All the King’s Horses

If you should find your step today lightened by the hope of an early Miami Heat exodus from this year's postseason, my guess is that you will come to feel like you’re in cement shoes by week’s end. Opening game upsets like the one pulled off by the Chicago Bulls on Monday night are not a rarity. The Heat lost openers to the Bulls in the 2011 Eastern Finals, and to OKC in last year's NBA Finals, before closing out both series in five games.

Let's not be deluded into thinking Lebron James' "Not one, not two . . ." prophesy has taken a sabbatical. Make no mistake about it: the King and his horses will successfully defend their title over the course of this spring, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the moment for a while. What Monday’s 93-86 Bulls win does mean is that we’re in for a more compelling series than we had any right to expect, and what’s wrong with that?

You’ve got to hand it to the Chicago Bulls: they are a gritty bunch. After a fully-extended series against the Brooklyn Nets, they limped into Miami without starters Luol Deng and Kirk Heinrich, not to mention the long-missed Derrick Rose, while the Heat enjoyed eight days of South Beach sunshine. Yet it was the Bulls displaying all the energy during the final two minutes of play in Game 1, scoring the final ten points to steal the win.

It was the kind of comeback that makes you wonder what we may have missed last year. The Bulls and Heat were arguably the best in basketball and appeared headed for an Eastern Finals showdown to essentially decide the NBA championship. Then Rose tore his ACL.

On its face, beating Miami is a daunting task, even when they're down a game. Winners of 41 of their previous 43 games going into Monday, the Heat have been on cruise control, ripping through the regular season and opening playoff round. They challenged the Lakers’ seemingly untouchable 33-game winning streak. They fielded the league’s four-time MVP. They earned home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, where they went 37-4 in the regular season. And they are well-rested.

But lest we forget, Chicago is only one year – and one player – removed from sharing top bill. After losing to the Heat in the 2011 Eastern Finals, they earned a top seed last year despite the absence of Rose for nearly half the season due to a previous injury. With him back in the lineup and healthy, they became the league’s last line of defense against an impending Heat dynasty. Then he went down and now the floodgates have opened.

Although no one could have imagined Rose would be shelved for so long – there is still some hope that he’ll make his return in this Heat series – the Bulls nevertheless pushed on, managing a 45-37 record without him, good enough for a fifth seed. They split four regular season games with Miami, including a win that snapped the Heat’s 27-game winning streak in March. On Monday night, they ended Miami’s 8-game postseason win streak. In fact, the Heat have lost three games since February 1, two to Chicago. Is it preposterous to imagine them winning three more times?

Yeah, it is.

For one thing, the early discombobulation in James during Game 1 that was brought on by Jimmy Butler’s harassing defense and Joakim Noah’s lane presence had dissipated completely by the fourth quarter. The Bulls limited Lebron to 2 first-half points on 1-of-6 shooting as he tried to incorporate teammates into the offense, but when the trey-shooting trio of Shane Battier, Mike Miller, and Ray Allen responded with a collective 4-15 from beyond the arc, Lebron stepped it up with 15 points in the fourth quarter.

The rap on James used to be his tendency to give up the ball in key situations. That all changed in Game 6 against the Celtics last year when he singlehandedly took over the Eastern Finals and laid to rest the old King’s legacy. The new one is completely capable of stepping it up and he won't wait so long tonight, or any other to follow. Enough of the kick-outs to streaky-shooting teammates. He and teammate Dwayne Wade will look to drive the lane, with or without Noah's presence. The two combined for a paltry nine free throws between them in Game 1. By contrast, the Bulls’ Butler and minimum-wage guard Nate Robinson each took ten.

Another thing. What are Butler and Robinson going to do for encores? The former is going to need a portable IV if he has to play another 48 minutes and that’s going to cramp his defensive prowess, while the latter is an unlikely source to fuel another 35-point fourth quarter as he did Monday.

Finally, the plentitude of smoke and mirrors Coach Tom Thibodeau has employed in masking the depletion of his troops is going to wear a little thin the longer Deng and Heinrich remain unavailable. Both are doubtful for tonight. And forget about Derrick Rose. At this point, speculation about his return is an unwanted distraction that far outpaces any benefits that could be gained from giving a basketball to a guy who hasn’t touched one in 13 months. Thibodeau will have to go with what got him here. It’ll be enough to carry him the little distance remaining in his 2012-13 odyssey.

Sure, it’s going to take a little longer than anyone had a right to expect. It already has. But by sometime next week, the Heat will be in their familiar spot on the sands of South Beach awaiting their next opponent. And their next parade.

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