CHICAGO -- Imagine the National Guard deployed to militarize the perimeter of the basketball court in the expectation of more mayhem. Uniformed police officers with nightsticks are serving as the game’s officials. The whole spectacle plays out surrounded by an octagon cage.
Apocalypse now: Heat vs. Bulls, second round, 2013 NBA playoffs.
If any series invites such dark hyperbole, it’s this one. And Game 3 here Friday night did little to change that or tamp out the lit-fuse feel of what’s been happening, and what still might.
It’s the volatility that will fill the highlight reels and postmortems Saturday — the shocking sight of Heat superstar LeBron James shoved violently to the ground as a howling, hating Bulls crowd spit its venom.
That isn’t what made Miami’s 104-94 victory for a 2-1 series lead most remarkable, though.
Neither LeBron nor Dwyane Wade played particularly well, and the Heat won anyway, on the road, by double digits.
Give the depleted Bulls credit for their no-quit fight despite missing Derrick Rose (still) and two other key players. But give the Heat players more credit for demonstrating they are as tough as they are talented, and resourceful, too, finding heroes elsewhere even on a night when LeBron finished strong but was only 6-for-17 shooting and Wade, his right knee still not quite right, was held to a quiet 10 points.
So in stepped Chris Bosh, the third of the Big 3 but the biggest Friday night, with 20 points and a huge 19 rebounds.
And in stepped little Norris Cole, with 18 points off the bench including 3 for 3 on three-point shots.
The uncommon sight of Cole on the interview podium was amusing, like watching the understudy accept the Oscar.
“I stay prepared,” a smiling Cole said of the spotlight suddenly on him. “It’s the playoffs. That’s really the only intensity you need.”
Bosh, Cole and a clutch fourth-quarter by league MVP James are mainly why this series’ home-court advantage swings back in Miami’s favor now with Game 4 back in Chicago Monday night. The Heat have put themselves in a position to win this in five games back in Miami – and neither of the past two games suggest they won’t.
For sure, this grudge series will leave both team bruised no matter how long it lasts.
That is the brutal beauty of this rivalry, and why a crowd-hushing result like Friday’s tastes so sweet to anybody who cares about the Heat.
“They don’t like us, we don’t like them,” as LeBron summarized before the resumption of the pugilism. “That’s how it is.”
The pretense of Game 1 civility collapsed in a chaotic Game 2 wrought with more technical fouls (nine) than in any NBA playoff game since 1995. There were two flagrant fouls. Bulls Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson got ejected – Gibson later fined $25,000 for “verbal abuse” of a ref.
We were just getting’ started.
The testosterone was still at a high simmer Friday night.
It boiled late in the first quarter when Chris “Birdman” Andersen’s block and foul on little Nate Robinson and collapse onto him led to a near-melee that had coaches spilling onto the floor. Noah – who else? – drew a technical foul for shoving Bird off Robinson.
Then it escalated, that boil spilling over onto the hot stove with angry hiss. Did you expect otherwise?
The second quarter brought the stunning sight of LeBron James knocked backward onto his backside by raging Bull Nazr Mohammed, who was given a technical and ejected for his outrageous actions. James also drew a T on the play for the initial foul that set off the spasm of temporary insanity in Mohammed – who should also be suspended by the league from Monday’s Game 4 here.
Afterward Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau suggested James might have “flopped.”
(Unwise remark, Tommy. What’s that they say about tugging on Superman’s cape?)
Generally when you say both teams in a series are in for a fight, you mean it figuratively. Heat-Bulls is way too close to actual fisticuffs.
It likely was not incidental that Wade, who doesn’t usually, wore a mouthguard Friday night.
That snapshot of Middle-Finger Lady, the Miami fan angrily jabbing a digital salute at Noah during Game 2 – that pretty much summarizes the civility of this series thus far.
Ain’t it great!?
The thing is, Miami is suited to brutal, black-and-blue ball if that’s what is required. The Heat can adapt and go there. The larger personality of the team is better reflected by fast breaks, alley-oop dunks and three-point shots. By Showtime, South Beach-style.
But if you want to get down and trade elbows, remember whose team you’re dealing with here. Pat Riley’s team. Riley, the former amateur boxer with the bedrock belief in hard, hard defense. Riley, who earlier this year publicly told another club president to “shut the [bleep] up!” Except bleep began with ‘f.’
“Both of us are ‘culture’ organizations,” as Spoelstra described Heat-Bulls. “Both are defense-minded organizations that don’t back up. Their style of play won’t change and ours won’t change.”
Bosh probably didn’t mean to be quite so literal in saying, “When push comes to shove, we know what to do.”
Two and a half hours before Friday’s tipoff, no fans around, no media, Wade took a small detour as Heat players stepped off their team bus and prepared to enter the arena.
Wade, a Chicago kid, walked over to the iconic statue of his hero, Michael Jordan, a bronzed tribute frozen in time, Jordan in flight and, appropriately, slightly larger than life.
Like a fan, the Heat’s veteran star snapped a photo on his smart-phone, and put it out on Instagram.
“Always gives me the chills when I see this in person,” read the caption he wrote. “My hero MJ once told me: People forget about individual awards. But people never forget about Championships.”
Wade, deep enough into his basketball days to think legacy, to see the end on the far but ever-approaching horizon, has two championships on his NBA mantel and wants that third. At least. Funny how sometimes the more you have tasted, the hungrier you become.
Game 3’s triumph was a big leap closer to that third Heat title, and second straight.
It felt like a step as big as the one Jordan is making in airborne flight right outside the arena that Miami rendered so, so quiet on Friday night.