Even fighters run out of fight. The Chicago Bulls couldn't even raise their hands to throw punches Monday night. Too many minutes, too much illness and injury, not enough reinforcements. A merciful judge would step in and call it, except there is no such provision in playoff basketball. So the Bulls, nose pounded flat and eyes swollen nearly shut, will have to go another round Wednesday night before this thing is put to bed.
The everlasting image of Game 4 from the Chicago point of view will be the once tireless Nate Robinson doubled over toward the end of the first half, gasping for breath as if he'd just chased Usain Bolt 100 meters. Nine points in the third quarter for the Bulls, 27 percent shooting at halftime. The challengers, who fought so admirably against the Brooklyn Nets, and in the first and third games against the champs, are out on their feet now. They can't make layups or tip-ins, free throws or open shots from anywhere on the floor; their legs might as well be strawberry Jell-O.
The Bulls' second crack at the Miami Heat in the playoffs is going to end similarly to the first attempt, two years ago, which is to say ingloriously. LeBron James is too big, too strong, too fabulous, too healthy (which is not to be taken for granted in these playoffs). If not for a rusty Game 1 loss in Miami we'd be looking at a sweep.
But after that solitary loss the Heat coaches and players figured out they would not be dominated again by Nate Robinson, who had 27 points and nine assists in Game 1. So he went from 8-for-16 shooting in Game 1 to 3-for-10 to 5-for-13 to -- get this -- 0-for-12 in Game 4. This is the story of what has happened since Game 1, just as it was the story of how Miami took apart the Derrick Rose Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals two years ago. Nate Robinson, the hero of the Bulls' season in many ways because he supplied points to an offensively challenged team and energy to a building missing the franchise's star, scored no points in the must-have Game 4. He appeared hangdog tired early in the game, and Miami's defense made him that way.
Everywhere Nate went once he crossed half court, he met two Heat players, some combination of small (Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole) and then Mastodon (LeBron, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Chris Bosh). As often as not, Robinson hadn't even started to run the desired play until there were fewer than 10 seconds left on the shot clock, and after fighting through that tangle of bodies he was like a zombie, frazzled and exhausted. And Miami's trap didn't just kill Robinson's game. Miami had already figured out it was the injured Kirk Hinrich who was the Bulls' best bet when it comes to getting the ball to Carlos Boozer, so smothering Robinson would make both ineffective. And if you think the Heat overthought the whole thing, consider Robinson's 0-for-12 and Boozer's 3-for-14 shooting in Game 4. The Bulls had several entry passes picked off, several more tipped, several more looks into the post disrupted. Robinson, plain and simple, couldn't see Boozer. And when he thought he had a clear path to pass, somebody like long-armed LeBron swatted it away. The stat sheet said 17 Chicago turnovers but it seemed like that many just on intercepted passes to the post. It was as if the Heat had borrowed Ed Reed for a game. And there was nothing Nate Robinson, who has never been a point guard, could do in the face of that onslaught.
As Battier said, "Nate's the one guy on their team who can put pressure on our defense off the bounce. He can create havoc. He gets inside the defense, he scores, he gets the crowd going and suddenly ... It best serves us if we make him work, if we make him take a few more dribbles. It starts with Mario and Norris … when we get up into the ball handler we're an entirely different team."
That's when Miami's a championship team, as the Pacers guards will probably find out, as Mike Conley Jr. or Tony Parker or Steph Curry is bound to find out after that. They play on the defensive end with LeBron's passion and purpose now, all of them, right down to Norris Cole. It's a defense that travels, that is largely responsible for Miami winning all four of its road games this postseason. It's a defense that sensed an exhausted opponent and went for the kill.
So, in effect, with Miami leading the way the Bulls played without Boozer, without Robinson, without Luol Deng, without Hinrich. Coach Tom Thibodeau got Rip Hamilton 21 minutes in Game 4 ... which was about two games too late. The Bulls waved goodbye to their chance to extend this series when they dropped Game 3, which was tied with four minutes to play.
The worst news for the Bulls is there's no recovering from this. There's no emphasizing the hot shooter because they don't have one. Robinson isn't going to grow six inches between now and Wednesday night so that he can see over that trap, and he's not going to get some energy surge in 48 hours, either.
Thibs said all the things a coach is expected to say after this kind of loss, stuff like, "We'll regroup, watch film and get ready for the next one ... We have to bounce back ... They're a great team but we're capable of playing a lot better."
But the Bulls can't play so much better that it's going to change the tenor of this series, not with Deng and Hinrich out. Of course, these playoffs seem cursed in that way, that the Lakers had to play without Kobe Bryant, that OKC has to go at it without Russell Westbrook, that the Bulls lost both Deng and Hinrich during the Nets series, that the Pacers are without Danny Granger, that the Warriors have to play without their first All-Star in 17 years, David Lee. For all the talk postgame about what Dwyane Wade didn't do (six points on 3-for-10 shooting), the fact is the scare is about what he cannot do. Wade's knee is hurting him, limiting him, and I'd bet money on that out of my own pocket even though he'll never admit it publicly. As much as we presumed OKC would be the best in the West with Westbrook and Durant, do we really want to presume LeBron and the Heat will win without Wade? Hopefully it won't come to that, but it wasn't reassuring when Wade went to the floor at one point, and then to the bench rubbing his knee. Still, he finished the game. He played 28 minutes. Wouldn't the Bulls die for 28 minutes total from Hinrich and Deng, who are way too hurt and sick to seriously contemplate playing?
The reality is, the Bulls have run out of answers this season. There's no next man to step up, and no, what they have isn't enough ... not to beat the champs, not to best LeBron James and Chris Bosh and Miami. The Bulls have fought admirably, none of them more than Nate Robinson. He said afterward, "We have another crack at it. You never know. I might go 12-for-12 ... It will be a test for us. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We just have to muster up. The same with Brooklyn. They won the first game and took it to Game 7. We can do the same."
It's what you'd expect a fighter to feel, to say. But you suspect, watching the Bulls wander around punch drunk, Game 5 is going to be exactly like Games 2 and 4, that Miami is a basketball title wave and the Bulls are very soon to reach the point where they cover up and hope for a merciful end.