Down 2-0, Heat defiant in the face of crisis
CHICAGO -- The only member of the Miami Heat who showed any anger or emotion exiting the court was a transformed man by the time I came across him in the locker room some 20 minutes later.
"I've been in the playoffs in this league a long time," Alonzo Mourning was saying, "and you know what, we've been here before. We've been here before."
Mourning actually chuckled in between repeating those last two sentences, a laugh one could only surmise was indicative of how all of the defending champs were feeling. Before, of course, was last June, and we all know what happened after the Miami Heat went down 0-2 to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals.
"We've got to see what the scenario is now. You guys can write what you want to write, and that's fantastic. You've got to do what you've got to do, and that's appease the public. But the bottom line is we're the world champions, and the first team that wins four games moves on. And that has not happened," Mourning said before being asked if he felt a sense that his team was in trouble.
"Oh, no. No. I don't have that feeling at all. We're in trouble if we lose at home. If we lose at home, you come back and talk to me and I'll tell you: 'You know what? We're in trouble.' But until then, I like our chances," said Mourning, who was in a far worse place as he exited the court and screamed at a Miami cameraman to get that damn contraption out of his face.
A few minutes of reflection, and perhaps a few soothing words from the coach, put Mourning in his peaceful place. Pat Riley seemed to be there, too, as he sat at the interview podium afterward, a lifetime of postseason experience keeping his spirits a level or two above where you'd expect them to be at this point.
"Believe me, this game can change quick," Riley said. "When everything seems like it's the worst, it's really just the beginning."
As much as I admire their confidence, I worry about their bravado and whether it's giving the Heat a false sense of security. They have shown themselves to be fairly helpless to defend against the Bulls' crisp movement game, their drive-and-kicks leading to an endless stream of midrange jumpers by Luol Deng that the old and slow Heat have been just too slow to defend.
Deng went for 26 in Game 2 after putting up 33 three days earlier, and Ben Gordon came through with his second straight 27-point performance to go along with his five assists and seven rebounds.
Riley afterward was comparing Deng to Cedric Ceballos, such a tall, sharp midrange shooter that he's capable of going for 40 on any given night without having a single play called for him. Miami hasn't had any success defending him with Dwyane Wade or Eddie Jones. I'd be shocked if James Posey doesn't take over the starting assignment against him when this series resumes Friday night in Miami amid a sea of white clothing and white seat covers that'll provide a visual prompt to take everyone's minds back to this time a year ago.
The odd man out of the mix for Miami is almost certain to be Jones, whose cumulative totals of four points on 1-for7 shooting in two games should rekindle all the old talk about him being a player who disappears in the postseason. Wasn't that one of the main reasons why the Heat jettisoned him in the Antoine Walker trade two summers ago and why the Lakers dealt him away before that?
"We've been giving [Deng] airspace, and we need to make him put it on the floor," Riley said.
Riley also commented that he partly blames the New Jersey Nets for his team's predicament, saying the Bulls returned from their season-ending loss at the Meadowlands so irate at themselves that it has fueled the motivation they've been displaying in this series.
"It pissed them off, and usually borne out of that kind of adversity comes something else, and we saw that in the first two games," Riley said.
Unlike Riley and Mourning, one guy who did not crack a smile or emit a chuckle was Shaquille O'Neal, who pulled a fast one on the media horde waiting by his locker by plopping himself down on the other side of the room, forcing the pack to scramble for new positions.
"We really can't make any excuses tonight. They just outplayed us," O'Neal said before I asked him what the worst thing a team in an 0-2 deficit can do.
"Think negative," Shaq replied.
So although the Heat are not yet thinking negatively, there have to be some doubts creeping into their heads about whether they have the fortitude and the freshness to keep up with a team whose constant movement has done nothing but perplex them thus far.
But on this night, defiance was the mood du jour. That attitude served them well last June when they were in a similar predicament, but as Riley noted afterward, the comparison is not entirely valid because last year's Heat team had 19 playoff games under their belts by the time they summoned their finishing kick.
This time, they're barely out of the starting blocks and they're already running uphill.
They claim they're up to the task of rallying, and may even legitimately believe it in their heads, but the Bulls are a team that truly believes in themselves, too, and they've shown they're more than up for the task of outplaying the defending champs, even if they're not quite in position yet to finish them off. That could come by the end of the upcoming weekend, although Mourning would beg to differ.
"We've had two games, on the road, and we didn't play well in either one," Mourning said. "Statistically we were beat across the board in a lot of different categories, but what we do now is go home and take care of our business."
That last line was spoken like a veteran who knows that of which he is speaking, and he'd better. Because the Heat are getting burned thus far in this series, burned by an obviously better team.
Then again, that's what we all were saying back on June 12 a year ago when the Heat limped back to Miami trailing Dallas 2-0. The Heat was a defiant and confident bunch back then, and it served them well. Maybe that's why Riley was taking this one in stride, and why Mourning was striding away with a hint of a swagger after assuring everyone that the Heat have plenty left.
"Obviously we don't like it, but we're well aware that this is a seven-game series," Riley said, "and we hope it'll still be a long series, and just like last year we have to go home and win two. That's the way I look at it after all the playoff series I've been in. I'm not going to get all bent out of shape."
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.