MIAMI – Nate Robinson was spitting blood in the first half, then delivered the deepest cuts of the night in the final moments. And the Bulls reminded the Miami Heat that no one in the NBA plays them any tougher.
Yes, the streakbusters struck again.
Robinson scored 27 points, Jimmy Butler added 21 points and a career-high-tying 14 rebounds, and the Bulls beat Miami, 93-86, on Monday night in Game 1 of the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal series. The team that snapped Miami’s 27-game winning streak in the regular season – the second-longest in NBA history – found a way to topple the champs again, this time ending a run of 12 straight Heat victories overall.
“I’ve played on some tough teams,” Robinson said. “But this one, there’s something a little different, something special about this group.”
A seven-point deficit midway through the fourth wasn’t enough to doom the Bulls, who finished the game on a 10-0 run in the final 1:59. And to think, the Bulls weren’t anywhere near full strength. Kirk Hinrich was out again with a calf injury. Luol Deng isn’t even expected to rejoin the team until Tuesday, after dealing with an illness apparently so severe that a spinal tap – and other tests since – were needed to rule out things like meningitis.
“So proud of my team man, this bed might be good luck after all,” Deng wrote on Twitter after the game, with a photo of him in a hospital bed.
Oh, and Derrick Rose remains sidelined, as he’s been since April 2012.
No problem. The Heat are 41-3 in their last 44 games – with two of those losses to the Bulls, who are now 3-2 against Miami this season.
“I think when you’re facing adversity, you have to be mentally tough,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “But this is just one game. We have to play a lot better in our next one.”
LeBron James got his MVP trophy from commissioner David Stern before the game, then struggled to a two-point first half before finishing with 24 points, eight rebounds and seven assists for Miami. Dwyane Wade added 14 for the Heat, who had no one else in double figures, finished shooting 40 percent from the floor and were outrebounded 46-32.
“I’m not stunned,” James said. “This is what the playoffs is all about. We’re going against a really good team.”
Miami was outscored 35-24 in the fourth, something that drew the ire of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra afterward.
“There’s no excuses,” said Spoelstra, whose team had not played in more than a week. “We’re not making any excuses for time off or anything else.”
If anyone could have made excuses, it was Robinson. He needed 10 stitches, five in his lip and five more inside his mouth, to close a nasty cut that came when he dove for a loose ball with James and struck his head on the court late in the first half.
And then not only did he play the whole second half, he scored 24 points in those 24 minutes, including the last seven points that finished the job for Chicago.
“He was born a scorer,” Miami guard Mario Chalmers said. Joakim Noah scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for the Bulls, who got 12 from Taj Gibson and 10 from Marco Belinelli. Game 2 is Wednesday night in Miami.
“We’re not really a flashy team,” Gibson said. “We like to go out and do our job.”
A pair of three-point plays by James – one of them coming when he just broke through a tackle attempt by Butler and muscled the ball to the rim anyway – gave Miami a 76-69 lead midway through the fourth quarter, the biggest deficit Chicago faced all night.
The Bulls were undeterred.
Coming off a Game 7 road win in Brooklyn two nights earlier just to get into a series with Miami, the Bulls just kept grinding. When Ray Allen made a 3-pointer to give Miami an 80-78 lead, Butler came back with one of his own to put the Bulls back on top. When the Heat went up by three after James made a free throw with 2:22 left, Belinelli connected for 3 – on a second-effort possession – to knot the score.
Then when Robinson connected on a 20-footer with 1:18 left, the Bulls had the lead and plenty of swagger.
Wade missed a 3-pointer on the next possession, Robinson drove the lane and scored with 45.5 seconds left, and suddenly the Bulls were up 90-86. James drove against Butler and tried a 12-footer that missed everything, the Bulls got the rebound, Robinson made a free throw to stretch the lead to five and the stunner was complete. Game 1 to the Bulls.
“It’s all about being tough,” said Butler, who played all 48 minutes for the third straight game. “We’re always going to be the underdogs and we take pride in that. Everybody can overlook us, but we feel like we’re good enough to hang with a lot of these teams.”
It was a night that started with a celebration, James getting his MVP award from the commissioner.
“Thank you so much,” James said. “And let’s get ready to go.” And with that, the game started.
Problem was, no one was ready to go.
The Heat missed their first seven shots – maybe rust really was a factor. It was 37-all at the half and James wore twice as many pairs of sneakers in the opening two quarters (two) as he had field goals (one). He had two points at the break, the lowest of his 120-game postseason career, on just 1 for 6 shooting.
He opened the second half with a 3-pointer, so the shoes were a quick fix.
But the Bulls were in for the long haul, and after James made the consecutive three-point plays to open a seven-point lead, Chicago answered with seven straight points, knotting the game at 76-all when Belinelli made a 3-pointer with just under 5 minutes left.
Momentum belonged to Chicago, and soon, so did the game.
“It’s just one game,” Belinelli said.
NOTES: James has played 885 regular-season and playoff games. He’s scored less than two points in a first half only twice, being shut out by Dallas on Oct. 31, 2007 and Dec. 20, 2010. He scored exactly two points on five other occasions before Monday. ... Wade dove into the second row of seats to save an errant ball, and grimaced after appearing to hit his sore right knee. “I wish somebody would have grabbed me. That would have been kind of nice, especially at home,” Wade said. ... The Bulls had 17 second-chance points on only nine offensive rebounds.