The United Center is known as a home of history. From Michael Jordan to the first Big Ten Conference basketball tournament in 1998, this was always a haven of basketball heaven. And last night, another spectacle engraved itself into the history books.
In front of a packed house of more than 23,000 fans in Chicago, the Miami Heat’s mighty 27-game winning streak finally ended. Prior to the contest, the Heat hadn’t lost a game since February 1, 52 days without earning an L. Behind the tenacious physicality of LeBron James, the speed of Dwyane Wade and the finesse of Chris Bosh, they seemed almost unbeatable.
The Bulls were shorthanded. No All-Star center Joakim Noah. No veteran and NBA champion Rip Hamilton. No key reserve Marco Belinelli, and obviously no Derrick Rose. Yet the Bulls still found a solution to stop the team that hadn’t been silenced since before All-Star Weekend, a solution to stop the team just short of breaking the 1971-1972 Lakers’ 33-game winning streak: a fantastic frontcourt and aggressive defense.
If Tom Thibodeau is known for anything, it’s teaching persistent defense, and the Bulls put on an exhibition. They received strong performances from forwards Luol Deng (28 points), Carlos Boozer (21 points, 17 rebounds) and Jimmy Butler (17 points).
With more teams focused on finesse in the frontcourt rather than stronger forwards — and that definitely applies to the Bulls/Heat matchup — it opens up the opportunity to get out-muscled and out-rebounded. Chris Bosh had just four rebounds last night, Udonis Haslem only one. The Bulls won the glass 43-31, and that eventually yielded eight more shots at the rim.
During their 27-game winning streak, the Heat often got off to slow and uninspiring starts. Normally, James eventually stole the show. But there was always a thought that it would catch up with them.
In Chicago, the Heat trailed by 13 points in the first quarter and finished the game looking up into the rafters and praying for answers. James was rumbling hard through screens in the last four minutes. Bosh was playing his usual game of duck and dive at the rim. Wade seemed more interested in his new nickname than on-court activity.
It was an equation that spelled out their demise. But afterwards, with the defending champions dejected, LeBron still wasn’t finished. He said he’s been frustrated with hard fouls all season. Last night, it came to a climax.
“I believe, and I know that a lot of my fouls are not basketball plays,” James told the media following the 101-97 loss. “First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground. The last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground.
“It’s been happening all year, and I’ve been able to keep my cool and try to tell Spo, ‘Let’s not worry about it too much.’ But it is getting to me a little bit because every time I try to defend myself, I got to face the consequences of a flagrant for me or a technical foul, whatever the case may be.”
His argument is valid, but when a player has the size, wingspan and strength of LeBron James (not to mention he’s been putting people on posters all season), a player should do everything they can to stop his momentum.
Even though some wanted to see the glitz and glamour behind the Heat’s streak end, there were many who wanted to see them top the ’71-72 Lakers. There will be arguments over which team is better, but now that the streak is out of the way, Miami can get on to what is really important.
As James walked off the court to chants of “End the Streak” and “Beat the Heat,” there was a foreign feeling he hadn’t felt since the beginning of February. The feeling of being in second place, the inadequacy of falling to another club, and somewhat of a realization that a second championship would not be as simple as just showing up for another day at the office. His fire is being fueled by the best motivator: the bitter sting of watching your own defeat.
Will this streak ending help or hurt the Heat’s psyche?
Follow Tyler on Twitter at @RealTylerTynes.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.