Bulls fall behind Heat 2-1 in conference semifinal


May 11

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The narrative from the Bulls’ side in Friday’s 104-94 Miami Heat victory that gave them a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal is going to be a star driven inequity that is making winning more difficult for the Bulls.

“I see how things are going,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau offered cryptically after Miami broke from a 77-77 game after three quarters to pull away in the last four minutes. “I watch very closely; I watch very closely. What I’m seeing is… we’ll adjust accordingly. When you play this team you have to have a lot of mental, physical, and emotional toughness. Things are not going to go your way. What it is. We’re not going to get calls. That’s the reality. We’ve still got to find a way to get it done. And we will.”

That, obviously, has to come Monday in the United Center. Or the Bulls go back to Miami trailing 3-1 and hardly in position to continue this series.

But to even the series again for the Bulls it has to be more than a change in the tenor or manner of official judgment.

The Heat shot 50 percent from the field after 60 percent in Game 2. As commendably unyielding as the Bulls’ effort has been, the Bulls defense has not been very good.

Nate Robinson

Plus, the Bulls got beat up on the boards for the second consecutive game, and by Chris Bosh of all people. Miami outrebounded the Bulls Friday 39-37 with Bosh getting 20 points and 19 rebounds.

“If CB (Bosh) rebounds like that we’re a dangerous team,” said LeBron James, who had 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, including a strong, driving three-point play that clinched the win with 1:23 left. “For him to have 19 rebounds and for Norris (Cole with 18 points) to come off the bench and defend like he did and contribute offensively with a big time drive in the fourth and a big time three as well, those two guys are the reason we won the game.”

James is right. The Bulls, with primarily Jimmy Butler, held James in check as well as you can as he also had eight rebounds and seven assists, but wasn’t much of a force most of the game. And Dwyane Wade was almost invisible, finishing with 10 points, out of position constantly on defense, throwing the ball away numerous times. You do that you have your best shot against Miami.

But the Bulls couldn’t keep the normally passive Bosh off the boards, and were routinely losing Cole, who is eight of eight on threes in the series and averaging 14.3 points, second most to James.

“He kind of got hot late,” said Taj Gibson of Cole. “He made some big shots. When you’re playing with three future hall of famers, guys are going to get open looks. It’s really tough. That team has a lot of guys playing with a lot of confidence.”

The Heat bench outscored the Bulls’ 36-8, though several Bulls reserves are starting with Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng out, and early in the second quarter Nazr Mohammed ejected for a run-in with James.

That will be much discussed as well, James reacting to Mohammed trying to run him down on a fast break and even being called for a technical foul. But then the soft spoken and generally mild mannered Mohammed got up and pushed James, who fell over backward as if shot.

James’ technical was negated with the Bulls leading 31-28 as a double technical was called and Mohammed was thrown out.

“From my angle, I just saw a guy basically flop,” said Thibodeau, who engaged in an impressive stare down contest with referee Joey Crawford after the game ended. “I’m going to leave it at that. I don’t think it warranted an ejection. I understand flagrant foul. Understand that. Ejection no.”

Mohammed said he regretted his action because his shorthanded teammates needed him and he hated that his son was watching and he sent such a poor message. Still, he suggested it was pretty shocking someone of James’ size and strength could collapse in a heap like that. After all, don’t you have enough pride as the strongest guy in the NBA not to fall down like you were Vlade Divac?

“I didn’t think it warranted an ejection,” said Mohammed. “I did believe it warranted a tech. Just give a foul. He started a break, he pushes you, throws you down and sometimes instinct takes over. I look at some plays that happened in this series already. Guys jumping on Nate’s face, guy takes down Marco out of bounds, guy takes out Nate the first play of the game (Wednesday). There’s been a lot of plays not get ejections. A push shouldn’t get an ejection.

Joakim Noah

“I’m on my way out this league,” said Mohammed when asked whether it would have happened if it weren’t James. “It’s his league.”

Perhaps Mohammed overacted. And perhaps Joakim Noah did as well late in the first quarter when Chris Andersen, who has seemed to be the only player in the series truly seeking out cheap shots, fouled Nate Robinson on a drive and fell hard on him. Nate does get tackled a lot, though he later would block a James shot and dunk with James getting out of the way so apparently not to be a Nate Robinson poster. Now that would be a cool one to have.

“It’s an emotional game,” said Noah, who had 15 points and 11 rebounds and a sharp expletive to himself as he sat in his locker stall after the game. “Just lost the battle; we did not lose the war. A lot of basketball left.”

Noah ran over to the fallen Robinson and pushed off Andersen, who kicked up at Noah, though only Noah was assessed a technical foul. It was a pretty minor part of the game, though Robinson was wearing a bandage around his mid section after the game.

Robinson was mumbling afterward about James and “all those All Stars,” though not with praise the way it sounded. And he added later: “You see LeBron in a lot of commercials. He does a lot of good acting.”

No handshakes and hugs in this series, and at least that’s good for the NBA.

Still, the game really was decided because the Bulls’ defense let them down. They saw Miami score on nine of the last 10 possessions of the game after the Bulls were within 85-83 with 4:14 remaining.

“I don’t know that we were worn down; it’s the playoffs,” said Carlos Boozer, who led the Bulls with 31 points, though just four rebounds in playing about 29 minutes. “I don’t think fatigue is a factor. We have to close out quarters better. We did a decent job, but we were giving away free throws.”

It especially hurt that the Bulls got into the penalty with more that seven minutes left in the fourth quarter with Miami leading 81-71.

“We’ve got guys who are fighters,” said Gibson, who took several defensive stints for Boozer but added just six points. “We are undermanned right now. Emotions are going to fly. But we’ve just got to keep playing. Let the refs do their job and focus on the next play. Don’t try to do what I did in Game 2. Shut your mouth. Ask a question, but keep pushing.

“We had a good shot to win and did not,” said Gibson. “So we just have to bounce back. There were a lot of cheap shots out there. It’s rough when you lose another man. We’ve got a lot of guys injured. We’ve just got to keep playing. This is how they felt in Miami (for Game 2). They needed one. Now we do.”

The Bulls get two days off, though it seems unlikely either Hinrich or Deng will be recovered enough to play. But it won’t matter if you can’t stop Cole when you know he’s been hot, when Bosh beats you off the boards and when you control James and Wade as well as anyone has and you still lose at home. That’s as much about the Bulls’ fundamentals of helping, getting back on defense, playing aggressively over screens, contesting threes, letting them feel you, as Thibodeau likes to say.

The Bulls have played Miami hard, but not effectively. It’s been entertaining and impressive to watch, and perhaps you cannot blame the Bulls mostly playing six guys, with three starters who were reserves basically all season. But if they shoot better than 50 percent the last two games and are plus-15 on the boards the last two games, there’s no officials who are going to change that. Only the Bulls can. And if they no longer have enough, well then, there’s not much left to the season.

“We felt like we did a lot of good things,” said Gibson. “At the same time we did a lot of bad things. So it’s up to us to get a win.”

Taj Gibson

The Bulls’ first priority after the blowout loss in Miami Wednesday was to change up some and find offense, particularly locating Boozer, who was averaging seven points. It wasn’t all Boozer’s fault as the strength of the Miami defense is their blitz on the pick and roll with a big man coming out to double the guard. Robinson has been holding onto the ball too long, thus taking Boozer out of the plays. Similarly with Marco Belinelli. So the Bulls ran more straight post ups to spread out Miami’s defense. They also pushed the ball more to try to get Boozer deep and ran some offense through Noah.

The result was a strong start from Boozer, who ended with 10 first quarter points in a 25-25 tie after one, the Bulls shooting 52.6 percent. But Miami was at 61.1 percent, and this with Wade basically playing comatose, as indifferently as anyone has ever seen him, suggesting his knee is bad.

But the quarter ended in anger with Noah’s technical foul that further revved a crowd booing James from the start and creating an enthusiastic playoff atmosphere.

Then early in the second came James’ imbroglio with Mohammed in which James clearly did pull Mohammed down before Mohammed’s ill-advised reaction. Still, had James not crumbled like an actor in a bad Western, Mohammed likely would have been around to finish the game.

“I saw him hawking me down for a long time and I saw him coming with one of those club fouls, which is unnecessary,” said James. “I just tried to protect myself and stand my ground. It definitely surprised me. I’m too cool. My mind is in another place right now. I’m here to play basketball; that’s all. I haven’t been in a situation like that before. But if I get kicked out and Nazr gets kicked out at the same time, they win. It’s that simple.”

The United Center was rocking pretty good by now, and when Belinelli, who was four of nine on threes, hit one to give the Bulls a 34-28 lead and then Noah made a driving three point play for a seven-point lead the United Center was flying, though it would be the Bulls biggest lead of the game.

Boozer and Noah would combine again for a score as the Bulls continued to stay away from their pick and rolls, for the most part, and Boozer isolated and drove across the lane for a jumper to make it 48-43 Bulls late in the quarter. But the Heat closed strong as they’ve been doing at the end of quarters as Butler who with two early fouls was taking some time on Shane Battier to avoid more. Butler again played 48 minutes. That enabled James to get to the basket and a 52-50 Miami lead at halftime.

“We knew that being at home the Bulls were going to be a little more aggressive,” said Bosh. “Probably a little bit more passionate, and a little bit more intense. Those were storms we were going to have the weather. We did a good job of focusing on basketball. We’ve been talking about this for the whole series. Playing a team like this, they really thrive off of second chance opportunities. Working hard for the rebounds is going to be extremely important. I think every person took in upon themselves to do a better job. You can’t win a championship being pretty and shiny. You have to get dirty. You are going to have to play physical. You have to dive on the floor. You have to do things that are extremely tough. People forget that just two years ago we were a half court, grind-it-out team. Because we have moved to a more free flowing offense and are more spread a little bit, that doesn’t mean we are just a running team. When it comes down to it, we are going to have to get stops. “

The game began to grind down after halftime with the lead going back and forth. While backup Cole was making shots, point guard starter Mario Chalmers was loose and unpredictable with the ball as he committed three third quarter turnovers dribbling too much into help. After one, Bosh began yelling at him on the court as Noah stood by applauding.

It’s not about not liking someone, Noah says. Sure.

The Bulls defense on James continues to be effective as it appears to be a double team, though isn’t. The Bulls stunt over, and Miami has played into their trap by sitting on the ball a lot at that point and getting only into late movement. The ESPN audio caught Spoelstra in several timeouts pleading for ball movement. James was playing more like the Cleveland James by staying on the left side and shooting fadeaway jumpers. It was the only way to guard him then as you played him hard to his right hand. He’s gone away from that this season, but the Bulls have done a good job keeping him toward one side of the court.

Marco Belinelli

“I didn’t shoot the ball like I’ve been shooting all year,” James said. “My teammates look for me to make plays no matter if I’m shooting the ball well or not. There were a couple of times in the fourth quarter I settled for a couple of jumpers late in the clock.”

The Bulls were making plays of their own as Butler, who had 17 points along with Robinson, dunked the ball two handed over a retreating James after one of Chalmers’ turnovers. There also was the play later in the game when Robinson dunked and James backed off.

James played just over 44 minutes and wasn’t called for a foul, though he did have that technical. What’s misstated about James is that he’s a great defender. Just when he cares to be. He doesn’t get called for a lot of fouls not because he is LeBron James, but because he backs off contact so much. He rarely guards his man straight up, preferring to play the lanes for steals. Late in games, he’ll take someone hard, which he can because he is so big and strong and quick. And he’ll run down and make those blocks from behind. But he isn’t regularly a fundamental defender, even if he certainly deserves to be the league MVP. And he would show why late in the fourth quarter.

The Bulls went ahead 68-64 with 2:41 left in the third after Robinson and Belinelli combined to block James on a drive, the crowd sensing a much longer series even though Miami tied it at 70 after three.

Just one quarter of Bulls defense.

“Nothing is going to be easy in this series,” said Spoelstra. “Tonight we didn’t play particularly well and a lot of that was due to Chicago. There was a lot of ebb and flow to the game until we got it going in the fourth quarter.”

Bosh hit a deep corner three and James began going harder to the basket, the Bulls racking up those early fourth quarter fouls which would hurt badly. Butler provided a strong three-point play going at James and Robinson a driving bank shot. But it was Miami pulling away.

“That whole fourth quarter was a blur,” said Gibson. “We were scoring, they were scoring and we can’t do that.”

After the Bulls were within 85-83 at that four minute mark, Noah was called for a foul on a close offensive rebounding play that led to a pair of Bosh free throws, James hit a big fading three for a 93-86 lead with 2:35 left, Robinson lost Cole again as Miami made it 96-88 with a three with 1:48 left and then James put his head down and barreled in for a three-point play that put it too far away for a few frantic late Bulls possessions to change.

The Heat scored 34 fourth quarter points on 52.9 percent shooting on the road. Pretty hard to stop that. Perhaps Thibodeau could have given Richard Hamilton a few minutes with the limited roster. But the Bulls couldn’t get defense down the stretch and Hamilton mostly has been watching because of concerns about defense. Marquis Teague started the fourth quarter with Robinson, an indication of the lack of depth. Though Teague played well enough.

The Heat attempted 15 fourth quarter free throws, though the Bulls were one of nine on threes in the quarter. There just wasn’t enough there there this time, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, and who doesn’t. The Bulls are back there Monday and we’ll see what they have.

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