“Sympathy” and “LeBron James” is as perverse a combination of words as you’ll ever come across, but that’s exactly what I felt for the Akron-native and his Miami Heat after they got trampled by the Chicago Bulls on Sunday night.
Only a few days after James triumphantly dropped to one knee and thanked God that the Boston Celtics had foolishly given away Kendrick Perkins for two of Kevin Durant’s backpacks, he subsequently got dropped on his backside by Tom Thibodeau and the toughest defense in the league.
There were no loving embraces after this game between James and Dwyane Wade. No emotional, victorious outbursts. Only a very telling 103-82 final score, with defeat coming at the hands of the group that sat atop the Eastern Conference for much of the year and dominated Game 1 of the conference finals in similar fashion.
Now it’s back to the drawing board for the Heatles. The prayer that James and Wade’s convergence of talent would simply overpower the “underdog” top-seeded team is no more. Erik Spoelstra, James and Wade have to formulate a new defensive strategy, one that doesn’t rely on hoping Derrick Rose turns the ball over for four quarters -- not just two like he did in the previous outing -- and that the rest of the Bulls deep, deep roster falls asleep.
As it turned out, the Bulls weren’t the one-man team some had heralded. Rose had 28 points on a 10-of-22 performance, sure, but the real damage was done by his supporting cast. Luol Deng -- playing like a guy who knew he was a LeBron James decision away from not being a Bull -- scored 21 points in the game. Just between the two of them, Rose and Deng mustered up enough offensive firepower to outduel James and Wade.
The scoring outbursts by both Chicago players were not for lack of a better effort by Miami. Wade, in particular, chased and bobbed and weaved as much as he could, doing everything in his power to keep up with Rose to the best of his abilities. Unfortunately, the exhaustion took over late, made especially evident by the all-star guard missing bunnies that he could otherwise hit with his eyes closed on most days.
All game long, it just felt like the Heat were playing three-on-10 against the Bulls. Whereas Chris Bosh had a solid showing going for 30 points -- on 12-of-18 shooting -- the rest of his club looked slow and lethargic – seemingly content to give up when they saw that their shots weren’t going in. After it was all said done, Joakim Noah and his unit collected 19 offensive rebounds and scored 31 second-chance points, as telling a pair of stats on effort exerted as you’ll come across in the league.
Lucky for LeBron and the Pips, all of the laughter and high-fiving that was no doubt going on across America after Game 1 can be stopped fairly quickly. The Bulls, after all, did exactly what they were supposed to do: won the first game of the series at home. They still have to repeat that same act once more in the next game in order to simply keep on doing what’s required of them.
For the Heat, Game 2 will be all about adjustments.
The decision to deactivate Zydrunas Ilgauskas was a valiant effort at doing something stupid for no legitimate reason, but it’s safe to chalk that little experiment up to a fail. Joel Anthony is solid in the middle when you need a guy with more heart than rebounding ability and the occasional blocked shot, but against this Bulls squad, you need size. Only size can give this Heat team a shot at banging with their opponents’ bigs on the boards.
Also, as crazy as this sounds, Miami should take more of a live and let live approach with Rose. While sticking Wade on the MVP and hoping for the best is admirable, it wears the former out and leaves him too spent to do any damage on the offensive end and/or boards. And while you don’t want to give Rose free reign to roll out to the basket at will, him shooting a 20 or so jump shots while ignoring the supporting cast is a good strategy to bet your job on if you’re Spoelstra.
Finally, the Heat should just breathe. Deep breath in, deep breath out. James and Wade were absolutely atrocious in the second half of Game 1, and barring a phantom elbow injury, I just can’t see that happening again. You can only keep that pair bottled up for so long before the top comes off and they explode in your face.
So, all of you panicked Heat fans and empty seats covered in white shirts: heed to my advice and stay calm. Things will get better.
Hopefully not, though.