Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) and Joel Anthony (50) stop Derrick Rose's drive to the basket during the first half of Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals basketball series in Miami, Sunday, May 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Updated: August 21, 2011 12:21AM
MIAMI — Much of the intrigue heading into Game 3 of the Bulls-Heat Eastern Conference finals series centered around the Bulls’ season-low 34 percent shooting in their Game 2 loss at the United Center.
Was it just a bad shooting night, or the Miami Heat’s defense tightening its grip on a Bulls offense lacking a go-to guy other than Derrick Rose?
The latter would be a series-turning issue. The Bulls won six times in the regular season when they shot below 40 percent from the field, but only twice against playoff teams. When they shot 37 percent and beat the Dallas Mavericks, they also hit 7 of 16 three-pointers. When they
shot 38 percent and beat the
New Orleans Hornets, they
didn’t have Chris Paul to worry about.
In Game 2, the Heat not only held the Bulls to 34 percent shooting overall, they held them to 3-for-15 three-point shooting — one of them a half-court desperation shot by Luol Deng at the end of the first quarter.
But therein lies an eternal basketball question: Did the Heat ‘‘hold’’ the Bulls to 34 percent shooting? Or did the Bulls just miss shots they normally make?
‘‘It was kind of both,’’ Bulls guard Derrick Rose said prior to Game 3. ‘‘We settled for a lot of jump shots, where when they were flying out we weren’t going to the [basket]. I missed a tone of layups instead of trying to get fouled. But you have to give it to them. They played good defense.’’
That set the stage for Game 3 at American Airlines Arena on Sunday night. And it didn’t look good early. The Bulls hit four of their first six shots — two drives by Rose, a dunk by Deng on a give-and-go with Joakim Noah and Keith Bogans’ three-pointer — in taking a 10-6 lead.
But the Bulls struggled from there and there’s no way around it — the Heat’s defense was the culprit. Carlos Boozer, already blocked by Joel Anthony on one shot, was then stuffed by LeBron James. Anthony blocked a shot by Deng and then one by Omer Asik. The Bulls missed 18 of their final 20 shots in the quarter. Any questions?
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau had hoped to mitigate the Heat’s particularly tough half-court defense by getting more transition baskets and more points off rebounds. Outside of those two categories, the Bulls scored just 44 points in their half-court offense in Game 2, by far their lowest output in the playoffs (the previous low was 60) and the lowest of the season.
‘‘It’s key,’’ Thibodeau said when asked about the importance of transition baskets. ‘‘When you’re walking about against this team, it’s not good.’’
But at halftime, the Bulls had scored six points on fast breaks and only six on second-chance opportunities. After getting 19 offensive rebounds in Game 1 and 17 in Game 2, they had just five.
That left them to do most of their scoring against the Heat’s half-court defense, which is becoming more and more problematic.
With Joakim Noah no threat to shoot the outside jumper that had become a bigger part of his game prior to his injuries and Luol Deng — as valuable as he is — unable to turn it on at will, the Bulls’ offense is shrinking and becoming more and more reminiscent of those shaky playoff moments during the Jordan era, when the supporting cast would shut it down and Michael Jordan would have to carry the load.
As it turned out, the Bulls’ offense never kicked into gear. They hit 10 of 16 shots in the second quarter and 9 of 19 in the third to stay close. But when they needed to hit shots in the fourth quarter — trailing 68-66 in the opening minute — they missed six of their first nine shots. And as Noah and Boozer were blocked on the same possession, the Heat went on a 9-0 run that gave them an 87-74 lead with 5:07 left.
They ended up shooting 42 percent (32-for-77) in the 96-85 loss that put them in a 2-1 hole in the series. In three games they’ve shot 43, 34 and 42 percent, and now they find themselves in the same situation as the Pacers and Hawks did against them in previous rounds — trying to figure out a way to solve a defense that is getting better. This wasn’t a case of shots going in-and-out or missing shots they normally make. The Heat’s defense is no fluke. And it’s not going away.