This is like watching a barely conscious prizefighter being pummeled against the ropes but unable to fall — hard to watch but harder to look away.
The Heat defeated the Bulls 88-65 on Monday at United Center to take a 3-1 lead in this soon-to-be-over, calling-it-now, best-of-7-but-only-going-5, someone-just-throw-in-the-towel-please Eastern Conference semifinals playoff series. The Bulls are punch-drunk; the Heat is the heartless heavyweight champion of the world. This thing could really get ugly Wednesday.
Of course, it can’t really get much worse than Monday night. Consider:
• The Bulls’ 33 points in the first half were its fewest this season.
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• Those nine lonely points Chicago managed in the third period set a Bulls franchise playoff record for fewest points in a quarter.
The two field goals the Bulls scored in the third quarter tied a playoff record for the Heat’s defense.
• The Bulls’ 65 points were the second fewest allowed by the Heat in a playoff game.
• Blowing away a franchise record for futility in a playoff game, the Bulls shot 25.7 percent from the field. The old record low shooting percentage, set against Detroit in 1990, was .310.
“We just wanted to play with a desperation regardless of where the series was,” said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who had seven rebounds and six points in less than 17 minutes. “We talked about coming out with a desperation, and I think that’s what we did. We still could have played better offensively with a couple turnovers, but I feel like we played with that desperation for most of the game.”
In reality, the Bulls entered Game 4 as the hopelessly desperate underdogs. But Chicago didn’t play like it. Instead, the proud Bulls, who battled the Nets so courageously in the first round, ran out of steam Monday on national TV and in front of more than 21,000 fans in its own arena.
The United Center, the place nicknamed “The Madhouse,” was as quiet as a mausoleum late in the third quarter with the home team trailing by some grossly insurmountable deficit. The loudest cheers were for the Dunkin’ Donuts race on the JumboTron during a timeout.
From the opening tip, the Heat’s trapping defense made things difficult on Nate Robinson, who is the only healthy player on Chicago’s roster who can create his own shot. Chicago began the game 1 of 12 from the field and Robinson missed every shot he attempted (0 of 12 overall and 0 of 5 from three-point range). He finished the game without a point.
“Our activity was much better tonight,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “It starts with the competition on the ball, and when we get up into ball-handlers and compete to get over screens and stay in front of the ball-handler, we’re an entirely different defensive team.”
With Robinson scoreless, Carlos Boozer missing in action and Joakim Noah gassed, the Bulls scored just 42 points in the game’s first 36 minutes. And the third quarter was the dreadful climax of the awful game. Chicago went 2 of 13 in the period led by Robinson’s 0 of 5.
“I wouldn’t say that was the prettiest quarter of basketball on both ends,” Battier said. “But we were active, and we were flying around. I don’t think it was the prettiest defensive quarter we’ve played, but it was effective.”
So polite, that Battier.
And here’s one of the oddest stats you may ever see in an NBA basketball game: 38.4 percent of the Bulls’ total number of points came from the free-throw line. Chicago went 25 of 32 from the stripe.
LeBron James led the Heat with 27 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. He was 8 of 9 from the free-throw line and 1 of 4 from three-point range. His lone three-pointer of the game put the Heat ahead by 20 points with 10:40 left in the fourth quarter. The way Chicago was playing, it might has well have been a 50-point lead.
“We’re going into each and every series trying to wear teams down,” James said. “For us, we’re going out with the same group of guys each and every night and someone picks it up if one of us is down.”
For Dwyane Wade, reality seems to be catching up with him with every passing playoff game. He writhed in pain after lightly bumping his injured right knee in the second quarter and missed his first five shots of the game. He finished 3 of 10 from the field for six points in 29 minutes.
“The thing about Dwyane is he understands better than anyone is: Just help us win,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s giving us all he’s got and giving us minutes to help us win.”
Chris Bosh had 14 points, going 7 of 10 from the field. He made seven of his first eight shots of the game and was asked afterward if he was surprised by the ease in which the Heat won Game 4 of the series.
“We worked for it,” Bosh said. “I never like to say things were easy. We have to bring a certain amount of intensity to the game and sometimes that’s the most difficult part — to exceed the other teams intensity.”