Monday, May 6, 2013

Eastern Conference Semifinals Game One, Bulls-Heat: Welcome to Miami


Chicago Bulls 93, Miami Heat 86--Bulls leads series 1-0 (!)

After improbably pulling off a Game Seven victory in Brooklyn Saturday night, the Bulls enter the Eastern Conference Semifinal round playing with house money. With Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng both out again, in addition to Derrick Rose's continued absence, expectations are not exactly what they were the last time these two teams squared off in the playoffs. 

Nonetheless, the Bulls have played the Heat close, even without Derrick Rose, having split four regular season meetings this season. Of course, the playoffs are a different animal, especially with the Heat being well-rested after easily dispatching the Milwaukee Bucks in four, and the Bulls grinding their way through seven trying games against Brooklyn. With this in mind, an enveloping fog of unease pervaded upon the lead-up to Game One, and rightfully so; there are no moral victories in sports, but if the Bulls managed to keep the first game of this series close, then maybe the vague notion of a competitive series could become a reality. 

The Bulls gained possession on the opening tip, but neither squad was able to get on the scoreboard in their respective opening trips on the offensive end, starting a combined 0-for-5 from the field. A nice move to the rim from Noah put the Bulls on the board first, however, at the 10:15 mark. Jimmy Butler extended the lead to 4-0 from the line after drawing a blocking call just outside of the restricted area. 

Neither team was exceptionally sharp in the opening minutes, but given each team's opening round, this was perhaps not unexpected. The Heat continued to misfire from the field, starting the game 0-for-7 from the field as the Bulls built an early 8-2 lead. 

Despite the auspicious start, Nate Robinson began this one 0-for-4 from the field with some questionable feeds to Chicago's big men; this would have to change if the Bulls were going to make this any sort of game. On the bright side, it was a quiet, low usage quarter for Lebron James, who was 1-for-2 from the field for two points well into the first frame. James seemed content to facilitate in the early stages, but Jimmy Butler was also doing his part in forcing that decision-making. 

Norris Cole countered a quintessentially Nate spin move into a banked jumper with a buzzer-beating floater of his own, and the Bulls took a 21-15 lead into the second quarter. 
Unfortunately for the Bulls, a 9-0 Miami run early in the second erased the positive feelings of the first quarter in just over a minute of play, giving the Heat their first lead of the game. Even more worrisome was the fact that James did not contribute a single point during that Miami outburst; it was only a matter of time before he, too, hit his stride.

That never happened, however, as LeBron finished the half with two points on 1-for-6 shooting. The Bulls defense picked it up after Miami's big run, taking the two teams into the half tied at 37, making for a tremendous first half showing for the shorthanded Bulls. 

Early in the third, LeBron attempted and made his first trey of the game, tying the game after a three from Nate Robinson. Even so, every minute that ticked by without a big push from the Heat was a microscopic and incremental victory for the Bulls, for whom "hanging around" was the order of the day. 

Answering a transcendent coast-to-coast drive for a score from Noah --and a Boozer dunk shortly thereafter-- Dwyane Wade started to heat up, with back-to-back scores at the rim of his own. While LeBron idled at 2-for-7 from the field, Wade shot an excellent 6-for-12 from 12 points, a discouraging stat line for the Bulls given that Wade had not played since April 25 (or Game Three of the opening round). 

Another Wade bucket in transition gave the Heat a 55-49 lead with just over four minutes left in the third; with 16 minutes left for LeBron to finally get going, it felt like the game had the potential to slip away from the Bulls before the final frame began. 

The rusty vessel that is the 2012-13 Chicago Bulls began to creak under the Miami surge, but the final seconds ticked off the third quarter and the Bulls found themselves down just 62-58. A productive quarter from Nate Robinson, who scored 13 of the Bulls' 21 third quarter points, helped keep the rusty bucket of bolts afloat. 

Finally, LeBron began to assert himself early in the fourth, scoring the Heat's first six points of the final frame. As they had done all game (and all season), the Bulls continued to plug away, keeping it close while simultaneously appearing to be on the precipice of collapse. It is an exhausting way to play, to be sure, but the Bulls have turned it into an art form, an uncomfortable yet dazzling Cirque du Soleil of basketball. 

The Bulls were down one with just over seven minutes to go, but a pair of LeBron and-1s, the sort that make you just resignedly throw up your hands, extended the Heat lead to seven, again pushing the Bulls near the precipice. 

Once again, the Bulls rallied with a 7-0 run to tie it at 76; with around five minutes to go, the game was no longer about "hanging around." The Bulls had a legitimate shot to win it, even briefly taking the lead after a Butler corner three. 

With under two minutes to go and the game tied at 86, Nate went to work on Mario Chalmers, going between his legs and nailing a jumper to give the Bulls the lead on his 21st and 22nd points of the game. Despite a no show from Carlos Boozer, big performances from Butler and Robinson carried the Bulls this far. Now, they needed to finish. 

Wade misfired on a questionable three, allowing Nate to go to work again; he refused the screen, forcing LeBron to retreat, and then blew by Ray Allen for two in the lane. 

On the ensuing defensive possession, LeBron drove left and was way off on his mid-range jumper. The Bulls collected the rebound, and the Heat eventually sent Robinson to the line with 24.6 second left (where he went 1-for-2). 

LeBron attempted a three from Burkeland and missed. The death knell never came, and, preposterously, the Bulls pulled out a victory in Game One, 93-86. Whatever happens in Game Two, the Bulls got their road win, and now hope for the return of Deng and Hinrich. 

Nate Robinson et al ask you: Are you not entertained?

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