The Miami Heat’s flaccid performance against the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 demanded a counterpunch.
The Heat delivered with a 115-78 humiliation of the Bulls in Game 2 in a bruising manner that must have had Pat Riley nodding his approval and Alonzo Mourning flexing his biceps.
Wednesday’s game was characterized by extremely personal fouls, nine technicals, one flagrant, lots of glowering and too much gloating.
After surrendering 35 fourth-quarter points in the Game 1 loss, the Heat awoke from its mini-vacation slumber, applied defensive muscle and tied the series 1-1. In this role reversal, Miami outscored Chicago 30-15 in the third quarter and sent the thing — more a spat than a game at that point — into garbage time.
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Joakim Noah was ejected for complaining from the bench. Then Taj Gibson was dismissed for naughty words. That left the injury-depleted Bulls with what? Six guys?
The 37-point margin — best in Miami’s playoff history, worst in Chicago’s playoff history — kept the officials busy. They should have been replaced by an anger management counselor.
The reason for the 180-degree about-face for the Heat? The players, led by LeBron James, rediscovered their intensity, which had been left under a pillow, perhaps, or in the pocket of a pair of shorts after the four-game sweep of Milwaukee. Instead of being outrebounded by 12, as was the case in Game 1, the Heat won the battle of the boards by 13.
How intense? Heat point guard Norris Cole pulled down as many rebounds as Noah, who is nine inches taller.
Miami’s players decided to summon their defense, the foundation of the franchise’s philosophy, according to Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra. The Heat harassed the Bulls into 19 turnovers, resulting in 28 points, and held the Bulls to 78 points instead of allowing 93.
Nate Robinson, who scored 27 points, including the final seven — despite missing several minutes to receive 10 stitches to his upper lip in Game 1 — scored only 11 on 30 percent shooting. Heat defenders were all over Robinson like paparazzi on a starlet.
Jimmy Butler couldn’t get free either as the Heat attacked with double teams. Inside, the Heat had five blocks to the Bulls’ zero, and instead of letting Chicago pulverize the paint with 40 points, the Heat limited the damage to 18 by getting in the Bulls’ faces, cutting off passing lanes and pushing them out on the floor.
The Heat’s defense is the ignition key of its offense. Thus, a James steal begat a Dwyane Wade scoop layup and a 74-47 lead. A Chris Andersen block of Carlos Boozer led to James grabbing the loose ball and passing to Ray Allen for a three-pointer.
“We’ve played them six times this year and each game has been more physical than the last,” Allen said. “Both teams got put in some pretty crazy situations. We didn’t back down. We continued to push and be aggressive.”
Defense will get Miami another NBA title. Thus, a four-point lead inflated to 11 when the Heat forced Boozer into an offensive foul, then a missed shot, while Shane Battier fed Wade for a baseline dunk, followed by a James three-pointer, followed by another Wade dunk off an assist from James.
“We wanted to play hard,” Wade said. “In Game 1, we got frustrated, especially the leaders, we were frustrated, and it was trickling down. We wanted to come out with more effort.”
Miami, coming off a six-month-low 39.7 percent shooting night, got its three-point stroke cooking, also a byproduct of defense. Cole nailed two in a row during a 13-3 run to close the first half, and both came after Boozer missed jump shots and the Heat hustled back on offense.
Chicago plays basketball with a football mentality. Look at coach Tom Thibodeau. You would not want to misbehave if he was the bouncer at your local bar. But Miami matched Chicago’s toughness and maintained its composure when the Bulls lost theirs. The Bulls got distracted by calls or non-calls, and the Heat capitalized.
“We got sidetracked,” Thibodeau said. “You come in here, you’re not going to get calls, that’s reality. We can’t get frustrated. We can’t shy away from contact.
“You got to fight. It comes down to will and determination. The ball is in the air.”
Thibodeau was talking about his gallant Bulls, but he could have been talking about the Heat.
Question the Heat’s intensity at your peril. When this team has trailed previously in the NBA playoffs, the consequences for opponents have been painful. On Wednesday, it was 37 points worth of black and blue.