CHICAGO -- As Dwyane Wade turned his head to follow the ball, he instantly knew he was in trouble. Taj Gibson, the Chicago Bulls’ athletic backup forward, was about to take off for the rim and Wade was badly out of position.
Wade could see it coming. He tried to prepare himself, but it was useless. He promptly got run over, as Gibson thundered a dunk right through him with surprising force and ease. It was a breathtaking highlight not just for the athleticism but also the symbolism.
Gibson did Wade like the Bulls did the Miami Heat in the opening game of the Eastern Conference finals. The Heat obviously talked about them, studied film on them and practiced for them. But feeling the Bulls’ strengths in person for the first time in two months was as overwhelming as a sucker punch to the gut. Or a dunk in the face.AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
Taj Gibson's dunk on Dwyane Wade seemed to demoralize the Heat.
"That was a good one," Wade said. "First time I got dunked on all year. I'll take my 90-to-1 blocks to dunked on ratio. It was a very athletic play. I knew I didn't have a chance."
That’s not completely true. Wade has been dunked on more than once. But the not-having-a-chance part did ring true after watching the Bulls' general takedown of the Heat’s game plan and then their psyche in an exquisite second half.
The Bulls didn’t do anything special in their 103-82 victory -- they did exactly what the scouting report said they would. They rebounded and played defense. The Heat reacted to it not like the surging favorites they had been tagged following their five-game takedown of the Boston Celtics in the previous round, but instead like the junior varsity.
“We took it on the chin,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before using words such as “sideways” and “surrendered.”
They didn’t get just beaten by the Bulls, there were demoralized by them. The Heat played like a baseball team that knows it has a bad bullpen, spiritless as the game wears on. Their initial defensive stops weren't rewarded because of an endless stream of offensive rebounds. And it robbed them of all the virtues they got to this point.
Some of this was the general energy and skill of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer -- a pair of offensive rebounding juggernauts. As those rebounds piled up, the Heat shrunk and shrunk. Chicago gobbled up 19 offensive rebounds in all leading to 31 second-chance points and quite a few unofficial third-chance points.
“We knew it coming in and we still let them do it,” Wade said. “No one is going to beat anyone giving up that. If we give up that every game, we’ll be going home early.”
Advanced stats aren’t needed to explain how this worked out. The Bulls shot 43 percent, which is a respectable performance from the Heat’s usually sound defense. But all those extra rebounds enabled the Bulls to take 19 more shots than the Heat and eventually five more free throws. That’s how the Heat gave up the most points they’ve surrendered in the postseason to a team averaging fewer than 95 points per game.
This exercise had a cumulative effect. At one point, it seemed like the Heat stopped boxing out all together. One of the most basic basketball tasks was suddenly nearly impossible for a team that spent several days supposedly gearing up to face the Eastern Conference’s rebounding monster. Instead the Heat looked unprepared for the moment.
“It really deflated us and we lost our concentration,” Spoelstra said. “The offensive rebounding really affected us.”
Of course, this is not supposed to be the case at this level and this deep in the postseason. The Heat have their own weapons with the capability to answer. They have the personnel and the game plan to deal with the challenge -- until they didn’t.
Gone was the 1-2 attack that Wade and LeBron James ran to perfection against the Celtics and 76ers, when they averaged 54 points and 48 percent shooting in the first 10 playoff games together. Even as Chris Bosh was attempting to don a cape and come to the rescue with perhaps the greatest playoff game of his career -- 30 points and nine rebounds -- Wade and James did the worst possible thing they could do.
They played afraid.
As the lead grew, the Bulls kept pushing them further and further away from the rim. Eventually, the entire Heat offense was basically operating in about a 15-foot wide zone 20-25 feet from the basket. They just dribbled and passed until the shot clock demanded they do something with it, like take a bad shot. At one point, the Heat went nearly 21 consecutive minutes without a free throw, astounding for a team that was averaging 30 free throws per game.
When Gibson threw down his dunk, Wade responded by standing still. When Ronnie Brewer, another generally unheralded Bulls reserve, did the same with a devil-may-care slam in Bosh’s chest in the second half, James responded with a meek fadeaway.
Wade and James combined for 12-of-32 shooting and eight turnovers. Set aside the bad stats, they let the Bulls dictate how the game was going to be played. The Bulls forced the ball from their hands, isolated them, and made them stop working together.
All of this was covered in the pregame plan because this is what the Bulls do. It is the same defensive system, albeit with younger and more spry big men, that the Celtics deployed in the last round. But any momentum from that series seemed like a memory watching the Heat handle the new challenge.
“I don’t even remember shooting in the fourth quarter,” Wade said. “We were throwing up some Hail Marys.”
That’s because Wade didn’t shoot in the fourth and James barely did either, taking only three shots. By then the Heat were waving the white flag.
It was just one game at the start of a series, true enough. But it was more than just a loss. It had all the makings of a mental step backward, something the team now will have to sit with for two days with their first deficit of the postseason.
“We took a beating,” Bosh said. “I think we’ll get better. This is a group that has responded well when we’re down a little bit.”