David J. Neal

David J. Neal: Gritty Bulls challenge Miami Heat’s core identity

Now comes the game Heat fans should be nervous about: Game 2, at home, down 1-0 to Chicago.

Game 1? Nobody expected a Heat loss. Nobody should have been surprised by the Heat’s loss. The NBA’s Secretariat clinched the best record almost a month ago. After coming home eased up, it enjoyed a four-game virtual walkover against Milwaukee. Then it was time for a short spring nap.

It woke up to find a Bulls team still running after a seven-game all-nighter against Brooklyn. Sometimes, you don’t realize how pooped you are until you get off the treadmill. So that was Game 1: The Bulls fighting and diving on reflexive memory, the Heat stretching, blinking, looking for the coffee, neither team entirely happy with what it sees in the mirror of game tape.

The game contained so many anomalies, it begs to be set aside. Do so. Now, onto Game 2, which goes to identity.

“Owning the areas we could’ve done better,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said in describing the Tuesday film session. “A lot of them are effort areas. Extra-effort possessions and doing things with more concentration to our identity offensively.”

“The first part of it is owning it. We need to play much better, much harder than we did [Monday night]. Our guys know that.”

It’s no accident Chicago deals with the Heat as well as anyone. The Bulls represent the similarly powered Other, Sinestro to the Heat’s Green Lantern. They challenge the Heat on what the local franchise considers the longtime pillars of its identity: hustle, diligence, toughness, fitness.

You can star up a Pat Riley-associated team and it still comes back to those traits. The L.A. glitz surrounding those 1980s Lakers teams obscures that they traded punches, literally, with Boston throughout the decade. The pivotal play in the 1987 Finals clinching game was a hustle play, Hall of Famer James Worthy diving after a loose ball to tap it back inbounds to Magic Johnson for a dunk. The 1988 Lakers won three consecutive Game 7s, a testament to physical and mental endurance.

Nobody need be reminded of Riley’s role in the Knicks-Pacers and Knicks-Heat throwdowns of the 1990s that featured more contact than a wide receiver gets coming over the middle these days.

Similarly, though dressed up with superior high-end talent, the Heat roster embraces the blue-collar work ethic that once defined places like Akron, Ohio, (LeBron James) and Chicago (Dwyane Wade).

“This series won’t be decided by Xs and Os,” James said. “It’ll be decided by will and determination.”

Chicago had more in Game 1, epitomized by the first playoff hockey injury in this town during this spring: 10 stitches in diminutive Nate Robinson’s face after he went face to floor with James in a loose-ball battle.

Not that the Heat never extended itself. In the final possessions, however, the Bulls pushed themselves to penetrate, the Bulls slid over to help defensively and the Heat didn’t.

“When we watched the film [Tuesday], it wasn’t about the plays, it wasn’t about making shots, it was all about the little things,” Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. “If you lose, you lose. Some nights, you’re not going to make shots. Sometimes, that’s going to happen. But you’ve got to bring the effort, got to bring the energy, you’ve got to compete every night. I’m not saying we didn’t compete at all. It was just certain areas, we could’ve done a little better in.”

If Chicago beats the Heat on Wednesday because Robinson stays unconscious or somebody makes a pivotal play at a pivotal time, that’s one thing.

If the Heat goes down while getting beaten on its philosophical turf as well as its physical turf, that’s something else.

That’s getting owned.

Owned and down 0-2 going on the road rarely ends well.

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