Do you remember everybody's favorite narrative from before 2012? That LeBron James, who everybody acknowledged was the most talented basketball player on the planet this past NBA season, was somehow "not clutch," or "couldn't win," and that there was somehow some sort of connection between James' elite play and his teams having less than elite finishes.
Maybe you do, maybe you don't. Maybe you're Skip Bayless, although I hope that third one isn't the case. Regardless, I imagine we're going to hear some strains of that categorically disproven song after the seemingly unstoppable Miami Heat were, um, stopped by the ragtag Chicago Bulls. Especially on the night after James received his MVP Trophy, just adding to the potential for mockery.
Yes, the Bulls, who I have now described in various articles over the past few weeks as "shorthanded," "undermanned," and "banged-up," among other terms, won 93-86 in Game 1 of a series most thought would be a Miami sweep. They scored the final 10 points, as Miami didn't score in the game's final two-plus minutes. But the LeBron criticism would be a) tired and b) pretty phenomenally incorrect. Let's talk about why.
First things first: yes, in the first half, the Chicago Bulls stopped LeBron James. He had two points on six shots. Tom Thibodeau's squad geared its defense around getting the ball out of James' hands, throwing a strong perimeter defender in 6'7 Jimmy Butler in primary defense on James, then hording behind him. The Bulls have gotten a reputation for crowded, nearly zone-ish defenses where everybody packs the paint for as long as possible without getting a three-second violation, and it was there.
LeBron made the passes he needed to, but his teammates didn't hit shots, going just 3-for-13 from beyond the arc, Shane Battier and Mike Miller combining to go just 2-for-10. From a gameplan perspective, the Heat did their jobs, getting open looks for 40-percent three-point shooters over and over again against the Bulls' protect-the-paint-at-all-costs defense. The looks didn't fall, and if you're the Heat, that's a poor result with great process. The Heat entered the half tied at 37, but could've been up six or nine with average three-point shooting on the looks they had.
In the second half, LeBron was a different player, the megalithic, unstoppable force we've gotten to know over the past few seasons. He scored 22 points on 11 shots. Several of those were of the hair-tearing, "how-did-he-do-that!?!" variety: thunderous jams, dexterous finishes around the hoop and an and-1 where Butler basically tried to tackle him at full speed and James calmly banked in a left-handed layup anyway.
James was a bummer in the first half, but in the second, he was an MVP. Unfortunately, his team wasn't there in support. James finished the game with 24 points on 17 shots with eight rebounds and seven assists. That's not that far off his season averages. The other guys in the starting lineup finished the game 13-for-36 with 32 points. That's, um, bad. Despite LeBron's early struggles, the Heat entered the fourth quarter up four, and despite 15 points in the period by LeBron, they lost because they gave up 35 points to the Bulls.
Oh yeah, we probably should've mentioned that earlier: the Heat gave up 35 points in the fourth quarter. Thirty-five, as the Bulls spun in some preposterous and-ones, Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler got open, and Nate Robinson became unstoppable. That, more than anything, is why they lost.
That wasn't lost on the Heat, as Erik Spoelstra repeated ad nauseam in his postgame presser:
There's no excuses. We're not making any excuses for time off or anything else. We're up four, regardless of how we played going into the fourth quarter, and you give them credit, because they exploded for 35 points in the fourth quarter. That's not going to get it done on our home court in the playoffs.
You don't need anything. This is the playoffs. Either you win or you lose, and you've got to figure out a way. There's no excuses for it on our home floor. There's opportunities where you're up. Every time we got to be up six, they would hit a three-point play something to get them right back in. We didn't close out the game the way we're capable of with a three-to-five point lead.
It's going to be about who is going to impose their identity on the other team. They imposed their identity. I don't think there's any doubt about that, anybody's wondering, we did not.
Dwyane Wade echoed Spoelstra:
The first three quarters we did a good job defensively. The fourth quarter, giving up 35 points, was not characteristic of the Miami Heat. But this team came out and they ground and they won it.
Late in the game they beat us with their effort, and that can't happen.
Quotes via NBA.com's live press conference stream.