic, even players like Omer Asik. So the Bulls bigs routinely switch, which is rare for big men. This time James got Asik on a switch, but could not get past and settled for a 20 footer that missed.

“I just thought our bigs were great,” said Deng.  “There’s times we switched.  There’s times we forced them into the double.  Normally he (James) beats those bigs easily.  But our bigs were great at just keeping them in front.”

I thought the best adjustment I saw from the Bulls was the way they switched those pick and rolls. They often did it during the season, and at the end of that third game between the Bulls and Heat this season, James got Noah on a switch and Noah forced him into the late miss that effectively ended the game.

“One thing about our team is we have athletic guys who can defend multiple positions,” said Gibson.

Deng then missed a runner, but a hustling Watson, who had five assists in nine minutes, got the ball back and with the clock running down lobbed in a three pointer from the deep left wing and began skipping back on defense in the exploding euphoria of the arena. The Bulls were up 83-66 with 8:09 left.

“Our bench is a big part of what we do,” said Joakim Noah, who had nine points, 14 rebounds and two blocks. “Omer was huge, C.J., Taj, I call him light feet (actually last week he called him Taj-a-woo). When they are hitting shots we are tough to beat.”

Though I thought the coverages on the pick and roll the Heat so love were immaculate. In the switching, which Noah and Gibson do as well even on players like James, the Bulls, in effect, are getting a man on the ball, which kept the Heat drivers out of the lane. It is vital to the Heat’s offense for James and Wade to get penetration. But the switching helped keep them on the outside, and when you do that they tend to settle for jumpers and they really aren’t great shooters. They are great penetrators and drivers.

Generally, when you switch like that a team can exploit mismatches, but the combination of the big men with quick feet and the defense coming up behind thwarted Miami.

“You play defense. You play defense hard and the shot goes up and they get an offensive rebound, kick it out for a three or get a layup or a dunk,” James said. “Those are demoralizing for a defensive team. We’ve got to figure out a way to clean that up.”

Deng did a masterful job of pressuring, fronting and bothering James, and the defense retreated into that tight shell in the lane so everywhere James went he saw size and bodies. Similarly with Wade, whom Rose did well guarding quite a bit.

“You have to give them credit where it’s due,” said Spoelstra.  “That’s what they’ve done all season long, is protect the paint, protect the rim, keep teams off the free throw line.  And I think in the second half we got away from what we normally do, and the ball started to stick, hold.  And it’s got to move.  It’s got to get from side to side.  They were switching some of those pick‑and‑rolls, which stagnated our offense a little bit.  But I think our minds really were affected by those second chance points and them getting that double digit lead.”

Psyched them out? The two greatest stars? Hard to imagine.

Yes, the Heat did look awfully good in getting through the first two rounds in five games each. But, remember, neither of those teams was very big. The 76ers mostly went small with really no center but Spencer Hawes, and with the trade of Kendrick Perkins and Shaquille O’Neal unable to play and Jermaine O’Neal just some, the Celtics also were a small team.

“We have to do a better job of competing on the boards,” said Bosh.  “I think that’s where this series is going to be won.  They won all four games they played against us.  They’ve outrebounded (us in) them all. I think that that’s the issue for us and the key to the series for both teams.”

The Bulls throw multiple, athletic big men at you, rotating in Asik for Noah and Gibson with Boozer. The Heat even deactivated Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier for the game and started 6-8 Joel Anthony at center. They brought in goon Jamaal Magloire, who could barely move and mostly seemed in there to take a shot at Rose, which he did with a brutal foul with 6:52 left and the Bulls up 14. Rose sprawled after the drive, but picked himself up and made the two free throws.

But forget that. Miami isn’t a particularly physical team and isn’t going to try much of that. Magloire can barely guard the basket stanchion. I think it scored twice against him.

Miami has to beat you with excellence and athletic excess, but this was a contest of talent against effort.

Not to say the Bulls lack talent, though you wonder if Carmelo Anthony would have defended James as well as Deng. Heck, the more guys who don’t want to come to Chicago the better the Bulls seem.

Actually, Chris Bosh led all scorers with 30 points in a strategy, if you can call it that, which was somewhat unorthodox but highly effective.

The Bulls showed and blitzed James and Wade on the pick and roll. So generally Noah, who is running around all the time, anyway, stepped up, leaving Bosh. Bosh was making shots and taking the pick and roll pass and had 17 in the first half. I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but you could live with Bosh scoring if you thwarted James and Wade. Nobody ever thinks they can, and they’ll likely have some big games. But if Bosh takes the most shots, as he did Sunday, then you don’t have the Miami offense operating as it likes.

Nice work, Thibs.

“I thought the second half our effort picked up,” said Thibodeau.  “The first half I thought they were hurting us on the boards.  Our guys up front, they’re very active.  I thought Joakim made great effort to get to the ball.  Carlos the same.  Taj, Omer.  That’s huge.  A lot of that is a result of the penetration from Derrick.”

Of course, Thibodeau then thought about what really would be fun.

“For us we just want to go step by step,” he said.  “So we don’t want to feel too good.  We know there’s things we have to clean up, and we have to prepare for the next game.  So tomorrow’s practice is critical.  Then the following day, and then the shootaround.”

Yeah, more practice!

But the players accept it and seem to relish it, and with an effort like Sunday’s you have to say it’s paying off. And while I’m hardly one to suggest everyone isn’t fully as committed as Thibodeau, I do wonder about three nights in downtown Chicago before Game 2 Wednesday will mean for Miami’s South Beach crew. Just asking, mind you, hardly accusing.

Yes, Miami did start with that explosion of runouts and dunks, and Rose was being smothered, coughing up three first quarter turnovers as the Bulls had nine in the first half. So Rose apologized to his teammates at halftime, saying the tie game was his fault and he was holding everyone back. I know. They were rolling their eyes as well. The Bulls, by the way, committed one turnover in the second half.

“It was me,” Rose agreed.  “Careless turnovers.  You can’t do that against this team, where when they get in the open court they’re too dangerous.  Making sure I take care of the ball.  I’m the point guard.  I have to do way better.  In the second half, I think I did a good job making sure that our turnovers were down.”

The Heat led 23-19 after one, but there were signs of trouble for Miami as the Bulls were moving the ball and crashing the boards. Bosh did get going early, and, amazingly, James picked up two first quarter fouls, which is what he finished with.

I thought both Wade and James were aggressive in that quarter, using their strength and quickness to challenge the Bulls and their lead would have been more if Wade hadn’t missed a pair of point blank layups. They seemed to soften after that quarter.

The big secret around the Bulls all season has been how much better defensively the second team is to generally start the second quarter. And the Heat bench, conversely, is awful. They had 15 points for the game, seven in the fourth quarter with the game falling out of reach.

They have to get shooting from Jones, who had just four points with few other offensive options. So the Bulls got the lead with Gibson’s three point play poster over Wade, another score and Asik with a dunk and three point play and even a staredown, making Heat defenders crack like Turkish taffy.

Miami began to push back ahead when James returned, going ahead 38-33 before Rose beat Wade and passed to Deng for a driving three point play when the defense stepped up on Rose. Kyle Korver missed a jumper, but Noah finished with a two handed put back as every time the Heat defense rotated (and they are good), Noah found that open weak side lane to the rim or simply outfought someone with that multiple effort Thibodeau stresses.

Boozer got himself a followup slam dunk the same way after a Noah miss and the teams went into halftime tied at 48.

But the Bulls also were doing some offensive things better. Rose was beginning to take more mid range shots, though he was three of seven on threes, and the Bulls ran a nice side to side screen roll with Rose and Korver that freed Korver for a three, the guy who usually doesn’t get the open look.

With Miami leading 58-57 after a James fadeaway with about five minutes gone in the third, Deng and Boozer retrieved misses on the same possession that led to a Rose three. Keith Bogans hit a three when Noah was doubled and passed out, Rose had a runout and was fouled after Bogans stripped a driving Wade, and then Noah scored and let out a scream after blocking Wade and running out for a layup with Rose. That 10-0 run gave the Bulls a 67-58 lead and began to unsettle the Heat, who would score only 34 points in the second half.

“They had 31 second chance points,” said Wade.  “No one is going to beat anybody when you give up that.  They showed us that’s what they’re good at.  They did a good job of pressuring us.  We didn’t move the ball much.  We let it get too late in the shot clock and had to throw up some hail marys.”

The Bulls closed the third with Gibson blocking a James drive as James tried to beat him one-on-one. And then Rose scored on a runner and Deng added a three after a nice find by Gibson. That gave the Bulls a 72-63 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

The Bulls then held Miami to just a James three in the first four and a half minutes, building up an 83-66 lead with eight minutes left after that Watson three.

Still, Thibodeau and the Bulls were working the game, and Thibodeau lifted Boozer after a short fourth quarter stint in which Miami got within a dozen after there was no help on a Chalmers’ drive from the right wing.

“Our weak side has to react better, pull in, protect the lane,” said Thobodeau.  “Oftentimes as the ball is going away from you, if you’re guarding a three point shooter, you tend to take that step towards him.  That’s all they need.  So our ball pressure wasn’t what I wanted it to be, and our weak side reaction wasn’t what I wanted it to be.  I knew we had to clean that up.”

Never rest. It’s another reason this Bulls team is where is it. They sweat the details.

But the Bulls never let Miami get closer and that kept the United Center crowd, in a frenzy since Jim Cornelison’s stirring Star Spangled Banner, raising the decibel level and deriding Miami in all sorts of ways.

“I never knew a national anthem would get me that excited to start a game,” said Noah. “The crowd was into it from the beginning. It’s an unbelievable feeling playing on this stage in front of a crowd that’s so into it. But we’ve got a ways to go. We’re happy with the win, but we’re not satisfied. We’ve got to remain humble because nobody gave us a shot to win this series. It’s what we think in this locker room that matters and we’re not going to be too happy about one win. The goal is to win the series and we know there’s a long way to go.”

That abuse of the Heat likely was going on most places as the Heat is an unusual bunch of relatively decent people less regarded than any NBA team I’ve ever seen other than the 80’s Pistons. And that team deserved it, for the most part with ugly, physical play. The Heat aren’t dirty, and the players are generally cooperative. But it’s become a national to see them fail.

The Bulls have them one quarter of the way there.

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