Bulls could be hardest part of Heat’s emotional year
By Lacy J. Banks email@example.com May 13, 2011 8:56PM
LeBron James confers with broadcaster Jim Gray before his infamous ‘‘Decision’’ on ESPN last July. | Larry Busacca~Getty Images
Updated: June 15, 2011 12:25AM
After the Miami Heat defeated the Boston Celtics on Wednesday to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, nobody had to ask Heat players whom they wanted to play next.
It had to be the league-leading Bulls, who swept the Heat 3-0 in the regular season, literally reducing players to tears after a victory March 6 in Miami.
On Thursday, the Bulls eliminated the Atlanta Hawks, setting up a much-anticipated series that will begin Sunday night at the United Center.
After hitting the free-agent jackpot last summer by enticing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade, the Heat became the team to beat. Then team president Pat Riley, the NBA’s co-executive of the year with the Bulls’ Gar Forman, made the team even better by adding veteran standouts such as Mike Bibby, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard and Mike Miller.
Some even predicted the Heat would challenge the 1996 Bulls, who set an NBA record with 72 victories.
But the Heat, which finished 58-24, caught heat for the way James left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, for whom he had played his first seven NBA seasons straight out of high school, and made his move public in a super-hyped news conference.
‘‘I’ve never seen, in my life, a team and a guy [James] criticized for doing what was legal,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
When the Heat last visited Chicago in February, I asked James if he felt sorry for Cavaliers fans and enraged owner Dan Gilbert.
‘‘No,’’ James said with no visible or audible emotion.
Gilbert had described James’ decision as a ‘‘cowardly betrayal’’ and his news conference as ‘‘narcissistic . . . self-promotional.’’ Then Gilbert got carried away. He told fans in a written release: ‘‘I personally guarantee that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA championship before the self-titled former ‘King’ wins one.’’
Without James, the Cavs lost an NBA-record 26 consecutive games this season and finished 19-63 after going 61-21 last season.
After the Heat beat the Celtics on Wednesday, James sounded as if he had softened.
‘‘The way it panned out with all the friends and family and fans back home, I apologize for the way it happened,’’ James said. ‘‘But I knew this opportunity was a chance in a lifetime to be able to come down [to Miami] and join two great players like Wade and Bosh.’’
The Heat closed the game Wednesday with a 12-0 run. Wade scored a game-high 34 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. James scored 33 points, and Bosh finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
‘‘This team will go as far as us three take it,’’ Wade said.
Then the Heat shocked me, celebrating as if it had won the NBA championship. Coach Erik Spoelstra even said, ‘‘It took 51/2 months for us to get to this point and exorcise these demons.’’
Is he suggesting there’s nothing else to fear or overcome? After all, the Heat is 0-3 against the Bulls and 0-2 against the Dallas Mavericks, who advanced to the Western Conference finals.