Everything was set up for the Heat to continue their sprint through the playoffs: An easy sweep in the first round, a week to rest, a second-round opponent battling through injuries and illness.
Perhaps, though, that was the problem.
“The playoffs are ugly, that’s what it’s about,” Heat center Chris Bosh said Monday night after the Bulls stunned the basketball world with a 93-86 victory in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“It’s been a little bit too pretty around here. People kiss your (butt) a little bit and everything is hunky dory. You just don’t show up and win games. It’s a kick in the chin. We’re going to dust ourselves off and counter.”
The consensus was the Heat were going to roll through these playoffs, perhaps threatening the Los Angeles Lakers’ record of a 15-1 postseason in 2001 after four double-digit wins against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
But that’s the least of the Heat’s concerns now after the Bulls pulled off one of the biggest shockers of the season. Undermanned and injury-riddled, Chicago scored 35 points in the fourth quarter, including the final 10 of the game, to make Wednesday night’s Game 2 much more interesting than most believed it would be.
“Last series is gone, and that was not typical of the playoffs,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to earn it. You have to fight.”
Marco Belinelli’s 3-pointer with two minutes remaining started the decisive run. Nate Robinson, the 5-foot-9 jitterbug who received 10 stitches in his lip during the game, then scored the final seven points on a pull-up jumper, a finger roll and three free throws as the Heat were clanking their final five shots, including a Dwyane Wade 3 and LeBron James air ball from close range.
“When you lose you have frustration, and losing at home especially,” Wade said. “We had our opportunities.”
Robinson led the Bulls with 27 points. Jimmy Butler, who played all 48 minutes for the third straight game, added 21.
The Bulls, playing without Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, had one day to recover from their seven-game series against the Brooklyn Nets. Deng remained in Chicago after experiencing complications after a spinal tap, and Hinrich missed his fourth straight game with a severely bruised left calf. Rose, meanwhile, continues to tap dance around questions concerning his availability in the series. He has been out since major knee surgery last May.
Miami, however, has had several struggles this season against teams playing without key players, including losses to the Bulls, Knicks and Celtics with each missing their best player.
The Heat, meanwhile, had seven full days off after sweeping the Bucks.
Spoelstra, though, said rust and relaxation didn’t contribute to the Heat’s lethargy.
“We are not making any excuses for time off or anything else,” he said.
James, who recovered from a career playoff low two-point first half by scoring a team-high 24 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter, made reference to the layoff when saying the Heat didn’t have their rhythm, and Wade said the Heat “wanted to defy the odds and not come out sluggish, but we did.”
Wade finished with 14 points but was just 3-of-10 in the second half. No other Heat player reached double figures. Aside from James (8-of-17) and Wade (7-of-16), the Heat were 16-of-45 from the field.
“The Bulls got to their style more than we did,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. “They wanted it low scoring, rough and tumble. We just couldn’t get it going.”
Battier was 2-of-7, all on 3s.
Even with the Bulls turning this into a mosh-pit type of game, Miami led 62-58 after three quarters and 76-69 midway through the fourth.
“We had opportunities. We were up and every time we got (the lead) to four, six, seven, something would happen that would get them back in the game,” Spoelstra said. “We didn’t close out the game the way we’re capable of.
“We have to be better about getting into our game, and that is what this is going to be about. Who is going to impose their identity on the other team.”