Shocked, sullen but mostly confused, Heat fans poured out of AmericanAirlines Arena and into the tropical night.
What was that, they wondered? A loss by the home team? Most had forgotten such a thing was even possible. The Heat was supposed to win 16 in a row, right? It was all preordained. It was LeBron James’ big MVP night.
Well, there were MVPs of Monday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Heat and Bulls, but they didn’t play for Miami.
On the night James received the fourth MVP award of his career, relentless defenders Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah of the Bulls corralled the best player in the league, allowing the Bulls to steal the first game of this second-round series with a 93-86 victory.
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It was one of the more surprising postseason upsets in recent NBA playoff memory, considering the Heat had seven days to rest after sweeping the Bucks in the first round and the Bulls, just two days prior, outlasted the Nets in a seven-game series that included injuries, spinal taps, illnesses and more injuries.
And did we mention the spinal taps?
Yes, Chicago forward Loul Deng had a spinal tap after a meningitis scare during the Bulls’ first-round series and did not play on Monday night for obvious reasons. Guard Kirk Hinrich was also out with a lower leg injury. It left Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau with a roster already without guard Derrick Rose.
Despite the short-handed team, the Bulls rallied from down three points in the final 2:22. It started with a corner three-pointer by Marco Belinelli, and then speedy point guard Nate Robinson scored the final seven points of the game. Chicago outscored the Heat 35-24 in the fourth quarter.
“This is what the playoffs are all about,” James said. “We’re going against a really good team, and we know that so we’ll prepare tomorrow and get ready for Game 2.”
Game 2 of the best-of-7 series is Wednesday at AmericanAirlines Arena. For the Heat, Game 1 was its first loss of the playoffs and just the third loss since the beginning of February. The defeat also snapped the Heat’s 12-game winning streak dating back to the regular season.
“Late in the game they beat us with their effort and that can’t happen,” said Dwyane Wade, who had 14 points after missing Game 4 against the Bucks last Sunday. Wade and James were the only players to score in double figures for the Heat.
Butler played 48 minutes, scoring 21 points to go along with 14 rebounds, three assists, two turnovers and a blocked shot. Amazingly, he has played 150 consecutive minutes, including every minute of three entire games, dating to the Bulls’ first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets.
Normally, Deng would be guarding James, but Butler was called into service with Deng out with an illness. Noah, the Bulls’ center, shared the duty during long stretches as well.
“For now, I guess I’ll be stuck guarding [James],” said Butler, who, along with Robinson, had 11 points in fourth quarter.
James finished with 24 points after scoring just two points in the first half, a career postseason low. He had 15 points in the fourth quarter but missed a crucial shot with 29.8 seconds left and the Heat trailing by four points. The Heat went 0 of 5 from the field in the final 1:37 of the game. In order, Bosh, Wade, James (twice) and Ray Allen missed shots.
“We were up four regardless of how we played before the fourth quarter,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’re not going to make any excuses.”
From the beginning, Monday reminded everyone of two things: It has been far too long since the Heat and Bulls squared off in the postseason, and, most importantly, the Heat’s joyride through these 2013 playoffs is over. The Bulls led 21-15 after the first quarter with the Heat shooting 26.3 (5 of 19) percent from the field to begin the game.
James had nine points entering the final period before scoring nine points in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter to give the Heat a 73-68 lead. At that point, James scored or assisted on 16 of the Heat’s last 18 points. But he wasn’t finished. He scored his second three-point play in a row following a timeout with 6:30 to play.
It seemed like the Heat was once again pulling away like it had done so many times against the Bucks in the first round.
But the Bulls wouldn’t go away, charging back to tie the game with a 7-0 run, which was highlighted by a three-pointer from Marco Belinelli. From there, after an entire game of offensive stagnation, things suddenly came to life.
Allen and Butler traded three-pointers before James put the Heat ahead 83-81 with a pair of pressure-packed free throws. Overall, the Heat was 17 of 25 from free-throw range and shot 39.7 percent from the field.
The Heat went ahead by three points following a dunk by Bosh and 1 of 2 free throws from James but then Belinelli stroked a three-pointer from the corner to tie it at 86. From there, the Bulls outclassed the defending champions on their own court.
“We just give it our all,” Robinson said. “We go out there and play.”