Eastern Conference finals: Bulls crush Heat in Game 1

May 15, 2011

When the great free agent bonanza of 2010 began last summer, the Chicago Bulls envisioned hosting Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals with Derrick Rose sharing the floor with either LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or both. Those three stars were indeed on the floor on Sunday as the Bulls reached the conference finals for the first time since Michael Jordan won the last of six NBA titles in 1998, but James and Wade represented the enemy, the Miami Heat, and were coming off five-game demolitions of Philadelphia and Boston this postseason.

Wade and James opened the game with back-to-back dunks, but the duo wouldn’t get anything easy for the rest of the night. Using a smothering, aggressive defense and a scrambling, opportunistic offense, the Bulls overwhelmed the Heat and wore down both James and Wade to win, 103-82, and take a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven series. League most valuable player Rose, who didn’t bother to recruit James or Wade last summer outside of a perfunctory text message, scored 28 points to lead the Bulls.

The series was billed as one-man show against a two-man show (with occasional cameos from Chris Bosh), but the Bulls proved to have more than enough secondary options and depth. Luol Deng scored 21 points and Carlos Boozer added 14 for Chicago. Wade, James and Chris Bosh combined for 63 points, but the Heat got limited production from elsewhere as the Bulls managed to neutralize Wade and James for at least one night. The all-star tandem was limited to a combined three points in the fourth quarter.

“They put a lot of pressure on us. They extended their defense a lot,” Wade told reporters. “They did a good job of making sure we weren’t comfortable in our offensive sets.”

Wade, a native Chicagoan, experienced boos in his home town and a difficult night overall. He struggled driving to the basket, forced some off-balance shots and wound up on the wrong end of a highlight dunk by Bulls reserve Taj Gibson in the second quarter. He finished with just 18 points and missed 10 of his 17 shot attempts. His night was summed up in the final minutes when Wade tracked down an easy rebound but looked down and his feet were out of bounds.

James had problems of his own, with long-armed Deng harassing and crowding him. James scored just 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting and had four turnovers, including a terrible behind-the-back dribble in the third quarter that rolled right into the Bulls’ bench.

“LeBron is such a tough cover. You don’t guard him individually. You guard him with your team,” Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau said.

“Definitely to guard a guy like that, the whole defense has to stay focused,” Deng said. “There were times we switched and times we forced him into the double. Our bigs were great at forcing him into the front.”

Thibodeau was the guru behind the defensive schemes that stifled Wade and James last postseason, when Thibodeau was an assistant with Boston. Wade and James had no problems breaking through against that same Celtics defense in the second round, but the Bulls had a plan to confuse and fluster the superstar duo and it completely disrupted every member of the Heat with the exception of Bosh.

Bosh, the least-heralded member of the Heat’s all-star trio, carried the offensive load for Miami, as he scored a game-high 30 points. Bosh scored 11 of the first 19 points for the Heat, matching the Bulls’ total in the first seven minutes.

“Dwyane and LeBron are going to create a lot of attention,” Bosh said. “This is a good defensive team. . . . They’re going to make them distributors. We have to look at where we fell short as a team for Game 1 and come back with a better approach.”

Rose appeared to be nervous at the start, with the Heat using a trapping defense to get the ball out of his hands. Rose had three turnovers in the first five minutes, with two of them setting up points for James. But he eventually discovered how to find the gaps in Miami’s defense and had his way with the maligned point guard combination of Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers. Rose added six assists.

Rose showed during the regular season that he didn’t need another all-star talent in order to lead his team to the best overall record. The Bulls also defeated the Heat three times in the regular season, including a victory in Miami that led Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra to explain how his players were crying in the locker room. The three regular season wins were hotly contested, but the Bulls were able to plow through the Heat with relative ease by pounding it on the glass. They outrebounded Miami, 45-33, and had a considerable edge in second-chance points, 31-8.

Gibson and the Bulls reserves turned around the game in the second period, with Gibson scoring the first five points, including an incredible two-handed slam over Wade that excited the sellout crowd. The game was tied at 48 at halftime and James made a turnaround jumper to give Miami a 58-57 lead with 7 minutes 35 seconds left in the third period. But the Bulls outscored the Heat the rest of the way, 46-24.

Rose got the Bulls started on a 10-0 run, as he buried a three-pointer, and then concluded the run by hitting a cutting Joakim Noah (nine points, 14 rebounds) for a layup that gave his team a 67-58 lead. The Heat got to 69-63 on a Wade driving layup, but it wouldn’t get any closer. The Bulls started to pull away in the fourth period, with reserve guard C.J. Watson burying the Heat with an off-balance three-pointer as the shot clock expired to give his team an 83-66 lead with 8:09 remaining. The Bulls’ bench outscored the Heat, 28-15, and Gibson punctuated the victory in the closing seconds as he rebounded a Watson miss and had an emphatic one-handed slam that put them ahead by 23 points and excited Rose and Boozer on the bench.

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