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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Stampede! Chicago Bulls Trample Miami Heat, 108-66

The Miami Heat tipped off the 2006-2007 season on Tuesday night by getting their championship rings--and then they got their bell rung by the Chicago Bulls, 108-66, the worst opening night loss ever by a defending NBA champion. The Bulls outperformed the Heat in every significant statistical category. Kirk Hinrich scored 26 points, Chris Duhon had 20 points on 7-8 field goal shooting in only 17 minutes before reinjuring his foot and free agent acquisition Ben Wallace had five points, 11 rebounds and one blocked shot. In order to completely understand the impact that Wallace had in the paint you have to look beyond Wallace's numbers and consider some of the Heat's statistics: no Miami player had more than six rebounds and the Heat never established an inside game, shooting only 25-65 (.385) from the field. Dwyane Wade led Miami with 25 points, shooting 10-15 from the field, but he also had four turnovers and only three assists and two rebounds. Shaquille O'Neal had just seven points and five rebounds in 24 minutes, shooting 3-10 from the field. He didn't make his first field goal until nearly midway through the second quarter.

Ring ceremony games often have a strange vibe. Athletes are creatures of habit and do not like anything that disrupts their normal routines. Of course, the players and staff members are no doubt thrilled to receive their championship rings but, as Miami Coach Pat Riley said earlier in the week, he would have preferred to get them on the night that the Heat clinched the NBA title (not sure how it would be possible to prepare all the rings that quickly but you get the point). During my Tuesday afternoon appearance on BetUS.comRadio, I said that the Bulls had a great chance to come into Miami on opening night and get a win--not only because of the distraction of the ring ceremony but also because the Bulls, already a good perimeter defensive team, shored up their weakness in the paint by signing Wallace. P.J. Brown and rookie Tyrus Thomas did not put up big numbers but they also did a good job defensively for Chicago.

The first quarter of the game was slow paced, littered with fouls and turnovers by both teams. Wade scored Miami's first six points and denied Luol Deng's breakaway layup with a spectacular blocked shot attempt. Wade was called for a foul, but Deng only made one of two free throws, so his hustle saved a point; the play was reminiscent of similar efforts years ago by Dr. J, who made it an art form, and Michael Jordan. I'll never forget when Jordan, during his comeback with the Wizards, held off a Chicago Bulls rally by hustling back and nullifying Ron Mercer's fast break layup by grabbing it with two hands and pinning it to the backboard. That play was later featured in one of my favorite commercials of all-time, when Jordan narrated over the clip of that play, "Love is playing every game like it is your last."

O'Neal was whistled for his second foul with 7:51 remaining in the first quarter and went to the bench with Chicago up 9-7. A few minutes later Wade received his second foul as well, but Riley left him in the game. TNT's Steve Kerr mentioned that a point of emphasis for NBA referees this year is that if a block/charge call is close that the benefit of doubt will go to the offensive player. The Bulls took advantage of this by repeatedly driving right at O'Neal. It will be interesting to see if the game is officiated this way throughout the season and into the playoffs because if it is then players like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade--among others--will be even more unguardable than they were last year. Chicago led 22-16 at the end of the first quarter, largely because of all the fouls they drew and free throws that they made (12-17). The Bulls shot only 5-20 from the field, while Miami shot 6-18. The Heat had seven turnovers and committed nine fouls.

Chicago opened the second quarter with a 10-3 run in less than two minutes and when Riley called timeout at the 9:08 mark the Heat trailed 34-19. During that frantic sequence of plays, Thomas made a tremendous blocked shot on O'Neal. The Bulls' defense was stifling and they converted the Heat's turnovers and errant shots into fast break points. Shortly after the timeout, Thomas had a tip jam that looked like it came straight off of the Stromile Swift highlight reel--a lean, long armed jumping jack exploding into the air; hopefully for the Bulls, Thomas will produce such plays with more consistency than Swift does. The Bulls soon pushed the lead past 20 and a smattering of boos could be heard from the shocked fans in American Airlines Arena. It was not clear if the fans were responding to the Heat's lethargic play or some of the fouls that were called against Miami. TNT's Marv Albert and Steve Kerr seemed surprised that the fans were booing on ring night. After initially acknowledging that it was happening, they almost seemed to go into denial about it, Albert repeatedly saying that the fans were being charitable by not booing when the Heat's play deserved it--kind of a strange thing to say when anyone watching the telecast could clearly hear that at least some fans were in fact booing. Chicago continued to pull away and after Duhon sank back to back three pointers the Bulls led 57-28. Have you ever seen a coach get a technical foul when he was up by that much? Well, Scott Skiles did. It wasn't clear what he said or did or if the call was a result of the NBA's new crackdown on complaining by players/coaches. The Bulls led 59-30 at the half.

TNT's Craig Sager reported that Riley told his players that their effort and energy was unacceptable. One might think that the Heat would make some kind of second half run to at least make the score respectable. The old cliche, oft repeated by Steve Levy on SportsCenter, says, "Everybody makes a run in the NBA." Amazingly, that never happened in this game. Wade made some nice shots but Miami never even got within 20 points before the Bulls built an even bigger lead than they did in the first half. Early in the fourth quarter, Albert announced that we were heading toward extensive "gar-bage time."

***Notes***

* The only down note for Chicago is that Tyrus Thomas broke his nose in the fourth quarter after receiving a James Posey elbow during a scramble for a rebound.

* Bulls' General Manager John Paxson has a clearly defined blueprint for building his team. He has acquired hard working, hard nosed players who come from winning programs. Other, less successful NBA teams bring in so-called stars and top prospects who are unwilling to put in the necessary work to become championship level players. Look at the progession of high priced, big name, underachieving players that have been signed by teams like the Portland Trail Blazers (who are now trying to forge a new path) and the New York Knicks.

* During TNT's pregame show, Shaquille O'Neal offered this interesting quote: "When I was his age (referring to Dwyane Wade), all I wanted to be was the leading scorer in the league--but that wasn't winning me championships. The day I stopped worrying about that and just (started) playing good, consistent ball--shoot 60% from the field, get 9-10 rebounds a game, stay out of foul trouble--that was the day I started winning." Could this possibly, maybe mean that Penny Hardaway and Kobe Bryant were not 100% at fault in their "feuds" with O'Neal? In any case, I give O'Neal credit for (1) realizing at some point that the way that he was playing was not going to help him win titles or contribute to his legacy and (2) admitting that he changed his approach in order to be a championship player--he is singing a slightly different tune now than his usual line that he always did things the right way but that the "other guy" (first Penny, then Kobe) was not following suit. Perhaps getting older and winning another championship has enabled Shaq to look at his career objectively. He has accomplished a lot and it is much better to hear him speak truthfully about his evolution as opposed to diminishing the contributions that Penny and Kobe made to his previous teams that advanced to the Finals.

* TNT's Charles Barkley said that his sleeper team in the East is the New Jersey Nets, calling Marcus Williams the steal of the draft and saying that Nenad Krstic can be a valuable contributor. Magic Johnson disagreed for two reasons: (1) the Nets do not make key fourth quarter defensive stops; (2) the Nets have no offensive post presence, putting a lot of pressure on their perimeter players to score.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:26 AM

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