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Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Why this Heat loss was no outlier

By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Nate Robinson literally left AmericanAirlines Arena in stitches, holding an ice pack against his mouth to soothe the pain caused by a collision with LeBron James.

But that was simply a flesh wound compared to the blow the feisty Chicago Bulls delivered Monday to stagger the Miami Heat in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series. Robinson, one of the Bulls' heroes during their improbable playoff run amid a rash of illness and injuries, finished one assist short of a triple-double in rallying short-handed Chicago to a 93-86 victory against rested and supposedly ready Miami.

The official totals for Robinson on Monday: a game-high 27 points, nine assists and 10 stitches to close a gash in his mouth. Yet the Heat were the ones left checking their jaws.

"We didn't expect to lose Game 1," Heat center Chris Bosh said, flatly. "It's a kick in the chin. And we're going to have to get up, dust ourselves off and counter. Playoffs are ugly. It's been a little bit too pretty around here, to be honest."

James/Robinson
LeBron James found a small but formidable obstacle in Nate Robinson. LeBron has a losing record against the Bulls since coming to Miami.

The easy analysis would be to suggest the Bulls benefited from their well-established playoff rhythm after playing again less than 48 hours removed from their Game 7 upset in Brooklyn on Saturday night. But the Heat didn't simply lose Monday because they were a bit rusty from an eight-day layoff after sweeping Milwaukee in the first round.

The rest vs. rhythm debate might explain how both the Heat and Bulls got off to sluggish starts and were tied at 37 at the half, with LeBron James held to just two points in the lowest-scoring first half of his playoff career.

But that theory hardly explains how the game played out at the finish, how James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade blew a seven-point lead with six minutes left, how the Heat surrendered 35 points in the fourth quarter at home.

Sure, the Heat were sluggish from the time off. But they can't seriously be cast as sympathetic figures when the team they're facing has former MVP Derrick Rose still in a suit, starting point guard Kirk Hinrich out with a calf injury and All-Star forward Luol Deng in and out of the hospital recovering from complications from a spinal tap procedure.

No matter what legitimate issues the Heat might have been facing, they weren't as beat up and beleaguered as the Bulls. That was the reason Heat coach Erik Spoelstra launched into his postgame news conference declaring that this was a "no-excuse" loss for the defending champions.

The reality for the Heat is that Monday's loss was not a fluke. All the evidence suggests the Bulls actually have a formula that gives Miami all kinds of problems. It was the case when the Bulls won in Miami back in January by pounding the Heat on the boards. It was the case again when the Heat carried a 27-game winning streak, the second-longest in NBA history, into Chicago on March 27 and saw it end against a Bulls team determined to be physical.

We're in a situation where dudes are not going to be able to sleep.

- Heat center Chris Bosh

It's as if the Heat let their guard down when they discovered the Bulls would be without key players Monday, even though Chicago has beaten them before without their top players. Joakim Noah was missing that night when the Heat's streak came to an end two months ago on the road.

Counting the playoffs, the Bulls are 9-8 against the Heat since James arrived, and are the only team with a winning record against the Heat over the past three seasons.

Chicago won Monday because it didn't need Rose, Deng and Hinrich on a night when Robinson, Noah and Jimmy Butler collectively outplayed James, Bosh and Wade. The Bulls outrebounded the Heat by 14 boards, doubled them up in second-chance scoring and held the NBA's most efficient offense to 39.7 percent shooting from the field.

"They just put themselves in a better position," James said. "It's tough. This is what the playoffs are all about. We're going against a really good team, and we know that. So we'll prepare (Tuesday) and get ready for Game 2."

This isn't exactly unfamiliar territory for the Heat. Two years ago, the Bulls won Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals in Chicago and then lost four straight to Miami. Last season, the Heat trailed in three consecutive playoff series before ultimately rolling past Oklahoma City to win a title.

That's why Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau didn't want his team to get too caught up in the remarkable run they've been on over a 48-hour period. In a span of two games, the Bulls won a Game 7 on the road for the first time in their decorated history, and also handed the Heat their first postseason loss since Game 1 of last year's NBA Finals.

The Bulls kept their magic going Monday with a bunch of second- and third-stringers surrounded by Noah and nothing more than the hope their best players might return.

"You are always faced with different challenges," Thibodeau said. "For us, it was the quick turnaround, and for the Heat, I think it was the layoff. It's how quickly you can adapt to whatever challenge is in front of you. We have been hit all year with a lot of different things."

Much like Robinson did on Monday after pursuing a loose ball onto the floor with James, these Bulls keep getting up. The Bucks didn't exactly prepare the Heat for what they faced Monday. Neither did any of those training camp-style practices Spoelstra tried to run his team through last week.

The Heat better quickly forget about what happened in what essentially was a first-round bye. The playoffs start now for Miami. Conventional wisdom would suggest the Bulls can't stay on this short-handed high forever. Eventually, they've got to come back to reality, right?

Or perhaps they're just too stubborn and defiant. The Heat are clearly the better and deeper team. James and Wade will get their games going much sooner next time, and Miami's sharpshooters will knock down the open looks they repeatedly missed in Game 1 on Monday night.

Adjustments will be made. But there's one tweak the Heat must figure out quickly before this series gets really uncomfortable. Talent sometimes is no match for tenacity.

"We're in a situation where dudes are not going to be able to sleep," Bosh said of the Heat needing to regain a desperate mindset entering Game 2 on Wednesday. "Everybody kisses your a-- a little bit, everything's been hunky-dory and is supposed to come to you. But you don't just show up in this league and win games. We all know that, especially not against this (Bulls) team."

In the end, it wasn't too much rest that hurt the Heat in Game 1. It was the other team's resistance and resilience.