Early on, it appeared the spent and sore Chicago Bulls were going to take their medicine and go home for some well-deserved R&R.
Game 5 appeared to be another foregone conclusion in the Miami Heat’s march toward the inevitable.
But the Bulls are masters of reanimation. They tore out their IVs, slid off their gurneys and added suspense to a second-round playoff series that was looking DOA Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The revival lasted three quarters.
The Heat killed it, 94-91, showing no mercy in ending the Bulls’ season.
Who else but Dwyane Wade to deliver the crushing blows. First he came on with a lovely floater, and the expression on Heat players’ faces changed from perplexed to miffed, as in let’s get this done already. Sure enough, a moment later Wade elevated as high as he’s been in a month to slam a follow-up of a Norris Cole miss.
Talent trumps heart in the NBA, especially in a seven-game series.
But Wade showed both. He returned to the floor after a detour to the locker room to change his shoes — according to Coach Erik Spoelstra — or more likely to attend to his bruised right knee, which is hurting him and bugging him more than he will ever tell.
Wade took over for LeBron James, who was logging one of his workmanlike nights, and Chris Bosh, who cooled in the second half. Wade scored six points, grabbed three rebounds and blocked a shot during that pivotal three-minute stretch in the fourth quarter.
The Heat again proved that it can win in multiple scenarios relying on any of multiple finishers, and can count on key contributions from its non-Big Three players.
“Dwyane is uncanny,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “When the competition is at its highest he’s at his fiercest.”
When push came to shove, and shove came to punishing fouls against the relentless Bulls, the Heat decided to shut the door on the close-out game. The very best basketball teams don’t dilly-dally.
It’s not too early to wonder if this Heat crew can be as dominant in the playoffs as Michael Jordan’s 1991 Bulls, who went 15-2 en route to defeating the Lakers in the Finals, or the David Robinson/Tim Duncan 1999 Spurs, who went 15-2 in beating the Knicks for the title, or the 2001 Kobe Bryant/Shaquille O’Neal Lakers, who were 15-1 after sweeping through the West and losing just one in the Finals against Allen Iverson’s 76ers.
Back when the first round didn’t drag on for two weeks, the 1982 Lakers went 12-2 and the 1983 76ers went 12-1.
The Heat is 8-1 and awaiting its foe for the Eastern Conference title. Will it be the Pacers and their bigs? Or the erratic Knicks? The Heat, which has won 45 of its last 48 games and resigned the Bulls to the first four-game losing streak of their season, could sweep either team.
Spoelstra won’t let his players glance one millisecond beyond the task at hand. But it’s tempting to peek.
“Their health,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said when asked what separates the Heat from the rest of the league right now. Even with a gimpy Wade the Chicago series was never in doubt. Wade was so relaxed immediately afterward he joked with TV reporter Craig Sager about their respective fashion choices.
“I’m harder on myself than anybody. I would love to be one of those guys who was never injured, but that’s not in the cards,” Wade said. “I have to overcome certain things. This is what I thrive on.”
Said James: “He was forgotten by everybody but us. He’s a Hall of Famer. He has two rings. He doesn’t have to prove himself to anybody. ”
The game began with Heat players hitting their first seven shots and rolling to an 18-point lead. But the Bulls dug in on defense and chipped away at the Heat’s bulge. Jimmy Butler, Carlos Boozer and Nate Robinson were making shots. Richard Hamilton, the familiar old Rip, was the X factor, curling into a series of deadly shots. The Heat was getting beat on the boards. Shane Battier and Ray Allen struggled from long range. Bosh was in foul trouble.
Miami went into the fourth quarter trailing by eight. All braced for a Heat run.
Cole passed to Chris “Birdman” Andersen for a dunk that inflamed the crowd and narrowed the gap to three points. Battier shook off his shooting doldrums. Then Cole sank a three to give Miami its first lead since 4:27 of the second quarter. When Cole snaked inside to dunk over the Bulls’ big men, the suspense began to ebb away.
Still, all felt cheated by the absence of Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich.
“It’s a shame,” Spoelstra said. “Everyone would have wanted to see everyone healthy. But it has to be no mercy, survive and move on.”
There could be even less mercy in round three.