It was a brutal night full of elbows and animus, but a thing of desperate beauty through the prism of downtown Miami. The basketball game was a graffiti spray of nine technical fouls, a flagrant foul and two ejections but looked like a masterpiece to Heat fans. So it figures that the one most memorable play of Heat-Bulls Game 2 here Wednesday night was not about elegance or art but about power flexing itself with an angry sneer.
There cannot be a much better 10-second slice of action in all of sports than this:
LeBron James steals a pass that he leaps to spear on the court’s far corner and doesn’t stop until he finishes the play on the other end in a way that makes the bayside arena shake with a sonic boom. He thunders past the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler near the free-throw line. Carlos Boozer steps away as if the man with the ball is either deranged or contagious. Finally, LeBron goes airborne, keeps rising up and over Joakim Noah and deposits a left-handed dunk with such force I thought the hair bun atop Noah’s head might spontaneously burst into flames.
James landed from that jam with furious joy on his face, staring into the bedlam-din he created, both fists balled.
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The Heat got pushed around, bad, in Game 1 of this NBA second-round playoff series.
On Wednesday night, the champions pushed back, big.
Miami floored Chicago 115-78. It was the biggest playoff margin of victory for one club and of defeat for the other. The crazy margin didn’t matter that much, though, because the Bulls, thrilled to be heading home with the series tied, all but conceded by the third quarter.
“No matter if you win by 20 or 30 or one point, it’s still a 1-1 series,” as James put it.
Added coach Erik Spoelstra: “It doesn’t matter about the score. We have to get ready to go into the lion’s den Friday.”
What does matter is that Miami reasserted itself, showed who’s boss and why.
The earth was returned to its axis.
Losing the opener left the Heat facing its first serious test, really, in a charmed season, and maybe that healthy desperation was something this team needed. It certainly responded.
“Going three months without any adversity, this was our first of the season,” Dwyane Wade put it very well. “We had to go look in the mirror and look each other in the eye.”
The Heat outrebounded and out-defended the Bulls and aggressively attacked the rim enough to lead in free throws after doing none of that in the opener.
“Our guys came out with a stronger disposition,” Spoelstra understated.
The fans didn’t. There were several hundred empty red seats as the game began and well into it, an embarrassment. Club president Pat Riley repeatedly surveyed the crowd in a way he seldom does. The crowd eventually filled in, but the look of the arena at tipoff was a small disgrace.
Wednesday should have reminded Heat fans that Game1 was the aberration. This was not. This was what we expected all along because it is we have seen it all season: the Heat’s talent and explosiveness being enough to overwhelm on most nights. The tenacious and hard-fighting but offensively challenged Bulls cannot answer Miami’s offensive might.
This series began with a back story of mutual dislike but turned plainly ugly Wednesday, and probably will continue full of hard fouls and short tempers moving forward. The nine technical fouls included a second each that led to the late ejections of the Bulls’ Taj Gibson, who had to be restrained as he left the court, and Noah, who leads the league in annoying and never met a foul call he didn’t complain about.
Noah was astonishingly gracious afterward, crediting the Heat, saying, “They were very aggressive. They played very physical. They beat us in every aspect of the game.”
Short-handed Chicago needs the physicality because it cannot match what Miami has in talent.
It’s funny, the difference in a Heat-Bulls playoff series now versus when this postseason rivalry began.
These teams’ first three playoff meetings were in 1992, ’96 and ’97, during the Michael Jordan reign. Miami had no answers. Chicago won all three series by a combined 10-1 in games, and Jordan led the Bulls in scoring every game, averaging 34.1 points. That ’92 series was Miami’s first franchise foray into the playoffs, and Michael said welcome by scoring 46, 33 and 56 in a three-game sweep.
Now, Michael Jordan plays for Miami. His name is LeBron James.
James scored “only” 19 points Wednesday among six Heat players in double figures, but 12 came in the pace-setting first quarter, on 6-for-6 shooting. Teammates then benefited from the space he created, leading to a game-high nine assists. Most of the nine three-pointers came off passes by a driving James.
“I knew if I got aggressive [early], it would open up the floor for our shooters,” he said.
In Game 1, Miami shot 39.7 percent.
On Wednesday, those shooters were shooting an even 60 percent.
“Ultimately, it’s a game of makes ands misses,” as Spoelstra is wont to say.
Miami heads to the Midwest now still fighting to get past the unexpected sting of an opening home loss, but Wednesday brought a sense of order restored.
Wednesday made us smile at some of the reaction to the series-opening stunner.
An ESPN poll after Game 1 found 60 percent saying Chicago would win the series.
Front-running rapper Lil’ Wayne hopped the hot bandwagon, partying with the Bulls after that game.
In Chicago, a local company put up a huge video billboard that depicted Noah with a fire extinguisher, spraying the face of a crying LeBron.
Whoa now, Chicago.
Now, as the series pivots to the Midwest and speculation grows about a possible dramatic return by Derrick Rose, talk of the Bulls winning this series might bloom anew.
The Heat didn’t stop being the best team in basketball because it lost Monday night.
Did this team not trail in each of its past three playoff series a year ago but win it all?
This team did.
Is this team not better than last year’s?
This team is.
Has this team not yet earned our trust?
This team has.