The juggernaut didn't look it Monday night, but the undermanned squad they faced certainly didn't look ready to upset them, as the Miami Heat played modestly but still earned a 88-65 win against a listless Chicago Bulls squad.
This wasn't reminiscent of any of the first three games in this series. One was a Bulls win. One was a hard-fought loss. One was a blowout, but the Bulls still managed to dish out some licks, exert their physicality, and generally show that the scoreline didn't indicate the fight.
It just wasn't there for the Bulls on Monday. The drive to win against outrageous odds, the fight, the friendly rolls, the luck, the gutsy performances from random role players -- nothing. A massive regression to the mean seemed likely for a Bulls squad that had been outperforming expectations game after game, but it was still brutal to watch in real time. The team shot 25.7 percent, just 2-for-17 from three, and turned the ball over 17 times against 19 field goals made. Their 65 points on the night was their lowest in franchise playoff history.
Nate Robinson, who has been heroic throughout the playoffs, fell flat, missing all 12 shots he attempted while turning the ball over four times. Sometimes he was bricking open threes, sometimes he was dominated by the elite defense of the Heat. He looked a lot like a 5'9 role player, fresh off the best stretch of basketball in his life, aggressively falling back to earth. His teammates didn't help: Carlos Boozer went 3-for-14 and Jimmy Butler's 12 points were only the result of another game where Tom Thibodeau wouldn't let him see the bench.
The Heat weren't great. LeBron James was roughly brilliant -- 27 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, one massive slam, one transition and-one -- but needed 17 shots and had four turnovers. Chris Bosh was the big scorer earlier, with 12 points in the first half, but only finished with 14. Dwyane Wade was notably unhelpful, failing to score before the break and finishing with only six points on nine shots. The Heat struggled with turnovers, but it generally seemed absent-minded and fixable, and gave up a lot of offensive boards, but it wasn't indicative of how well they played considering the sheer number of missed shots the Bulls had.
With a 6 p.m. local start, the United Center was more mild than Madhouse on Madison, robbing the a team that had thrived on the raucous nature of their home-court advantage. The Bulls missed 11 of their first 12 shots, and shot just 28.6 percent before the break. They trailed 11-2 seemingly seconds after tip.
Miami wouldn't turn on the blasters, though. The offensive rebounds kept Miami from initiating their zero-to-60 transition play -- well, sometimes -- and nine Miami turnovers, several of them unforced passes out of bounds, meant a lot of their offensive possessions weren't ending in points. The Bulls hung within 10 for parts of the first half, and eventually trailed 44-33 at the break.
They were hypothetically within striking distance, but they were never able to strike. After scoring just 33 points in the first half, already a hideously low number, the Bulls would manage only nine points in the third quarter, their low for a quarter on the season.
The dagger came when the Bulls turned the ball over on their final two possessions of the quarter and Norris Cole drilled a buzzer-beater to give the Heat a 61-42 lead. From there, garbage time would set in pretty quickly, even if the starters remained in the game until there were three-ish minutes left.