The Bulls' Big Secret | Sports | Chicago Reader

The Bulls' Big Secret 

How do you beat the defending champs? Score more points.

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Cliches clung to the Bulls like burrs following their playoff sweep of the Miami Heat--they'd matured, they'd come of age, they'd killed the king. And then there was my personal favorite: after they won the first two games at home, Miami coach Pat Riley said, "I thought one of the best things that happened to Chicago, and I hate to say this, is when they lost to New Jersey. It pissed them off. . . . Born out of that kind of adversity comes something else, and I think you saw that the first two games."

You didn't hear any such theories from Bulls coach Scott Skiles. If the team wanted to keep playing, they had to keep winning, and the Heat, the defending NBA champions who'd beaten them in six games in the opening round of last year's NBA playoffs, were just the next team in the way. "Somebody's got to beat them or else they'll win another one," Skiles said matter-of-factly before the first game at the United Center. "Our guys do a great job of respecting them, but at the same time not being intimidated by them. [So] we hope it's us." He simply urged his team to play with their usual intensity and perhaps a bit more focus.

Pissed off? I don't know what Riley was talking about. The Bulls played cool and composed, even as the Heat turned up the thuggery in each game, most specifically in the person of bench player James Posey. After his 33 points led the Bulls to a 96-91 victory in the opener, Luol Deng, freshly turned 22, said, "We just have to keep playing the way we play and running the things we run."

The Bulls won the second game 107-89, and Skiles, who always sees the glass as more than half empty, said his team had merely held serve in its own building, just like the Bulls had done two years ago against the Washington Wizards only to lose the next four games. With the next two games in Miami, Skiles declared, "I know overconfidence is not going to be a problem." Riley was reminding his players that they'd been down 2-0 to the Dallas Mavericks in last year's finals before running the table. Yet he admitted this Miami team was not in the mental or physical condition of last year's champions, and he had a handle on the dangers the Bulls posed. "They're not just a jump-shooting team. They're a movement team," he said. "After 82 games it's a simple game for them."

The Bulls' skilled perimeter players don't just shoot jump shots. They drive and dish, run players around double screens, and pick and roll with their big men and with combative Argentine import Andres Nocioni, who's returned from a foot injury to give them some much-needed intensity off the bench. They churn and they churn, until the offense runs as smooth as butter.

The Heat defense turned the Bulls into grinders in the third game, and Miami opened a 12-point third-quarter lead. Yet the third quarter of each game was when the Bulls' conditioning asserted itself against Miami's age, and in game three they found a rhythm. By the end of the quarter they'd closed the gap to 76-72, and after that they kept coming. Big Ben Wallace, the defensive specialist brought in to turn last year's centerless also-rans into championship contenders, snuffed Shaquille O'Neal, and then Kirk Hinrich hit a runner at the other end to put the Bulls up 80-79. The Bulls weren't inflicting their will on the Heat; they were simply outplaying them.

The mental toughness the Bulls showed was mainly in standing up to the biased refereeing that's business as usual whenever the NBA wants to extend a series. The Bulls opened an 84-81 lead even though at that point the Heat had shot 30 free throws to the Bulls' 21. But the Bulls had made 16 of theirs and the Heat just 13, and both O'Neal and his costar Dwyane Wade had just missed a pair. The Bulls went flat briefly after Ben Gordon missed an open three-pointer that would have put them up 12, but they maintained enough composure to win 104-96.

The fourth game followed the same blueprint. The Heat led early and were up 48-44 at halftime in front of a home crowd clad in white--it looked like a mass marriage by Reverend Moon in there. After the Bulls tied the game the Heat took a 60-52 lead, but that was their last gasp. A 16-4 run put the Bulls ahead 68-64 after three quarters, and then Nocioni hit an open three and then a prayer with the shot clock running out to push the score to 74-68.

Wade, last year's finals MVP, tried to put the Heat on his back but he ran up against Wallace. Wallace shoots free throws as if he were squirting watermelon seeds at the rim, and he dashed around the court trying to keep away from the Heat, whose last hope was to foul him and put him on the line. Yet he made seven straight free throws down the stretch and also converted a Nocioni miss into a basket: unlikely as it sounds, he had 8 of the Bulls' last 16 points in their 92-79 victory. Now the Bulls play Wallace's previous team, the Detroit Pistons, in a series starting this weekend that's unweighted by the bitterness that marked these teams' Jordan-era rivalry.

After their opening win against the Heat, Skiles was asked if the Bulls' composure down the stretch revealed a newfound maturity. "No. We won a playoff game," he said. "I'm more concerned with how we coughed up a nine-point lead to put ourselves in that position." After eliminating the Heat, he only grudgingly admitted that he was happy about it. "We want to enjoy it," he said, "but we want to keep playing." It was just one series, he suggested, with as many as three more to go. The demanding father figure to a team of young players gave the impression that only a championship would completely satisfy him.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ben Wallance in game three/photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images.

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