For all the criticism LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and the Miami Heat took in the days leading up to Game 2 vs. the Chicago Bulls, give 'em this much -- they couldn't have responded much better. Thanks to defense, rebounding, and clutch shooting down the stretch, Miami knocked off the Bulls Wednesday night, and will head down to Miami with the series tied at one. Thank God.
No matter what happened Wednesday, Miami and Chicago were a lock to be playing at least through next Tuesday, and probably longer. But thanks to Game 2's outcome, the next three or four (or five) games just got a thousand times more interesting. There's nothing worse than an overhyped series where the outcome's never in doubt. The showdown we'd been waiting for all year long looked totally one-sided in Game 1, and the Bulls defense made the Heat look painfully one-dimensional. LeBron even had a built-in excuse if the Heat lost Game 2.
But it's not just that Miami won on Wednesday. They looked like a completely different team. After getting beaten 45-33 on the boards in Game 1, they walked away with a 45-41 rebounding advantage in Game 2. After looking invisible in the fourth quarter this past Sunday, LeBron James took over this time around. And after letting Derrick Rose and the Bulls shred through their defense throughout Game 1, Miami tightened things up and held Chicago to 34 percent shooting. The Heat may still lose this series, but if Chicago's going to win, it won't be as easy as Game 1 was.
The change comes down to Udonis Haslem, the Heat co-captain that just got done rehabbing an injury that's had him on the sidelines since November. With him healthy, Miami's a whole different team. With him healthy in Game 2, he almost single-handedly solved Miami's rebounding issues. In Game 1, Chicago grabbed 17 offensive boards. With Haslem on the floor in Game 2? They had 3.
He changed things on offense, too. He runs the floor better than any forward on either team, and he was 4-4 from the field with nine points in the third quarter, but that doesn't quite do it justice. It was Haslem's two dunks in the second half that really changed everything in this series.
The same way Taj Gibson's poster epitomized Game 1, this play tells you everything you need to know about Game 2. Udonis Haslem is back, he's healthy, and he's ready to wreak havoc. The Bulls want to turn things into a war? Pfft... That's what Haslem lives for. Almost by himself gives the Heat frontline the athleticism and toughness they've lacked all year long.
(Speaking of which... There's no better testament to Chris Bosh's massive irrelevance than Udonis Haslem. Can you imagine what LeBron and D-Wade are thinking today? Like, "So this is what it's like to play with a big man that runs the floor and finishes in transition? Why weren't we doing this along?" It got to the point where you'd almost think Miami's better off playing Joel Anthony and Haslem up front and using Bosh off the bench. This seems like a good time to point out Chris Bosh is making $110 million over the next six years.)
After Haslem entered the game in the third quarter, Chicago never led again. He set the tone for the Heat on both ends, and Chicago looked as helpless on offense as the Heat did in Game 1. So with Chicago unable to take back control, it set the stage for LeBron to takeover down the stretch, and that's exactly what happened. It's Chicago's biggest disadvantage in the whole series, really.
They can turn this into a boxing match if they want, but the Heat have the best knockout punch in basketball. LeBron outscored the Bulls 9-2 all by himself over the final five minutes, and that was it. A game that looked like a toss-up with five minutes left became a double-digit win for Miami. Because that's what happens when you have a guy like LeBron, who can hit another level when everyone else gets bogged down in the trenches. And just like that, all the hype surrounding this series just got real.
Keep in mind, Chicago played terribly down the stretch on Wednesday, and they still had a shot to win it in the fourth quarter. Looking at the advanced box score, you'd think somebody put a hex on the Bulls rims before the game. They went 3-18 on short jumpers (3-9 feet), 0-5 on midrange jumpers (10-15 feet) and 3-20 on threes. And they still had a chance to win!
They missed free throws, lay-ups, open threes... You name it, the Bulls couldn't hit it. And it still took LeBron going into hero mode for the Heat to win it at the end. While LeBron deserves credit for taking control, but the Bulls offense didn't put a whole lot of pressure on him.
Going forward, that'll change. Derrick Rose isn't going to shoot 7-23 (and 0-7 from 3-9 feet) the next time out, and the Bulls won't shoot 3-20 on threes again. In other words, the plot's about to thicken.
LeBron James, Udonis Haslem, and the rest of the Heat realized after Game 1 that they'd need to take it to another level to compete here, and they did. Now we head to Miami, and it's Chicago's chance to answer, themselves. All the advantages they had are still there, but now we know the Heat are going to fight their ass off to keep themselves in it. All of which is to say that things are shaping up for a pretty kickass series, in general.
Two great defensive teams, three superstars in their prime, role players like Udonis Haslem and Taj Gibson battling in the trenches, and every single game comes down to the end. That's where we're headed. The war's far from over, but now that Miami's made the right adjustments, you get the sense that the rest of the battles will be epic.
The sort of games where a five-point lead feels like a 10-point lead. Where every possession feels twice-as-important. Where every game feels like it might have changed everything, and it's up to the other guys to answer back. This is playoff basketball at its absolute finest.