It's the best of sports, when the games turn into something more closely resembling crusades. And that's what the playoffs have become now for the Chicago Bulls, a referendum on toughness and resourcefulness and, yes, manhood. It's become one improbable, inexplicable victory after another, with Joakim Noah's foot, Nate Robinson's lip, Kirk Hinrich's calf, even Luol Deng's spine and, always, Derrick Rose's knee.
A season that originally promised absolutely nothing great has grown strangely and unexpectedly delicious. First, the Bulls delivered the very first Game 7 road victory in franchise history, then a theft of a series opener, on the road again, against the champs, and both with a roster tailor-made for excuses and despair.
There's a long, long way between where the Bulls are now and what passes for glory in professional sports, but the 48 hours between Saturday night in Brooklyn and Monday night in Miami were undeniably exhilarating, a brief basketball nirvana, even for a team that has six NBA championship banners hanging from its ceiling.
Maybe the thrill is heightened because so little was expected, outside the locker room anyway, after the Game 6 loss to the Nets at the United Center. Even so, I can make the case that Wednesday's Game 2 in Miami is the biggest deal of a basketball game Chicago has had since Michael Jordan left town in the summer of 1998. ... OK, every bit as big as the Eastern Conference finals games against Miami two years ago because Miami wasn't the champ then, and because just like then a series victory over the Heat would put the Bulls in the Finals because, well, have you seen the Knicks and Pacers?
To throw just a little bit of caution out there, we should all be reminded that Miami lost Game 1 to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals two years ago and stormed back to win four straight in that series, just as they lost Game 1 of the NBA Finals a year ago, yet came back to beat Oklahoma City in four straight for the championship.
In fact, Miami trailed the Pacers in last year's conference semifinals, and trailed the Celtics in last year's conference finals, needing a win in an elimination game in Boston. The Heat have fallen behind in four of their past five series, the only exception being their first-round sweep of the Bucks. So we'd be nuts to suggest for a moment that any kind of panic will envelope LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat because they're down 1-0.
Miami had won 41 of 43 games before Monday night's loss. The reason everybody is suggesting Miami's players were rusty in Game 1 is probably that they were, well, rusty in Game 1, what with the seven-day layoff. You know where Miami's rust showed the most Monday night? In the Heat's lack of intensity. Milwaukee couldn't mount enough of a challenge in the first round to push Miami to the point where the Heat had to summon it.
But that's another discussion, not the one those of us who follow the Bulls are preoccupied with at the moment. That conversation isn't nearly as interesting as any one of several surrounding the Bulls. Noah has ascended from good player to heroically clutch. Robinson has performed with first the flu then a busted mouth. Jimmy Butler has played three straight 48-minute games and has provided stellar defense against the MVP. Marco Belinelli has suddenly become a poor man's Steph Curry. Coach Tom Thibodeau has shown an ability to not just motivate his team with themes like "next man up" and "we've got enough" but to inspire them, to get them to play with a fervor that might make the Harbaugh parents look like slackers.
Oh, and as long as we're talking about fascinating storylines, there's this: What should Thibs do if Hinrich and Deng (we won't even mention Rose, not yet) are ready to play in Wednesday's Game 2, although that appears highly unlikely as it's not certain Deng will even fly to Miami? But would you put Hinrich back into the starting lineup because he has so much experience (and relative success) guarding Wade? Would you stick Deng back in the lineup because it gives the team two guys (Deng and Butler) who can harass LeBron? And is it wise to get Robinson and Belinelli back to the bench and presumably their comfort zones? Or would rest simply freak out Butler after three straight games of playing every minute, every second?
Or, with a Game 1 win in hand, do you give Deng and Hinrich two more days of rest and give them a real chance of contributing at their normal levels Friday night in Game 3? (It's so difficult to see Thibs going with Plan B simply because the notion of rest is so not in keeping with the state-of-emergency, all-hands-on-deck approach that has served the team so well and made this the most compelling story in sports at the moment.)
Noah has been extraordinary to the point of now appearing Herculean. And while everybody down to rookie Marquis Teague and Daequan Cook has contributed, Butler, Robinson and Belinelli have played not just with great passion but damn well under pressure. That trio was at the center of a 35-point fourth quarter in Game 1, which came after a 37-point first half. So, do you send in the reinforcements (Deng and Hinrich) or just roll the way you've been rolling, with the men who produced two of the most improbable postseason wins in the post-Jordan era?
The answer, probably, is you throw everything in the arsenal at Miami on Wednesday in Game 2. You want to really jolt Miami and shock the world? You want to give this thing a real Ali-Liston quality (and wouldn't that be noteworthy in Miami)? Then throw some haymakers and get Game 2.
Preposterous? Probably. If any game in this series figures, based on conventional wisdom, to be a Heat blowout, it's Game 2, except that while Miami is 39-1 against everybody else over the past 44 games, the Heat is 2-2 against the Bulls, who won one of those games without Noah.
See, what's nearly as important for the Bulls as their hellish intensity is that they know how to beat Miami. Only nine times in 82 games this season did opponents hold Miami under 90 points. The Bulls were that team two of the nine times. Miami's 39.7 percent shooting was its lowest percentage since Nov. 11. Basically, the Bulls are the only team since the All-Star break to beat Miami when the Heat were really trying. All the real evidence suggests this series, whether it lasts five, six or seven games, is going to be the same alley fight it's been since LeBron took his talents to South Beach, during which time the Bulls hold a 9-8 lead in games between the two.
The defining characteristic of professional basketball, what sets it apart from baseball and football and even hockey -- unless we're talking about Wayne Gretzky -- is the ability, historically, of the greatest players to beat back these challenges in some super-human way and win the championship. LeBron is that player now, and he's confronted by a challenger with granite in its chin and fists.
There is every reason to believe Monday night's Game 1 was but a speed bump en route to another championship for the Heat. But if you're the Bulls, having fought off everything except famine and pestilence, you have every reason to believe that you're capable of just about anything.