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Bulls vs. Heat | Strength of the wolf is the pack

Sam Smith of Bulls.com takes a look at the three regular season games between the Bulls and Miami Heat. Everyone likes to say they don’t mean much now, but they give a glimpse of who these people are and how they handled the vagaries of competition.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

Let’s see, what do we remember about the Bulls and Miami Heat? Well, there was the game when the Bulls made the Heat players cry…

Yes, that’s the last time the Bulls played the Heat, March 6 in Miami, in one of the more extraordinary scenes I’ve come across after a regular season NBA game. It seemed like the breaking point for Miami, but, in retrospect, may have marked their resurgence.

The Heat had just finished being swept 3-0 for the season by the Bulls in three close, hard played games, all coming down to a big play at the end made by the Bulls. In the first game with LeBron James out with a sprained ankle, Kyle Korver recovered a loose ball and made a three while trailing by one with 25.5 seconds left in a 99-96 win. In the second game, Luol Deng hit a three with 16 seconds left to break a tie in a 93-89 win. And in that final game, the only one in Miami, Deng made two free throws after a disputed foul call with 15.9 seconds left for a one-point win.

Then in a surreal post game scene, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra casually mentioned there were players crying in the Heat locker room after LeBron James’ late attempt miss. That led to a post game interrogation as players came out to speak with reporters demanding to know who was crying.

Wade remarked bitterly, “The world is better now since the Heat is losing."

Counting Heat late game failures had become a media hobby by then and those were with Wade’s desperation heave after James’ driving miss the 12th and 13th consecutive shots the Heat missed with a chance to tie or lead a game in the final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime. James and Wade were a combined one of 12.

"I told my team, I'm not going to continue to fail late in games," James said. "I put a lot of blame on myself tonight. I told the guys that I just keep failing them late in games and I won't continue to do that."

It later was decided that Bosh was the mystery bawler, though hardly surprising given his detached nature and even admitting how nervous he was when the Heat opened the conference semifinals against the Celtics. Miami’s is an odd dynamic with Bosh in their so-called Big Three virtually an outcast. He meets the media separately from James and Wade, who always do so together, and says he prefers to read and the locker room and go his own way after games rather than hang out with his famous teammates.

Their combining was the story of the NBA season and last offseason, a year of anticipation leading up to James’ famous “Decision” TV show and subsequent championship pre-rally in Miami, which ended up making he and the Heat something of NBA pariahs. Although there are no such rankings, though perhaps the ‘80s Pistons would certainly be in the team picture, this version of the Heat became maybe the most despised NBA team.

It was more visceral reaction than any reality as all are basically good citizens and not in trouble. Though James’ seeming arrogance and the constant parsing of his words and continuing apologies—the last for calling a reporter a retard—has made them the black hat cowboys of this NBA season. Though at first stunned and seemingly taken aback, they have come to embrace the role of villain, much like wrestling bad guys, both openly available with reporters but at the same time cocky and supercilious.

It’s come to cast the Bulls once again, though hardly the same way as in the 1990s, when they were the popular dominant champions, as sentimental favorites, if not favorites in actuality. Already, some team executives have reached out to members of the Bulls with exhortations to beat those guys. And not in such kind language.

Heat president Pat Riley, once a verbose outgoing figure even when coaching the fierce Knicks of the ‘90s, has become something of a reclusive figure with the Heat, rarely appearing in public and almost never granting interviews. His success, ironically, not unlike with his rival Phil Jackson, has engendered a considerable jealousy which has translated into a grudging respect if not affection. Perhaps it is more affectation that actuality.

Some around the NBA continue to harbor suspicions Riley did something wrong in winning the recruiting battle for James and Bosh, regarded at the time as the personnel coup of the ages.

The surface bitterness, though, fell mostly on James, the self-proclaimed “King,” who was viewed as abandoning his city in the coldest and most calculating way, the worst of mercenaries in a league of hired guns. James did nothing wrong and nothing others haven’t done. Still, he was censured in the public’s view, even from virtually all the legends of the game, who openly questioned his depth as a competitor for baldly seeking out help.

Initially, his and Bosh’s defections were viewed as unfair and unsportsmanlike, creating a super team that could not be fairly challenged. It didn’t work out that way as the Heat started 9-8 amidst external delight and internal dissonance. They were publicly chastised and lampooned by even opposing coaches and players. The sweet song of failure wafted about.

Their late game ignominies and the inability of Wade and James to create a pecking order became gist for regular analysis and discussion while their failures became the grist for a new public debate to chew on. It was OK if your team lost if the Heat did as well. Everyone felt like winners when Miami lost.

And then as the season stretched out, the turtle, hardly noticed and moving quietly behind, the Bulls, ended up passing the super powered Heat to record the best record in the NBA and what would become starting Sunday home court advantage in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bulls finished the season 62-20, best in the NBA, with the Heat third with 58 wins and second in the East.

Never, perhaps, have the Bulls been more popular than they are now, though less for who they are that what they represent. Many fans around the NBA could not name half their players. They’ll come in predicted by virtually every regular NBA analyst to lose the series because Miami was 8-2 in the first two playoff rounds and beat the preseason favorite of many, the Celtics.

Some will say the Heat’s over the top celebration after the Boston win with James in a prayer position on the court—who else would be condemned for praying?—would suggest they have achieved their goal. But this Miami team now has come to thrive on the loathing in trying to turn it into fear on South Beach. It’s almost as if they dare you to boo even more. If not, they’ll throw some more powder in your face and say something even stupider.

Actually, it fits well with Riley’s longtime ‘Us Against the World’ theme that outsiders only seek to weaken you and the strength comes from the group, the pack.

Now this is the law of the jungle -
As old and as true as the sky;
And the wolf that keep it may prosper,
But the wolf that shall break it may die.
As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk,
The law runneth forward and back -
And the strength of the pack is the wolf
And the strength of the wolf is the pack.

-- Rudyard Kipling

You are only as strong as your group, and then when you work in harmony. It hardly seems the way of the Heat, but it has been the mantra of Riley teams. I’m not sure if Riley borrowed that from Jackson or Jackson from Riley. Or Kipling got it from both of them.

The history of Bulls/Miami isn’t particularly welcoming for the Heat.

The 1988-89 expansion Heat made the playoffs for the first time in 1992 and were swept in the first round by the Bulls. After two wins in Chicago by a combined 49 points, Jordan played golf all day before coming to the game and then woke up enough to score 56 points in a comeback win for the sweep. Jordan averaged 45 in the series.

Riley then involved the Bulls in several brutal playoff series in New York before coming to Miami in 1995 as the Heat were routed in three by an average of almost 24 per game on the Bulls march to the 1996 title. The following season as a 61-win team, the Heat went down in five in the conference finals in a brutal, physical, Riley type series in which Miami never scored 90 points in any game.

The Heat went on to win the 2006 championship, but got a big scare from the Bulls in the first round as the Bulls held a lead in the third quarter of Game 5 with the series tied 2-2 when Wade went out hurt. But he returned to carry the Heat to the win and they closed it with a rout in Chicago. The Bulls then embarrassed Riley’s Heat on opening night in their ring ceremony in a 40-point embarrassment, a harbinger of the 2007 playoffs when the Bulls swept the defending champions in four before losing to the Pistons in the conference semifinals. It was the Bulls best playoff run since 1998 until this season, but also led to the breakup of the Heat with the trade of Shaquille O’Neal.

That contributed to the plan for the 2010 summer free agency which produced the roster that James has talked openly could win seven titles, which is one more than we wonder who. So the Bulls get the part of giant killer this time. They were up to the part in the regular season, though the view is this is the newer, better Heat, hardened in the kiln of expectations beyond their capability and enmity beyond their expectations.

We get to see soon who really has the fire in their belly in the heat of competition.

Here’s a look at the three regular season games. Everyone likes to say they don’t mean much now, but they give a glimpse of who these people are and how they handled the vagaries of competition.

-- Jan. 15, 2011: Bulls won 99-96 in Chicago

Derrick Rose had 34 points and eight assists in the game advertised as the battle between the two Chicago native guards. And they didn’t disappoint. Wade had 33 points and made three three-pointers in a stretch of just over a minute starting with 1:33 left in the game and the Heat trailing by five. The Bulls had led by 14 in the second quarter and 10 in the third before Miami closed within three after three quarters. LeBron James didn’t play with a sprained ankle and the Heat started James Jones for him. Eddie House was playing back then and scored 13 points off the bench. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who survived a seeming plot to have him fired by James when the team was 9-8, is vastly different from Thibodeau. Spoelstra changes lineups and rotations like lanes on a crowded highway. He was starting Carlos Arroyo at point guard then and had House in the rotation. Arroyo ended up with the Celtics. The Bulls were still missing Joakim Noah for that game as he was out after thumb surgery in early December. Carlos Boozer would suffer the first of his two sprained ankles in that game and miss the next three, while the odd one was Chris Bosh, who had been having an edge on Boozer, getting cut down when he went for a loose ball with a diving Omer Asik. Bosh bitterly condemned Asik after the game for having the temerity to dive for the ball, saying he could have been hurt worse. It’s probably why in Canadian Bosh meant feeble. Miami made a late first half run to take a 53-48 lead on a barrage of threes. But the Bulls opened the second half with a 17-0 blitz. Miami got back in and then it became a classic fourth quarter shootout with Wade getting a dozen and Rose 11 before Kyle Korver won it by picking up a loose ball and making a three. Mario Chalmers and Wade missed late threes. “They have great players on their team,” said Rose. “LeBron and D. Wade are great passers and shooters. It’s going to be a tough matchup, especially for the guys sticking them. We’re all going to have to be there and not leave a guy isolated on an island.”

-- Feb. 24, 2011: Bulls won 93-89 in Chicago

Wade had 34 and James 29, but Bosh was a shocking one of 18 shooting. I know. How’d he make that one? It was the worst shooting game in the NBA for that many attempts in 38 years. The Heat was back to Mario Chalmers at point guard and now Erick Dampier at center for Zydrunas Ilgauskas, going from starter to DNP-CD. The Heat bench had just two points, a bucket from House. Meanwhile, the Bulls got 11 rebounds from Omer Asik in routing Miami on the backboards 53-39. Rose had 26 for the Bulls and the big assist to Deng for the game winning three as Deng added 20 points and 10 rebounds. Miami ran the court, a 34-18 edge in fast break points, but the Bulls had the huge 15-3 margin in second chance points. It was a game of wild swings as Miami led by 10 in the first quarter and nine at halftime. The Bulls again had a huge third quarter to take a 71-67 lead after three. But Miami got it back and led 84-80 with just over four minutes left. Deng’s three with 16 seconds left won it when Rose beat James on a drive. Wade came over to help and Rose found Deng in the corner as the Heat used James on Rose late. James missed a quick three right afterward and the Heat then had to foul. The game was on trade deadline day and the Bulls didn’t make any moves, deciding they had enough to compete with what they had. Earlier at the Heat shootaround, Bosh told reporters he thought Rose was the MVP, which was a curious comment considering James was considered the co favorite at that point. Wade picked James when asked. Odd team. “LeBron is arguably the toughest guy to guard in the NBA,” said Deng. “I’ve guarded him before, but our team defense will come into play. They’ve also got two other guys who are hard to guard. So it will take a team effort.”

-- March 6, 2011: Bulls won 87-86 in Miami

The famous crying game as Rose led the Bulls with 27 and averaged 29 for the three games against Miami. Deng was second at 16.7 as the Bulls averaged 93 per game to 90.3 for Miami. The Heat’s three-point shooting was substantially better, but the Bulls dominated on the boards, 131-99. Wade matched Rose at 29 per game while James had 27.5 in the two he played. Bosh averaged 15.7 and Boozer averaged 13.3. Again, the Heat’s bench was invisible with six points this time and Dampier was still at center, though long gone by the playoffs. As the Heat finished off Boston, Dampier was inactive and House and Ilgauskas were no longer playing with Mike Bibby starting at point guard, but basically just a spot up shooter off the ball. Miami jumped on the Bulls early in this game they had to have with the Bulls in position to begin to cement in that top seed and home court advantage. Miami went up by seven, a dozen late in the second and 49-40 at halftime in shooting almost 55 percent with James with 17 and Bosh with 15. But again it was the third quarter for the third straight game for the Bulls as the defense stiffened and the Bulls got within 65-63 after three. The fourth quarter was a beauty with three lead changes and five ties. Chalmers hit a big three to tie it with 65 seconds left and then a driving layup for a lead with 25.8 seconds left. But Deng was fouled, missing the second. Noah got to the rebound first and tipped it back to Deng, whom the officials said was tripped. The Heat vehemently disagreed. Deng made both and then James missed a runner. The Heat said they wanted a switch with Noah onto James and got it. But Noah, isolated on James, stayed with him as James drove left and Noah forced him wide into the miss. Wade then missed a hurried follow to lose and stun the home crowd. And pump up Thibodeau, who in a rare burst of end game emotion pumped his fist and certainly would have knocked out Manny Pacquiao. It seemed the Bulls had KO’d the Heat. “We have guys who can close,” Thibodeau said proudly back then as Heat players trudged off seemingly in shock. “They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Thibodeau said of the Heat after the Bulls defeated the Hawks. “Obviously, the three great players and a lot more shooting and rebounding. LeBron and Wade off the dribble. Bosh up front. They play great defense. It will be a good challenge for us. They’ve been an excellent team all year long. Now, they’ve been together and played with each other more and gotten comfortable. They’re a well balanced team and we know they are talented.” Though yet to beat the Bulls. They’ll try again for the first time Sunday night.

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