The Miami Heat’s long nap between the first and the second round of the NBA playoffs was a manufactured cause of concern and cannot be used as a reason for the 93-86 loss to the decimated Chicago Bulls on Monday.
Truth is, the time off was just the elixir Dwyane Wade needed. If his play in Game 1 was any indication, his aching knees have healed. He bounded back into the high-altitude territory he had vacated for 11 days. His cuts were sharp, his first step was comet-quick.
But Wade lacked the game-time killer instinct that is essential against the Bulls, a team that keeps coming back at you like a cockroach even after being stomped.
No vintage Wade, but he looked fine and dandy until the fourth quarter, when he took only three shots and missed all of them, including an awful, uncharacteristic three-pointer with 1:08 left and the Heat trailing by two points.
Joakim Noah — who else? — snagged the rebound, and Nate Robinson skittered inside for a finger roll that all but sealed the upset.
The entire team broke down in the final 12 minutes when the Bulls — a team that usually scores with a volume akin to sap dripping from a maple tree’s veins — rolled off 35 points.
Wade appeared frustrated, accumulating four fouls in the period while throwing up his hands and shaking his head.
Defense doesn’t require the kind of rhythm and timing the rusty Heat might have lacked on offense. Defense requires effort. The assiduous Bulls had it, two days removed from their Game 7 survival against Brooklyn and three days removed from their home. The healthy but listless Heat did not.
No closer came forward when the Heat had chances. Not Wade. Not newly crowned MVP LeBron James.
“They imposed their identity on this first game; we did not,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “No excuses. You have to earn it, you have to fight. We could have done things a lot better.”
Wade played 33 minutes and 27 seconds, second only to James’ 43:44, and more than expected. He made 7 of 16 shots for a total of 14 points, nabbed two rebounds, made four assists, one block and three steals to go with three turnovers. He did not go to the free-throw line.
His “activity level” was good on offense and defense, Spoelstra said. Wade gave a hint of things to come.
The layoff might prove to be the biggest blessing in the Heat’s drive toward a second consecutive NBA title. In the short-term, however, it did not serve Miami well against an emotionally charged Chicago team that has found its second wind.
The Bulls don’t have enough players, but they have got a surfeit of adrenaline.
It wasn’t Wade but James who seemed most off key in an ugly first half full of turnovers, bad passes, useless fouls and poor shots.
Wade revved up James with a couple give-and-go plays and rubbed the crust of sleep out of his teammates’ eyes.
Wade did not hold back against the Bulls’ aggressive defense.
Wade’s presence in the lineup was a game-time decision, so his smooth return and ample contribution was a relief for the Heat, who needed only to look to the other end of the sideline to see Chicago’s Derrick Rose seated in a suit, still feeling uncertain enough about his knee to remain an inactive observer.
Wade had his highlights: Mario Chalmers wheeled under the basket and scooped a pass to Wade, who switched the ball from one hand to the other and lay it in around Noah.
Wade ripped a pass from Marco Belinelli and made a long toss to James for a three-point play.
Wade tried to save a sailing ball and hurdled over the first row of seats into the stands. Unfortunately, his acrobatics resulted in the ball going to the hands of Noah, who completed a coast-to-coast fast break.
On another occasion Wade took a no-look pass from James and streaked by Jimmy Butler for another layup.
Wade has proven a master at managing his health through the wrenching ups and downs and interminable hurry-up-and-wait of the NBA’s two-month second season.
Last year his surgically repaired left knee gave him trouble. He had it drained the morning of Game 3 in Indianapolis and proceeded to play a horrid game against the Pacers, which was remembered for the harsh words he blurted at Spoelstra in a rare fit of frustration. Wade regained his cool and recovered to score 30 points in Game 4. He nursed his knee along through the championship run over Oklahoma City and had a second operation on the knee over the summer.
This year, a bone bruise to his right knee has bothered him for months and was aggravated in Game 3 against Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs. He sat through Game 4, which concluded the sweep of the Bucks, then got treatment and rest until he returned to practice on Friday.
He was back Monday. That was the good news.
Now for the hard part: Bringing the Heat back from a 0-1 deficit against the relentless Bulls, who are experts on injuries and how to minimize their effects.