I'm still kind of stunned. For the past 48 hours I've been bracing myself for a Heat beatdown, what with the Bulls having just completed a Game 7 and two more of their defensive rotation players incapacitated. And then when the game was tied at the half, I switched to paranoid the other shoe would drop soon. The Heat would make a run and the game would be over. But the Bulls were able to absorb several of those runs from LeBron James and the Heat (mostly just James) and stay close. Even then: a close game against Miami would still end in heartbreak, right? Nah. Instead Nate Robinson closing better than the MVP (or the previous one on the Bulls sideline) and a team defensive effort that only intensified in the closing moments.
Only shortly after I even believed the Bulls would actually take game 1 of this series, there was barely time to still be nervous: they had already taken the damned thing over. The final 4 minutes was a clinic by the Bulls, going 4-7 from the field while Miami went 1-6. Chicago finished the game on a 10-0 run for a 93-86 win.
It was a final stretch that was just keeping with what had been great nearly the entire game. Butler was making LeBron's possessions very difficult, and the Bulls were forcing other Heat players to make shots. Nate Robinson had two huge isolation scores. The Bulls smartly took advantage of him and Belinelli being guarded by Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen. If there's another tight game in this series (sure, why not?) the Heat may look to adjust by using LeBron or Wade, because Nate made it look easy. He had a huge 4th quarter and finished with 27 points. Belinelli shot only 3-10 on the night but had two fourth quarter threes, the last one his second try on a play after Joakim Noah secured an offensive rebound. They may be the 3rd string backcourt, but both Robinson and Belinelli have two things working for them: unlimited range, and the confidence to just let it fly.
That Noah rebound was part of yet another masterful night for him against his favorite 'Hollywood' team. As he and the Bulls usually do in this matchup, they dominated the offensive glass (26.5% to 16% in OReb%) and had a huge edge in second-chance points.Taj Gibson also upheld tradition in playing big against Miami, having by far his best game of the playoffs with 12 points, and taking over the PF spot for the 4th quarter.
Noah started out the game with the same kind of unbridled aggression that he showed throughout Saturday night's clincher, securing several rebounds and being able to hit on a couple of drives to the rim. While the Heat's defense looked to be in a completely different league then what the Bulls saw in Brooklyn, the Bulls were making just enough of those types of difficult shots to stay close (and would always look to shoot early if they had any transition opportunity), as the Heat themselves came out shooting really poorly. After their week off, Miami started the game 0/7 from the field, and a 5-19 first quarter. Their 15 points in that quarter was a season-low for an opening period.
We heard the word 'rust' a million times in that quarter and throughout most of the game. And some of it was probably that, as the Heat were missing several open shots. But it also was part of the Bulls gameplan to make things this way. Being without Deng and Hinrich (have I mentioned how insane this result was yet?) the Bulls still had Jimmy Butler to stick on LeBron James, who received his 4th MVP trophy pre-game. Butler was phenomenal in simply making things difficult. Between his initial work on James and having Noah to back him up,, LeBron had the worst first half of his MVP season, with only 2 points on 1-6 from the field. Butler of course played 48 minutes, and didn't commit a single foul in the first half. And he had a Butlerian night on offense as well, going 9-10 from the line and 2-4 from three to wind up with 21 points despite only 5-13 shooting. 14 rebounds, too.
The Bulls plan of having their two best defenders shadowing James was working: not only did LeBron not get in an early rhythm, his teammates could not step up and take advantage of the space they were given. Shane Battier started the game out 1/6, Chris Bosh was an afterthought for much of the game after 2 early fouls, and it went on down their roster: On the one hand, some of those were shots the Heat will usually accept as good looks. But from the Bulls perspective, they'll also accept it as an alternative to James dominating them.
By simply looking at the remaining matchups, you figure Dwyane Wade needed to do a lot more. While he had a brief spurt of some transition baskets in the second half, only scoring 14 points on 16 shots (and zero FT attempts! Dwayne Wade!) with Belinelli on him much of the game is putting way too much pressure on LeBron. And if he then decided he needed to step up late, it backfired as his pull-up three point attempt was an awful shot given the situation. Wade has been battling a sore knee (for years now, basically) and did look to have aggravated it a couple times on Monday. So that's cool. And with Bosh and the rest of the Heat big men: they weren't enough of a threat to make Noah think of doing much of anything except keeping an eye on James.
To his credit, James did take it upon himself to try and singlehandedly win it, going on a spectacular 12 point run (of Miami's 14) to begin the 4th quarter. He made some unbelievable jumpers in the lane and then powered through Butler for consecutive three-point plays to put the Heat up 7 midway through that final quarter.
But through a couple of these LeBron runs, just as notable was the Bulls hanging close throughout. They kept working on offense, attacking Miami inside and out: both getting to the FT line (Bulls had the FTA edge, 29-25) and also seeing huge jumpers from Belinelli, Butler, and Gibson.
By now, the TNT telecast had stopped calling Miami rusty and went right to calling them tired. Whatever excuse, it just wasn't their night. Even LeBron's 4th quarter flurry still showed an overall game that's less that what he can usually do. Rust or over-rest(?) or whatever else: maybe they just weren't used to the type of game the Bulls have been having these whole playoffs: extremely short rotations, a defensive battle, and staying close to a point late in the game to where nearly anything can happen. And Monday night it did.
I really didn't think Miami couldn't be ready, knowing how the Bulls play. Maybe it's one thing to expect it and another to experience it. Going forward whether the Heat raise their level of play or not (...they will), they know the Bulls are always going to make it hard as hell for them. And it's always fun to watch.