One of these days I'll stop doubting the Bulls.
I must say though that I was relieved more than exhilarated after that 4th quarter. Switching to the 3-guard lineup with 7 minutes to go sent me into a cold sweat, as we've seen in games 1 and 2 how Dwyane Wade was able to score late against that lineup. This time the shots didn't fall in, and Duhon (the 'extra guard')did connect on a really nice floater over Shaq in the final minutes.
I've picked on Duhon relentlessly this series, but it's not as much because of his deficiencies as it is Deng's strengths. The Heat went small by putting (the basketball player formerly known as) Derek Anderson in with Wade and Gary Payton. So it seemed like a reactionary move by Skiles to counter with Duhon instead of forcing the Heat to try and handle Deng. In Skiles' defense, Deng was invisible the entire afternoon, shooting 2-6 for 4 points and 1 rebound in 20 minutes. I'd rather have seen Deng stay in the game, but they managed to hold onto the lead without him.
Enough of my nitpicking (wait, one more: the sight of more Pike and Pargo time to end the half), since aside from my own nervousness in the final quarter it was hard not to love what the Bulls did Sunday. To the bullets!
- The biggest shot of the night had to be Hinrich's absolute bomb of a 3-pointer with a little over a minute to go that put the Bulls up 5. Hinrich and Gordon outclassed the Heat backcourt scoring 44 points on 50% shooting. They've been marvelous in this series, and all the talk of them being a bad fit together due to their small stature has been turned into an advantage against the slow, defensively lax Heat. They need to be on at all times to win, and at least in Chicago it's happened.
- It was the plan all along to use this speed, but as I noted after game 2, the Bulls were going too fast for their own good and allowing the Heat to get out on the break after forcing turnovers. What changed in games 3 and 4? The Bulls won the turnover battle both games and were able to keep the pressure on the Heat interior. What was once a forced attempt resulting in a block was now a controlled drive ending in a trip to the line. In an unbelievably un-Bulls-like performance, the Bulls enjoyed a FTA edge of 31 to 5.
- Taking care of the ball also allowed the defense to round back to form, as they only gave up 88.5 points per game at home this series as opposed to 113 on the road. I kept waiting for Wade to take over game 4, but it never happened as he shot 8 of 23 for the night. Tremendous job by Kirk Hinrich, it's amazing to see a game like today's where he runs the offense, contains Wade, and scores some points in his free time.
- No defense works without the inside help though, and while Chandler had a poor statistical night he was the team's best defender against Shaq, and was altering shots in the paint all night. Mike Sweetney was going after rebounds like the ball was covered in syrup, including 3 offensive boards over the hampered Alonzo Mourning. I still wonder where his once-deft shooting touch went, but when Sweetney is making an effort on offense it at least shows that he's in the game, which is more than can be said much of this season. Him, Chandler, and Allen have been a great 3-man rotation against Shaq, and fouling so infrequently that Skiles hasn't been forced to go to Harrington or Schenscher.
- John Hollinger said it before the season in his annual Pro Basketball Forecast: Andres Nocioni is better at the 4. He is so tough that despite his size disadvantage he can defend and rebound there, and offensively he is a matchup nightmare. Still got overzealous at points in the game but its that aggression when driving the lane that opposing 4s can't stop, especially the Heat's Walker and Haslem. He has become more than a bit role player on a gritty team. Nocioni has improved his offensive game to the point where teams will have to start gameplanning for him.
- Antoine Walker did lead the Heat in scoring today, but he shot 12 threes. With Posey back that may mean less minutes from Walker, which from a Bulls perspective is unfortunate, as I love to see that man chuck away at the expense of a more efficient offense.
I won't preach a true momentum shift, although having only 1 day off between now and game 5 may allow some carry-over (if hurting them in terms of Chandler's recovery). Much has already been made of the Heat bickering at eachother in the second quarter, but I am having trouble being sold on that as anything significant. Forget momentum for now, what any team in a 7 game series has to ask themselves is if they're truly better than their opponent. At the start of this series you'd have to look at these two teams and give the Heat the advantage, but they are not the team they are on paper. Mourning is back on the court but nowhere near ready. Jason Williams may be slowing down after a hot start (2 points today), and reminding everyone that he's been fighting injuries all season. Wade's played poorly enough where you almost have to question whether that leg injury in game 2 was more than a cramp. Haslem and Posey have each missed games due to suspension, and although Shaq's been healthy he's been in foul trouble.
But by no means am I making grand predictions, as we've seen the Bulls have not as good on the road. Having Chandler healthy is a big concern, but also every player between Hinrich, Gordon, Nocioni, and Deng have to be on for the Bulls to win. At the onset of these playoffs it's been noted how the Bulls create matchup problems for Miami, and in these two home games they've exploited it beautifully, being the younger, faster, more aggressive team. They may not be better than Miami overall, but when the Bulls are at their best and Miami's not, the Bulls play like the better team. If that continues, that's enough to take this series.