The story starts with the much ballyhooed free agency class during the summer of 2010, an offseason that would mark a huge turning point not only for the Bulls and Heat, but the NBA in general. The Bulls entered the summer with Derrick Rose, enough cap space to sign two max free agents and an opening at head coach. The Heat entered with enough cap space to get three max-level free agents and the perfect salesman to sell the plan, Pat Riley.
It's easy to forget now, but there was a time when Chicago really believed it was getting LeBron James. If James stayed in Cleveland? Chicago native Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh made for a nice enough backup plan.
In hindsight, it seems like James, Wade and Bosh knew they were going to team up all along, and that James' entire free agency tour was mostly meant to humor the teams who spent multiple seasons aligning the proper cap space for a chance at his services. The Bulls were left after missing out on their top three targets -- maybe even their top five, after Joe Johnson decided to stay with the Atlanta Hawks and Amar'e Stoudemire took max money from the New York Knicks.
What were the Bulls to do? They used the cap space to sign Carlos Boozer and a formidable bench. Of course, it was a signing that was made a month before free agency began that would really shape Chicago's future. That would be the Bulls' decision to fire Vinny Del Negro and replace him with Tom Thibodeau.
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Bulls-Heat games have always felt like the type of event Chicago stops for, a mile marker in the Bulls' season and the ultimate gauge of just how much magic Thibodeau and his team harbor inside of them. The rivalry has had some truly memorable moments: the Bulls sweeping the Heat during the regular season their first year with LeBron, John Lucas III out-gunning James to steal a victory in 2012, the Bulls snapping Miami's historic 27-game winning streak in March without their two best players, Rose and Joakim Noah.
The Heat have always held the trump card, though: their five-game dismissal of the Bulls in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. James shut down Rose, the man who interrupted his MVP streak, in crunch time of every game. The narrative appeared digestible enough: until Chicago surrounded Rose with more help, the Bulls simply didn't have enough to get by Miami.
On Monday night, the Bulls defeated the Heat, 93-86, to open their second-round playoff series. Rose was wearing a suit, Luol Deng was attached to a hospital bed. Now the narrative has changed again. It isn't about the phony 'Good vs. Evil' arc of Rose and James. It's about how a Bulls team so decimated by injuries, so seemingly overmatched on paper can still hang with a historically good Heat squad.
Miami has now won 41 of their last 44 games. The Bulls have beaten them twice.
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Even hours later, the Bulls' Game 1 victory doesn't pass the sniff test. Their lead still doesn't feel secure even with victory already in hand. How did this happen? How did the Bulls, as banged up as they've ever been, score 35 points in the fourth quarter to erase a seven-point Miami lead and steal homecourt advantage?
It's all so ridiculous. The Bulls' crunch-time lineup consisted of Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Noah. Robinson signed a non-guaranteed contract for the veteran's minimum. Belinelli signed a one-year deal for under $2 million this past summer. Butler was the No. 30 overall selection in the 2011 draft. Gibson was the No. 26 pick in 2009 and was battling through a knee sprain. Noah's fight with plantar fasciitis is so serious the center legitimately believed he wouldn't play in Chicago's first round series against the Nets. Yeah: that's the team that just outlasted LeBron, Wade and Bosh in a playoff game.
Miami had about $59 million in salary on the floor in crunch-time. The Bulls beat them with a lineup that combined to make just over $17 million.
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The Bulls always have a plan; that's one of the first things you'll learn about a team coached by Thibodeau. If there's a formula for Chicago to beat the Heat, it was replicated flawlessly on Monday: the Bulls slow down the pace, dominate on the boards and take away the transition opportunities that make Miami so dangerous.
When halftime ended tied at 37, it was a good sign for the Bulls. The final rebounding numbers: Bulls 46, Heat 32. Miami scored only nine fastbreak points to seven for the Bulls. This was picture-perfect execution of a tremendous game plan, and it resulted in a thoroughly mind-blowing victory for Chicago.
The numbers in the box score still don't make any sense. The Bulls finished the season No. 24 in points per 100 possessions and had trouble scoring in the fourth quarter all season long. Well, they just hung 35 points in the final frame against the league's No. 2 defense. As for Chicago's defense? It held Miami to under 40 percent shooting on the night, under 30 percent shooting on 24 three-point attempts and locked down Wade and Bosh throughout the game. LeBron did his thing in the second half, scoring 22 points and 10 of Miami's final 12 points. But the men around James simply didn't hold up. If you take away LeBron, the Heat shot 3-of-11 in the fourth.
There were so many incredible individual performances for the Bulls. Take Butler, who has now played almost two and half consecutive hours of playoff basketball. Butler went all 48 minutes against the Heat after playing the entire game against the Nets in Game 6 and Game 7 to end the first round. His defense on LeBron was incredible, and the two and-one buckets he connected on in the fourth helped thwart the type of run Miami always seems to have in them, the ones that blow games wide open. Butler finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds, and his effort felt bigger than the numbers.
Then there's Nate Robinson. Who ever could have seen this coming? It wasn't long ago the Bulls were getting eliminated against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals because Rose couldn't get crunch-time buckets. That's no problem for Robinson: he scored 11 of his 27 in the fourth, including the game's final seven points.
The numbers reveal the most mind-melting fact of all: there really isn't that much difference between what Robinson is doing in the playoffs and what Rose did during his MVP-winning regular season of 2011, per 36-minute production.
|2011 Rose||24.1 points||8.5 FGM||19 FGA||44.5%||32% from 3||7.4 assists||3.9 rebounds||1.0 steals|
|Nate, 2013 playoffs||21 points||8.2 FGM||16.3 FGA||50.4%||36.6% from 3||4.9 assists||2.2 rebounds||1.2 steals|
Is this sustainable? Do the Bulls really have a chance in this series now after stealing Game 1? It's important to remember the only other times Miami lost Game 1 in a playoff series since James and Wade teamed up were the aforementioned 2011 Bulls-Heat series and the 2012 NBA Finals against the Thunder. In both cases, the Heat won the next four games. This game feels like a fluke, like a perfect set of circumstances that can't possibly be repeated again ...
And then you remember that the Heat have been held under 90 points 11 times all season, and the Bulls have done it three times. Then you take a look a look at the head-to-head record since LeBron went to Miami and Thibodeau went to Chicago, and the Bulls, after Monday night's victory, now hold a 9-8 advantage.
Whether Chicago can do this again -- three more times still seems impossible, doesn't it? -- will depend on how Miami adjusts. With the way Robinson tore up the defense of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, it isn't hard to imagine the Heat sticking LeBron on Nate in crunch-time. Miami also missed a ton of open looks from three early in the game, and they've proven all season they can knock down those type of shots.
Still, it doesn't subtract from an amazing victory from the Bulls. Every time it looks like they're overmatched, Chicago finds a way to get the job done.