A repeat of the playoff series? Miami starts out hot...Bulls regroup and force a tight battle...never out of it but never in control...comes down to LeBron and Rose...LeBron is taller.
A lot of factors should've kept the Bulls further away from victory than they were, the biggest being the absence of Luol Deng. Ronnie Brewer was efficient and had 3 steals, but the size difference was stark when he had to guard LeBron, most evident in the 4th quarter when Brewer was nearly backed into the basket support as LeBron unleashed a scary post move. Deng puts up more of a fight with some added size, though with a lot of LeBron's moves tonight like the step-back jumpers and just jumping over peoples' heads, there's little to do besides watch the 35 points fall in. The Heat roared out to a 18-7 lead behind some fast breaks and Derrick Rose being sidelined early with 2 fouls. Luckily the John Lucas time was minimized as Rose only committed one other foul, but you wonder if CJ Watson being available would've kept Rose under 44 minutes, and if that potential rest would've helped in those final few posessions.
Because, yes, Rose wasn't able to convert on free throws or a last-possession shot, either of which could've tied (or led) the game. Overall, though, there was little more you could ask of him and his 34-point effort, and I guess that's part of the problem. Rose went on a personal mission in the 2nd half to keep the Bulls in the game up until tying it at 84 at 6:55 left, and the degree of difficulty endured to do so was outstanding. And maybe unsustainable. At that point LeBron checked back in and Rose took two of his four (missed) 3-point attempts, and otherwise pretty much passed the ball to Rip Hamilton when given the opportunity.
I thought that Rip looked a lot better than what he produced, and with both sides at full strength (and with more liberal refereeing on the Bulls bigs) maybe he is indeed the difference in the seemingly-set playoffs rematch. It was great to see Rip as a viable and willing option in that 4th quarter, and even for a possession to end the first half, simply because it was an offensive tactic that didn't rely on Rose being spectacular. But the results just weren't there, especially in the 2nd half where Rip had zero points, and finished 4-16 with 5 TOs overall. It's disconcerting the amount of inside misses that he had in the game, as that's what you'd think will leave him first if he's indeed over the hill. Granted, he did sit out the Friday game with a thigh bruise and possibly re-aggravated groin, but that also could be a sign of, ya know, being over the hill. Rip did do a very good job frustrating Dwyane Wade, who was fairly awful all game: not only shooting poorly, but taking the Heat's offense completely out of flow to try and get out of it, and/or complaining about calls.
The whole Heat offense also looked out of sorts in that final stretch, all-to-easily going to isolation-only offense. The Bulls structured attempts weren't that much better, but they were able to control the boards and get second chances, even Boozer nabbed a couple offensive boards and a putback. But for much of the game I thought the Bulls didn't take enough advantage of their frontcourt size, letting the Heat get away with playing smaller but active defenders, impressively beating the Bulls to loose balls nearly all game. Boozer did hit a couple 4th quarter shots, but was mostly trash, severely outplayed by his fellow finesse PF Chris Bosh. Especially against Miami, Taj seems to be the better option, not only was he actually making the Heat pay by going to the rim when his man left him, his value as a defender obviously surpasses Boozer when going up against an athletic opponent like the Heat. But lauding a guy who only had 8 points himself in 30 minutes doesn't seem to be a permanent solution, and as always it's likely just about Boozer being better. But that's far from a certainty if it's not about mindset but instead physical abilities when it comes to Boozer's play. There was some ferocity in the final few minutes (and I was surprised he subbed back in the game that quarter) but there has to be much more considering how much Miami is designed to stop Derrick Rose and Derrick Rose only.
Things are potentially different with Luol Deng, of course, but a lot of today was just more of the same. Maybe an inordinate amount of attention will be given to the final sequence (some due to Rose's martyr-talk), but it's not really about a single call or bounce going one way or the other. The Heat didn't get much outside of their superstars in the game but on paper look to have a deeper team than last year, and have proven to be able to lock down the Bulls forcing Rose to do too much. This season will be all about getting Hamilton to emerge as that extra option, having Boozer figure it out (or choosing Taj permanently), or some kind of acquisition to make that difference. These will always be tough battles, the Bulls know no other way, especially Joakim Noah, who I should mention played very well. But as a team they still look just a bit short.