MIAMI—From Jimmy Butler taking on LeBron James in a head-to-head matchup to Nate Robinson responding to a bloody lip with a second-half scoring outburst, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bulls played their trademark blue-collar brand of basketball to perfection Monday night at American Airlines Arena.
But in the end, in order to pull off the unthinkable, a 93-86 series-opening upset win, a heavy dose of Robinson fourth-quarter heroics were necessary.
Slow offensive starts by both teams were the order of the evening, but while the Heat went 0-for-7 at the outset of the contest, the Bulls, propelled by Joakim Noah (13 points, 11 rebounds), built an early cushion.
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However, two quick fouls on Noah midway through the opening period put a damper on things, as did Miami gradually closing the gap.
The hosts appeared to be rusty after a long layoff following their first-round series sweep of Milwaukee and the undermanned Bulls capitalized as best as they could, with Butler (21 points, 14 rebounds), matched up with league MVP James (24 points, eight rebounds, seven assists)—he was presented with the trophy by NBA commissioner David Stern prior to the contest—making contributions on both ends, they again obtained some breathing room, despite Carlos Boozer also picking up a pair of early fouls.
A lift off the bench from big men Taj Gibson (12 points) and Nazr Mohammed furthered the visitors’ cause and after a quarter of play, the Bulls held a 21-15 advantage, following Heat backup point guard Norris Cole’s buzzer-beating floater.
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Miami began inching closer at the beginning of the second quarter, forcing Bulls turnovers by trapping rookie point guard Marquis Teague and reserve swingman Daequan Cook before they even reached midcourt.
Chicago native Dwyane Wade (14 points) and the league’s all-time 3-point marksman, Ray Allen, also got it going and were factors in the Heat overtaking their guests, prompting a Bulls timeout and the return of their starters.
Noah and Boozer, as well as the perimeter trio of new ironman Butler, Robinson (27 points, nine assists) and Marco Belinelli (10 points, seven rebounds) rectified things for the time being, seizing the lead back, but with the return of James to the game and reserve sharpshooter Mike Miller also making his presence felt, Miami continued forcing turnovers—the Bulls had 11 in the first half—and began to capitalize as halftime approached.
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Adding insult to injury was Robinson suffering a upper lip laceration and having to go to the locker room after diving for a loose ball with James—who struggled with his scoring, but made an impact as a playmaker, defender and interior force—symbolizing the Bulls’ plight, but with Butler and Noah leading the way, not only did the visitors manage to stay in the game, they knotted it up at 37 apiece at the intermission, following a Noah layup off a beautiful Teague setup with 1.5 seconds left in the period.
After the break, Robinson’s scoring led the way for the Bulls in the close-knit affair, while Wade shouldered the offensive burden for the poor-shooting Heat, as fellow All-Stars James and Chris Bosh struggled to establish themselves as scorers.
But as Bosh started to find his shooting touch and James found a comfort zone in being a distributor, Boozer continued to struggle as a shooter and Belinelli was effectively taken out of the game with James assigned to defend him, though the visitors were still able to stay within striking distance.
As the third quarter wound down, the Bulls managed to stave off one of Miami’s patented spurts, as Robinson’s explosive scoring and a continued solid defensive effort did the trick.
Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls trailed, 62-58, behind Robinson’s 13 points in the period.
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Butler had done an admirable job of limiting James all evening, but as the fourth quarter began, the MVP began to assert himself offensively, scoring the Heat’s first six points of the frame, though there wasn’t a noticeable difference on the scoreboard, as the Bulls were able to hold off a James-powered potential Miami spurt, with Gibson, Noah and Robinson serving as catalysts.
In his individual battle with James, Butler had fared well, but as James became increasingly persistent in forcing the issue, the superstar found success and helped the hosts acquire some separation from the visitors.
But the Bulls didn’t wilt—from Belinelli to Gibson to Butler, they hit clutch shot after clutch shot to tie the game or take the lead, albeit briefly—and as the game entered its stretch run, it was tied at 83 apiece with just under three minutes to go after a pair of Robinson free throws.
After the Heat went up by three, Belinelli got two cracks to tie the contest on the same possession, courtesy of a Noah offensive board, and knocked down the second, leading to a Bulls’ defensive stop and on their subsequent trip, a Robinson jumper off the dribble to give them an 88-86 lead with 1:18 remaining.
Following a Heat timeout, a Wade jumper was off the mark and Robinson made a driving layup over and through a forest of Miami defenders with 45.5 seconds on the clock, silencing the partisan Heat crowd.
A James airball on the next possession led to the Heat fouling Robinson, who split a pair of attempts from the charity stripe with 24.6 seconds left and the visitors nursing a 91-86 advantage.
James missed a 3-pointer from way behind the arc and Robinson fittingly closed out the game on the line, sending the legions of white-wearing South Beach denizens home in shock.