Monday, May 13, 2013

Eastern Conference Semifinals Game Four, Bulls-Heat: Running on Empty, Not a Station For Miles

Chicago Bulls 65, Miami Heat 88--Heat lead series 3-1

On the heels of another dramatic contest ultimately ending in a loss--albeit much closer than the disaster that was Game Two--the Bulls limped into Game Four needing a win; otherwise, Game Five would likely be nothing more than a prolonged death knell for this 2012-13 season. 

Unfortunately for the Bulls, Miami jumped out to an early 13-4 lead, as the Bulls started off ice cold, going 2-for-13 from the field. Luol Deng was deemed "active" for the game, the latest stretch of what it means for one to be "active." If Deng could be described as "active," in spite of all the news of his post-spinal tap complications, then those of us who are otherwise healthy are superheroes, according to the relativistic continuum of NBA player health designations. 

And yet, despite a first quarter in which the Bulls shot 27% and the Heat shot 59%, they somehow managed to enter the second frame down just 21-15. As we have come to know very well this season, the Bulls have turned the execution of the "awful quarter that ends with being down by only that much" into an art form, insofar as such a thing can be considered art. 

Marco Belinelli was called for his third foul early in the second, meaning that Rip Hamilton would enter the game for the first time since his three-minute showing in Game Six against Brooklyn. Whether he was in the "dog house" or not, it has gotten to the point that Hamilton entering the game is just one more sign of the dire times for the Bulls, personnel-wise. 

Following a nice extra pass from Nate Robinson on the wing, Hamilton hit an open trey from up top, and on the following possession, Taj Gibson went up strong at the basket, completing a traditional three-point play. In short order, the Bulls had cut the lead, which had ballooned to 13, to seven, and the United Center crowd exhibited its first sign of life. 

This ephemeral momentum was quickly snuffed out, as LeBron returned from a brief trip to the bench to send home a theatrical thunderdunk after a Bulls turnover. 

Luckily, the Heat were not particularly careful with the ball, committing eight turnovers with several minutes still remaining in the first half. On the other hand, the Bulls were not able to capitalize, and continued to remain down by 7-12 points. Excluding their 6-for-6 mark from the line, the Bulls had produced just 21 points through 21 minutes of play. A point a minute is good if you're Fielding Yost, but isn't necessarily a sustainable basketball strategy (unless you happen to play in the Big Ten). 

It was not a well-played half for either team, but a poorly played half for the Bulls is a far different concept than the same from the Heat. As such, the Bulls took an 11-point deficit into the second half. Chicago shot just 27%, scoring at a clip of just 0.79 points per possession. 
The early stages of the second half didn't exactly presage a Bulls comeback. Nate Robinson remained without a field goal, beginning 0-for-10 on the night (0-for-5 from three). There is simply no way the Bulls can or will be able to keep a game against the Heat with Nate shooting like this, especially on a number of pretty decent looks.

Steve Kerr started to talk about the Bulls looking to be out of gas, which certainly seemed to be the case. Whereas the Bulls couldn't do anything with Miami's carelessness with the ball, it seemed as if the Heat took advantage of every Bulls miscue, usually with a dunk or layup in transition. The game was in danger of slipping away in earnest, if it hadn't already done so. 

A 17-footer from Wade upped the lead to 58-42 at the 3:10 mark of the third. Really, "macabre" is likely the only word with the descriptive capacity to sum up the Bulls' offensive performance to this point. Chicago had made just 13 field goals to Miami's 25, and was down 16 despite more than doubling up the Heat in trips to the line. 

The only hope that remained was that #GoodNate would emerge from the phone booth in the fourth quarter, but even that was wishful thinking of unrealistic proportions. 

A Norris Cole buzzer-beating trey added insult to injury, as the Bulls went into the fourth down 17 despite the Heat having only scored 61 points of their own through three quarters. This was not an elimination game, but the level of play and the understandably lifeless UC crowd made it plainly obvious that the ensuing 12 minutes would be the last played on the W. Madison hardwood this season. 

Having watched this Bulls team all season, I wasn't quite ready to dismiss all hope, no matter how statistically insignificant that hope may have been. The Bulls have tested our limits of credulity all season, but limits are limits for a reason. As the Bulls stumbled through the fourth quarter, it was clear that a final surge would never come. Unlike Game Three, this contest was only vaguely semi-competitive from the start, and it never appeared that the Bulls had enough to make things interesting. 

With tonight's defeat, the Bulls are one loss away from elimination. Barring a minor miracle, Chicago's season will come to an end Wednesday night in Miami. 

While this was by no means an unexpected outcome (especially under the circumstances), elimination stings due to the simple fact that we won't be able to watch this team do what it does again until late October. On the bright side, the next time the Bulls take the United Center floor, they will (hopefully) be led by Derrick Rose once again. 

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