May 25, 2011, 1:39 AM EDT
The Chicago Bulls finished with a better regular-season record than the star-studded Miami Heat for two reasons: superior depth and better play in close games. On Tuesday night, the Heat flipped the script on the Bulls, and took a commanding 3-1 series lead thanks to superior depth and late-game execution.
All season long, the Bulls have worn down opponents thanks to their endless array of effective role players and defenders; Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, and C.J. Watson were just as important to the Bulls’ success as anything else was.
The Heat, meanwhile, looked painfully thin for most of the year. Udonis Haslem missed nearly the entire season with foot injuries, thumb injuries and hesitant play kept Mike Miller from being effective all season long, Mario Chalmers was inconsistency incarnate, and the Heat’s three seven-footers have all spent most of the playoffs on the inactive list.
On Tuesday, with Wade having one of the worst games of his career, LeBron being forced to work for every single point or assist, and Bosh being shut down by Joakim Noah and smart Chicago double-teams, the Heat had to rely on their bench to save them. Remarkably, they did.
Mike Miller was an insane +36 in 26 minutes, and had what can only be considered a renaissance game. He finally stopped hesitating on the court, and started doing what he’s always done best — make jump shots. In a classic case of “don’t think, just shoot,” Miller showed no hesitation on his jump shot, draining two catch-and-shoot threes and three mid-range jumpers millseconds after he caught the ball. One of his made jumpers was a step-back off the dribble, which shows just how high Miller’s confidence was — he only took a handful of those shots in the entire regular season, let alone made any.
Mario Chalmers never lacks for confidence, and the mercurial guard came off the bench to score nine quick points and snag four steals, providing a needed boost of energy. Udonis Haslem didn’t score a single point, but his rebounding and defense were invaluable, and the Heat were +25 in his 34 minutes.
Chicago’s bench, meanwhile, failed to provide the spark it usually does. Kyle Korver’s shot remains missing, Taj Gibson went scoreless with one rebound in 10 minutes, and a leg injury limited Omer Asik to only two minutes of play. Without their stellar bench there to spell them effectively, the Chicago starters were forced to play 44+ minutes apiece, and the fatigue eventually became to much for them as the game wore on.
Miami’s bench players were the ones who kept the team alive through most of the game, but it was the team’s superstars that sealed the deal. LeBron James scored or assisted on 10 of Miami’s 22 fourth-quarter points, and his defense on Derrick Rose late was key down the stretch. Chris Bosh drew a key flagrant foul with just under five minutes to play, and made the last field goal of regulation on a jumper with 1:14 remaining and the Heat trailing by a point.
In overtime, the big 3 accounted for all 16 of Miami’s points, and Wade added two blocks and a steal in the extra period. It was a close game, it was an ugly game, it was the kind of game Chicago wanted, but they simply weren’t able to hold off Miami’s Big 3 when the game was on the line.
Now Chicago will have to win three games in a row to survive the Heat and move onto The Finals. The series isn’t over yet — Chicago only has to win one road game to survive, and their losses have all been competitive — but it looks like the Heat’s mixture of star power and their unlikely depth and ability to close out tough games may prove to be too much for Chicago in this series
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