The battered and bruised Chicago Bulls, just 48 hours removed from a grueling seven-game series with the Brooklyn Nets, drew first blood in their Eastern Conference semifinal with the well-rested defending champion Miami Heat.
Decimated by injury and illness, coach Tom Thibodeau's rotation was effectively cut to six players. Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler all logged 39-plus minutes in the contest (with the latter playing all 48 minutes for the third straight game), while Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson split the power forward duties.
But even that wasn't enough to keep Chicago from stunning the AmericanAirlines Arena faithful with a 93-86 win in Game 1, a victory only made possible by a commanding 35-24 fourth-quarter advantage.
The Heat showed blatant signs of rust after a week-long layoff, shooting just 39.7 percent from the field, 29.2 percent from deep and 68.0 percent from the charity stripe. Miami was manhandled by Chicago on the glass, 46-32, all but negating its plus-seven showing in the turnover battle (15-8).
But did Erik Spoelstra's team waive the white flag prematurely?
An untimely late-game showing of hero ball certainly didn't help matters. After a Marco Belinelli three tied the game at 86 with 1:59 left in regulation, the Heat settled for forced jumpers on each of their next four possessions.
The entire offensive system predicated by ball movement and versatility was gone in a flash, with a certain Flash at the heart of its demise:
Chicago, meanwhile, had Nate Robinson (the third-string point guard on the opening-day depth chart, for what it's worth) setting the aggressive tone. His pull-up jumper gave Chicago a two-point edge with 1:18 left, and his driving layup pushed that to four some 30 seconds later.
After he split a pair of free throws, James fired up an errant three at the 0:18 mark of the fourth. Despite facing only a five-point deficit, Miami cued up the fat lady and let Chicago run nine seconds off the clock before Ray Allen finally fouled Robinson with just 9.3 seconds left on the game clock.
This all coming from a team that converted the second-highest percentage of its three-pointers during the regular season (39.6)—a team capable of creating vertical spacing with football tosses spanning the length of the floor. A team that showcased its ability to respond to adversity throughout its 27-game winning streak in the regular season.
Granted, those nine ticks were not the sole reason Miami lost this game.
The Heat's season-long struggles on the glass were once again an issue, and even the player brought in to address those woes couldn't change that tune:
Miami also struggled to win the 50-50 balls, with Tom Thibodeau's team continuing to be quicker and more determined in running down the rock. The Heat set a porous defensive perimeter, one that was constantly exposed by a Chicago group far outperforming its regular-season three-point success rate (38.9 percent in the contest, 35.3 percent on the year).
That week-long rest period gave Miami the chance to recover from whatever physical obstacles had affected its roster over the course of its 82-game schedule, but it also appeared to push the Heat worlds away from any rhythm it had found during a four-game sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks:
Then again, this was not unlike some past battles we've seen from these clubs. Right or wrong, Chicago feels like it holds the key to success against the defending champs, setting the same aggressive tone it had shown before:
Ultimately, though, this loss comes down to Chicago's ability to thrive without its superstars (Derrick Rose, Luol Deng) and Miami's inability to effectively support its own.
This wasn't a particularly efficient night from the MVP (James shot 8-of-17 from the field en route to 24 points), but the King did his part (eight boards, seven assists, two steals and one block).
His supporting cast, on the other hand, was simply nonexistent. Dwyane Wade, with 14 points on 7-of-16 shooting, was the only other Heat player to reach double figures. Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Ray Allen finished just 3-of-13 from downtown, with the latter showing every bit of his 37 years on the defensive end:
Only two Miami players shot 50 percent or better from the field in the game: Norris Cole (seven points, 3-of-4) and Chris Andersen (three points, 1-of-2). Chicago got 50-percent-plus efforts out of four different players, two of them coming from the starting lineup (Robinson 27 points on 8-of-16, Joakim Noah 13 points on 5-of-9).
Could Miami have stretched this game out with late fouls in hopes of stealing a win from the three-point line? Sure they could have.
But nothing about this game suggested that that's what was going to take place. The Heat were outworked, out-hustled and overall outperformed by the outmatched and undermanned Bulls.
Look, one win does not constitute a series victory. But it certainly should be a wake-up call for these Heat, and one that they probably didn't expect to receive this early in their title defense.