Pundits and prognosticators forecasting a Miami Heat victory over the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals were quick to throw water on the Bulls’ clearest advantage–their bench play–claiming that a good bench is a marginal asset in playoff basketball when starters tend to see a spike in their minutes.
It’s entirely possible the Bulls’ “bench mob” took it personally.
The Chicago reserves exploded for 28 points compared to just 15 for Miami’s as the Bulls cruised to 103-82 victory in Game 1.
While one convincing performance does not equate to a series victory, Game 1 typified all the factors that led to my predicting the Bulls to take this one in five games. The Bulls won the rebounding battle 45-33, including an incredible 19-9 advantage on the offensive glass. Chicago played with the discipline of a seasoned prizefighter: They were slow to start, allowed the Heat to exert a lot of energy while still saying close, and finally overwhelmed Miami with a flurry of momentum-swinging baskets, stifling defense, and hustle plays.
The disparity between the two teams became abundantly evident in a sublime third quarter for the Bulls, who held Miami to just 15 points with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the floor for the entire period, led mostly by its stalwart bench. This defensive intensity is made all the more impressive by the fact that Miami did not attempt a free throw in the second half until the 5:35 mark of the fourth quarter.
The only Heat player who seemed immune to the Bulls’ was Chris Bosh, who went off for 30 points and nine rebounds. However, I suspect Tom Thibodeau would gladly concede a 12-for-18 shooting performance from Bosh if that means limiting James and Wade to 12-for-32 and just 15 and 18 points, respectively. Luol Deng scored 21 points and hit four big 3-pointers, but his most significant contribution came on the defensive end. Deng logged 45 minutes and spent nearly the entire night chasing around the most talented player in the league, James, and made sure he never became comfortable. On the same token, though Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer scored just 11 points between them, they frustrated Dwyane Wade all evening, preventing the Heat’s true alpha dog from developing a rhythm.
It does not bode well for the Heat they mostly achieved their goal of keeping Derrick Rose out of the paint, but the league’s MVP still managed to get into a jumpshooting rhythm to lead all the Bulls with 28 points.
I ought to stripped of my writing responsibilities for going this long without mentioning the contributions of Taj Gibson. The box score says Gibson chipped in with nine points and seven rebounds, but his actual contributions well exceeded those modest totals. As the Bulls were rounding into form early in the second quarter, Gibson all but collapsed the United Center’s roof with an instant classic facial dunk on Wade in transition, awakening the capacity crowd from what had been a somewhat slow Bulls start. He added a similarly impressive putback dunk late in the fourth when the game was well out of reach.
I’d like to add this is not a fluke energy performance from Gibson. He has been making the most of his floor time this postseason, cresting with an 11-point fourth quarter to seal a Game 5 win over Atlanta. Furthermore, Gibson 70 games as a rookie last season and averaged nine points and 7.5 rebounds before the Bulls added Carlos Boozer and relegated Gibson to reserve duty. He knows what to do when he gets out on the floor, which is more than can be said for much of Miami’s reserve corps.
Joakim Noah led the Bulls voracious rebounding effort, with 14 boards to go along with his nine points. While Carlos Boozer took a few steps back from his impressive Game 6 performance against Atlanta (and got cooked on the defensive end by Bosh), he put forth a solid 14-point, nine-rebound outing on 5-of-10 shooting.
For the most part, the Bulls played to their fullest potential, while Miami put forth its least-inspired effort of these playoffs. Chicago would be foolish to assume that Miami will play that poorly again, but seizing Game 1 and holding court on the United Center floor will no doubt be a boon to their confidence. That said, in reacting to this decisive Game 1 win, the Bulls need look only across the court at their opponents and not treat this game with the same undue revelry that the Heat showcased for their semifinal series win over the Boston Celtics. Thibodeau will likely see to that.
As for the Heat, I contend they have been lulled into submission a bit. An unimpressive 76ers squad and an aging, broken-down Celtics team clearly did little to prepare Miami for the type of firepower and intensity Chicago will bring to a series.
Game 2 is set for an 8:30 p.m. tip on Wednesday.