The NCAA Tournament gets showered in love for its office pools, printable brackets and upset-laden lose-and-you're-out format, but the basketball tournament that directly follows it on the calendar, the NBA playoffs, are for my money the most entertaining, intoxicating sporting event in America. The playoffs are great, and so far they have been great in 2013: as the NBA pauses on Thursday night for a rare break in its schedule, all four series are tied at 1-1. The basketball has been good: well-played, mostly competitive, full of the type of tension that keep us glued to our televisions.
But if there's one thing that makes the NBA playoffs unique, it's that they are the only major sporting event in which the eventual outcome is often viewed as inescapable. In the NHL, last year's champion was a No. 8 seed. In the NFL, the New York Giants go 9-7, win the Super Bowl one year and miss the playoffs the next. Baseball teams are built to succeed over the course of 162 games; when you boil it down to a best-of-seven series, the amount of luck involved in every game essentially makes each series something just short of a coin flip, no matter the payroll differential.
But in the NBA, we usually know how these things are going to go. There are exceptions, sure: the Warriors -Mavericks first round series from 2007 comes to mind, as does Dallas defeating the Heat in the NBA Finals to end LeBron's first season in South Beach. But usually the eventual winner of each series is the team that began the series as the favorite. This doesn't make the basketball any less watchable, but it's a fact of life NBA fans have been reasoning with for the last few decades. What is it, only eight different teams have won the title over the last 30 years?
Things aren't so obvious across the NBA's second round in these playoffs, save for one obvious exception: the Bulls and the Heat. Miami is the team everyone is picking to win the championship, the Bulls are the group missing their best player for the entire season, the team with their All-Star small forward glued to a hospital bed, the one playing a hodgepodge of minimum signings and late round draft picks in crunch-time. Chicago has the tendency to take the optimistic view -- after all, 70 percent of this city roots for the fucking Cubs -- but not even the most ardent homer is ready to deny the inevitable: that the Heat will defeat our scrappy Bulls in this series and finally put this weird, draining season out of its misery.
This is why the Bulls' Game 1 victory was such an unexpected treat: we know the Bulls can usually hang with Miami, but beating them in the first game allowed some daydreaming to happen. "Hey, if they can win Game 2...." was something I found myself telling friends and family before Wednesday night. Just the idea of the possibility for an upset potentially existing was something that was kind of wonderful.
Which brings us to Game 2, and the clubbing the Bulls rightfully received. It was surprising and expected at the same time: ThibsBall, as it's called, has a way of tricking you into those daydreams, and the Bulls have a history of playing the Heat tight since LeBron, Wade and Bosh decided to team up. On the other hand: there was enough pre-game chatter on Twitter about a blowout to know that many people saw this coming. When the sirens are going off, a tornado usually hits.
The Bulls got hit on Wednesday night, and they got hit hard. After Jimmy Butler connected on a driving layup for an and-one, Chicago was down 42-38 with 3:42 remaining in the second quarter. This was when all hell would break loose: Dwyane Wade dunked, LeBron hit a long three, and suddenly the rout everyone was dreading was officially on. On the Bulls' side in the final four minutes, Carlos Boozer did this: offensive foul, missed jumper, missed jumper, missed jumper. It was the type of stretch akin to waking up from a good dream, a harsh slap on the face from reality that reminds you to get out of bed and put on some goddamn pants.
There are things Chicago can complain about, sure. Blaming the refs is for losers, but the way the game was officiated allowed zero flow to develop. It was an avalanche of personal fouls, technical fouls and flagrant fouls, and the Bulls didn't come out on the favorable end of most of them. Criticism of the way the game was officiated is fair, but it obstructs a larger truth: didn't every sports fan in Chicago know this type of beating was going to happen eventually?
The Bulls have one major issue in this series, so far so I see it: they don't have LeBron James on their team. That can be said of every team save for Miami, and it's the reason it's not hard to imagine the Heat piling up two or three or four championships in a row before someone else gets a decent chance.
Still, tell anyone that the Bulls would steal one of the first two games in Miami and head back to Chicago with the series tied at 1-1, and everyone would say the same thing: it's a huge success for the Bulls. The blowout in Game 2 doesn't make this any less true, but it washes away some of the shine.
If we learned anything from the first two games of this series, it's that the Bulls can play with the Heat if everything goes right. Everything includes, but is not limited to: Chicago's jumpshots going in and Miami's rimming out, fouls going the Bulls' way, LeBron and Wade not going on those knockout-blow runs that leave the opposition cold, stunned and alone.
This will be the lasting takeaway of Game 2 for me from Chicago's end. This wasn't so much an unforeseen disaster as it was a failing grade on a test you didn't study for. The Bulls still have the Heat right where they want them -- the series is tied headed back to Chicago -- but somehow it doesn't feel as sunny as it should.