Commentary

Heat beat Bulls at their own game

If the Heat keep making the hustle plays, the Bulls are in trouble

Updated: May 19, 2011, 9:24 AM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls can get away with shooting 34 percent, as they did in Game 2 against the Miami Heat on Wednesday night. They can get away with Derrick Rose and Luol Deng throwing up one brick after another. The Bulls can even steal a victory against an elite opponent when they miss free throws and misfire on one 3-point attempt after another.

But what the Bulls cannot do and expect to win against a team as good as Miami is play poorly on defense and get beat on the boards. That, for these Bulls, is a killer. It's a one-two punch that spells doom.

This, boys and girls, is the rhythm of an NBA playoff series between worthy opponents. One team wields a bludgeon in Game 1; the other comes back swinging from the heels in Game 2. The Bulls sat around for three days hearing how great they were after going Sandy Koufax perfect in Game 1; the Heat sat around their hotel rooms for three days stewing in the talk around town of how they stunk up the joint and looked to be a bunch of overrated bums.

[+] EnlargeLuol Deng
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireDwyane Wade and the Heat attacked the rim with unrelenting aggression on Wednesday night.
But as Dwyane Wade said afterward about a trip north to Chicago that ended better than it started, "We had plenty of time to hear about it, then plenty of time to do something about it."

And as a result of getting beat at the things that earned them 62 wins, a No. 1 seed in the playoffs and series victories over the Pacers and Hawks, the Bulls now have plenty of time to reflect on what they'll consider an inadequate effort.

You could see it at the start. Chris Bosh got loose for an uncontested dunk to begin the game. Miami's second basket was a layup from LeBron James, who cut to the basket hard and took a nice pass from Wade. Bosh made a pair of foul shots, and then Wade scored on a layup. Miami's fourth basket? A Jamaal Magloire dunk. After that, LeBron hung in the lane for an easy one, then Wade soared for a dunk. Never mind that the score was even in a back-and-forth game; Miami went hard to the basket on virtually every possession early with precious little resistance. The Bulls' defense didn't come close to resembling what we've seen all season, not with Miami living at the lip of the rim.

The reversal reminded me of a series in 1985, when Pat Riley's Lakers were blown out of a Game 2 by the Nuggets in Los Angeles. Before the action shifted to Denver, Riley was asked what adjustments he would make, what the Lakers would do differently, and Riley said that while his team might change some things in subtle ways, his players, more importantly, would do what they were supposed to do harder, with more intensity and greater purpose and sharper focus in the next game. And they did.

Magic Johnson, the leader of that Lakers team, said there was no doubt in his mind this was the primary message Riley would send to his team via coach Erik Spoelstra. And Miami responded just as Riley/Spoelstra demanded. The Bulls' defense, on the other hand, didn't. Deng, who played LeBron so well in Game 1, couldn't stop "The King" from having his way in Game 2; LeBron hit 12 of 21 shots and scored 29 points. Wade, whom Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer smothered in Game 1, got 24 points in Game 2 and shot 50 percent in doing so. This series very likely will be decided by whether LeBron and Wade play like the Hall of Famers they are. If the Bulls' defense can make them play three more times the way they played in Game 1, the Bulls will win.

In the meantime, the Bulls also had no answer for Miami's defense. Deng was 5-for-15 and settled too many times (seven) for 3-point shots. Rose, who gets to the rim better than any other player in basketball, found his path to the rim cut off most of the night. Bulls fans will say Rose missed; the video says Miami's defense forced Rose to miss -- a lot. My unofficial count had Rose getting his shot blocked five times.

One sequence told the story of not only Game 2, but the reversal of fortune from Game 1. With Miami leading 80-75 with about 90 seconds to play, LeBron missed a short shot that caught little if any rim. In Game 1, the Bulls grabbed that miss. In Game 2, LeBron grabbed his own miss and laid it in for a seven-point margin, while at the other end Wade got out to quickly contest Rose, then blocked his jumper to seal the victory.

The rebounds, loose balls and defensive plays that the Bulls used to win Game 1, which were their signature plays during the regular season, were exactly what the Heat used to win Game 2. Oh, Miami did have to resort to a personnel adjustment. Udonis Haslem, who began the season as a starter but missed most of it with a torn ligament in his foot, played his first significant minutes (23) since coming back to the lineup and hurt the Bulls with his scoring (13 points), rebounding (five, three offensive) and defense. Haslem was to Game 2 what Taj Gibson had been to Game 1. And if you think that's an overstatement, consider Wade saying afterward, "He's our player of the game. We don't win this without him."

The Bulls got another meaningful contribution from Gibson off the bench, but a 20-17 margin in favor of the Bulls' bench, given how much deeper the Bulls are, amounts to a loss. Seems like Kyle Korver (1-for-7 shooting) hasn't hit a 3-point shot of any consequence since the Pacers series.

[+] EnlargeOmer Asik
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireOmer Asik and the Bulls were bloodied by the Heat on Wednesday.
So, it was left to Tom Thibodeau to marvel afterward about "how their defense really got into us" and about his team's lack of ball pressure, which goes back to Miami's assault on the rim to start the game. Yes, the Bulls could have stolen a win in Game 2 if they'd hit more free throws -- they missed 10 -- or if Rose had hit three or four more of his acrobatic layups. But here's the only real postgame assessment that matters for the Bulls:

"Their defense," Thibodeau said, "was outstanding. Their ball pressure was great. They challenged shots. And then when the ball went up on the board, they were in the fight." To each one of those assertions, you could hear Thibs thinking out loud, "And ours wasn't, we didn't and we weren't."

Thibs went through the individual rebounding efforts of the Miami players and said, "When the ball was up on the board, they were in the fight. They were in the fight. ... I thought it was too easy to start the game for them. ... Our defense and rebounding are two things we have to be able to count on."

All that's important for the Bulls between now and Sunday is that their coach doesn't believe they were in the fight. Now, it's their turn to do what they're supposed to do with more intensity, greater passion and shaper focus, and it is Thibs' job to make them miserable for not doing it in Game 2, for squandering a chance to take a 2-0 choke hold on this series.

The reason young teams such as the Bulls and Thunder have so much trouble going from nothing to the NBA Finals is they don't realize the rhyme and rhythm of playoff basketball until it's too late. They win impressively one night, then sit back and figure they'll automatically put forth the same effort the next game and have the same result. Nothing could be further from the truth because the losing team is working very specifically on a counter attack, on shoring up the exact weaknesses that led to the defeat in the first place.

That's what teams with championship aspirations do: They sit in their rooms and listen to all the people pointing out what they didn't do and do that, usually with the same guys just trying harder. Miami did that between Games 1 and 2; now the Bulls get to show between now and Sunday whether they've learned their lesson. The final exam is whether they retake control of this series or spend the next four days in Miami trying to keep the other guys' foot off their neck.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon

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