Riley says Bulls on edge of greatness. Are they?
MIAMI -- If you watched the final seconds tick off the clock as the Chicago Bulls finished off their sweep of the Miami Heat, you saw Miami coach Pat Riley and Chicago coach Scott Skiles meet at midcourt for a handshake, a brief embrace and a short conversation.
Here's what Riley told Skiles:
"I said you can go a long, long way, and good luck. I told him you can take them a long way, and he realizes that. He's got a team that's right there, and their big challenge is ahead of them. It's gonna be quite a good series against Detroit."
The Bulls made NBA history Sunday, becoming the first team ever to knock off a defending champion in four games in the opening round of the playoffs.
While the Heat, who were playing on pride, got in front and stayed there for most of the first three quarters, the Bulls stuck around and saved their finishing punch for the fourth quarter. That's when the Heat's series-long penchant for turning the ball over, missing free throws and failing to grab big rebounds caught up with them once again.
The clinching, crushing blow came from the most unlikely of places, Ben Wallace at the foul line. With just over two minutes left in the game, as the Heat played Hack-a-Ben, Wallace calmly and confidently stepped to the charity strip on consecutive possessions and connected on four straight free throws (and seven straight free throws overall in the fourth quarter).
It was about as complete a turnaround as Big Ben could have ever wished for, especially after his foul shooting problems a year ago prompted Pistons coach Flip Saunders to bench him for the entire fourth quarter of what turned out to be his final game for Detroit, the Game 6 loss in the Eastern Conference finals that sent the Heat to the Finals.
"We ran into a more than formidable opponent. They are a great team. They kept pressing on and pressing on and pressing on, and nothing ever discouraged them. We never got a handle on their quickness or energy," Riley said. "So our one-year reign comes to an end, and it was an incredible experience. But when you get to the top of the mountain, you don't camp out. You have to climb down, and now we have to start climbing back again."
Riley would not say whether that climb back will include him on the bench, saying he wanted to take time to decompress and reassess before making any decisions about his future. He did seem to be taking this loss rather well, though, going so far as to vow that he wouldn't don his usual morose persona and beat himself up for the next month.
Skiles, meanwhile, was the one struggling with conflicting thoughts that he didn't quite know how to handle. This is the first time in his past three years with the Bulls that he has made it out of the first round, and if ever there was a time for him to give a sincere "Yippee" (You might recall that after his Bulls defeated the Heat by 42 points on opening night, Skiles said sarcastically 'We're 1-0. Yippee.'), this was it.
"One of my weaknesses is that I don't really take the time to enjoy the wins, and I think I will enjoy this one," Skiles said.
Another one of Skiles' weaknesses is that he has always been a little too intense for his team's own good, but even Riley mentioned that he had noticed how Skiles has somewhat softened his demeanor, taking his foot off the pedal a little.
Skiles' players went about their business with a similar seriousness, never once losing their cool over the course of the series, always keeping a reserve of calm that translated into whatever it was they needed, whether it was clutch shots from Luol Deng and Ben Gordon or clutch steals Sunday while Dwyane Wade was throwing the ball all over the gym, committing seven turnovers.
The opponent in the next round is going to be a heck of a lot more formidable, the Pistons bringing a lot more quickness and many more scoring options than the old, slow and injured Heat could summon. I asked Shaquille O'Neal for a prediction, but all he would say was he expected the series to go six or seven games.
One of the biggest threats to the Bulls will be their own sense of satisfaction, whether they feel they've already accomplished something of significance or whether they're still hungry. They've already shown how coolly efficient they can be, as seen in some of the key numbers from this four-game series:
• Deng shot 58 percent from the field without once hoisting up a 3-point shot, leading the Bulls with a 26.3 average.
• Ben Gordon chipped in 25.5 points while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and handing out a team-high 22 assists.
• Andres Nocioni shot only 37 percent overall but was 9-for-19 from 3-point range.
• Wallace, who shot 27 percent from the line in last year's playoffs, went 7-for-8 Sunday to finish the series at a very respectable -- at least for him -- 61 percent.
• As a team, the Bulls shot 81 percent from the line and outrebounded the Heat by more than six per game.
"This series, we played as a team," Deng said. "We played together and we always played the same way. No matter what they did, we never really changed what we did. It was good for us to come out and show our maturity as a team."
That they did, and they'll have a day or two to feel good about it. Then, it'll be a matter of being satisfied with their recent accomplishment (ask the Heat how sound a strategy that is) or turning it into something bigger.
As Riley told Skiles at center court, they have a team that's capable of doing something great.
But are they ready for greatness? We're all about to find out.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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