OK, the playoffs just got interesting fast for the Heat — fast as a punch to the gut that you don’t expect.
They sure weren’t interesting in the first round.
They weren’t supposed to be entering this second round.
They are now. Suddenly.
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A 93-86 Game 1 loss at home to the Chicago Bulls will do that.
Miami isn’t supposed to lose here, right? Isn’t supposed to lose at all, after winning 41 of the previous 43 games. Isn’t supposed to lose to a Bulls squad depleted by injury. Isn’t supposed to lose on a night that began with LeBron James accepting the NBA MVP trophy in a pregame ceremony.
Yet it was LeBron and his Heat teammates slumping off the court as the seconds ran away. It was the “White Hot” crowd filling the bayside arena that was drained of all its noise and life. And it was a fist-waving, pogo-ing Joakim Noah spitting his angry joy among the celebrating Bulls.
This result will get the nation’s attention. It will set the sky to falling with too many fans in Miami.
It might be nothing more than a stumble from which Miami will recover hugely in Wednesday night’s Game 2 here, and beyond. Until then, though, until then, the burden and weight has shifted onto the reigning NBA champions to prove themselves all over again.
We’ll find out Wednesday if this Game 1 aberration can be blamed neatly and simply on too much rest and too much rust, or if the desperate, limping Bulls simply match up that well with Miami and are enough a nemesis to make this a long, dangerous series.
“No excuses about the time off or anything else,” coach Erik Spoelstra said afterward, dissecting a rare defeat. “We’re up by four regardless of how we played entering the fourth quarter. Give them credit. We didn’t close out the game. We didn’t impose our identity in this first game.”
Miami collapsed in the fourth quarter, allowing Chicago — a team that struggles offensively — to net a 35-point finish.
Miami somehow allowed itself to be beaten by a 5-9 fire hydrant named Nate Robinson and by one Jimmy Butler, no all-star. They combined for 48 points.
Overall the Heat would shoot only 39.7 percent including just 7 for 24 on three-point shots while also coming up short on the defensive end.
Getting little help
James recovered from a season-worst, two-point first half to end with a team-high 24 points but got too little help, as Dwyane Wade, back in action but seeming to baby his right knee, added only 14. Nobody else was even in double figures as the Bulls’ fervent defense and 46-32 advantage in rebounding stymied Miami’s attack.
“Our offense wasn’t as fluid or efficient as it usually is,” Spoelstra understated. “We can also show more poise and patience than we did. Our guys are veteran enough to know we can play better.”
This was a Bulls team missing star Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, but didn’t seem to miss them at all.
Did Miami simply have an off night? Or does Chicago match up that well? We’re about to find out. The teams were 2-2 in the season, and it was Chicago that ended Miami’s 27-game win streak. Maybe those weren’t fluke results, after all.
Some of it probably was that a team on a 41-2 run is simply due a stumble, a mortal night.
And some of it, yes, was that time-off factor. Had to be.
Rust shavings would have fallen off Heat players in a cartoon cloud and formed a film over the court had the team’s off-key performance been reflected in more than just missed shots.
The reigning NBA champions were pretty awful for much of the night.
The reigning MVP, LeBron, was (for him) just about as bad for too long.
Pros, cons of rest
James was pondering the pluses and perils of a full week’s rest between playoff games. This was maybe an hour before Monday’s ill-fated tipoff.
“The body always enjoys the time off. You can definitely tell,” he had said. “But as far as conditioning and stamina, you can tell that, too.”,
And timing, he might have added.
“We’ll try to get our rhythm on the fly,” he said.
It took the whole game. They never quite got it.
James, Wade and Chris Bosh’s combined 12 first-half points were the lowest of the Big 3 era. Even the crowd seemed sedate by playoff standards.
This game and series was supposed to be Miami’s hungry lions vs. Chicago’s hurting lambs, except it turns out the Bulls are poorly cast as lambs. Wounded, yes. But not lambs.
The Bulls arrived here trying on the role of courageous warriors, depleted, limping, yet somehow still around after toughing to a Game 7 victory on the road in the previous round.
That stuff works against Brooklyn.
You didn’t imagine it would against Miami.
“Heart can’t beat great teams like the Heat,” noted Bulls forward Taj Gibson.
Except maybe when the great teams shoot 39.7 percent and get outrebounded.
“Disappointing, especially losing at home, but we had our opportunities,” said Wade. “A lot of shots we don’t normally miss, we missed.”
The Bulls don’t like Miami much, and played like it.
“Words cannot express how badly we want to beat them,” said Gibson.
The Heat had better know that now, and match that attitude.
It isn’t as if Miami has been here before. Felt what it feels right now.
Last year, on the way to a championship parade, the Heat trailed Indiana two games to one in the second round. Then faced two elimination games vs. Boston. Then lost the Finals opener to Oklahoma City.
Miami had the answers, every time.
One year later, let’s see what Miami’s answer will be Wednesday night.