It’s been a long, long time since a defending NBA champion was swept in the first round of the playoffs the following year. Well, that was until the Chicago Bulls waltzed into Miami and shut the Heat down, finishing the series this afternoon with a 92-79 victory. There’s a lot of goats in the Miami stable today: D. Wade turned the ball over seven times, Shaq and Alonzo Mourning couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn at the free-throw line, and Pat Riley got little to no production from his bench (Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, and Jason Kapono combined for 2-7 FG for 7 points). Fluke champion? You decide.
But let’s not pin the Heat’s debacle solely on their poor team performance and lack of pride. Scott Skiles had his Bulls running on all cylinders from start to finish in this series, with rising stars Ben Gordon and Luol Deng leading the way. Ben Wallace, the Bulls’ big free-agent pickup last summer, was huge Sunday afternoon… at the free-throw line. That’s right, Riley resorted to the Hack-a-Ben strategy late in the fourth quarter, and all Big Ben did was nail seven straight from the charity stripe. Wow. Shaq loves to say that he always makes the free throws when they matter, but today he was 0-7 while his counterpart went 7-8.
It’s going to be a long, long summer in Miami, and the window may have just closed on their status as an elite NBA team. Look down the bench: there’s a very good chance that Pat Riley doesn’t return as head coach. Mourning, Payton, Walker, and Eddie Jones will all ride off into the retirement sunset or wind up on different teams. Shaq’s second-half performances show that he’s running out of gas, and fast. Age has finally caught up with this team, and it’ll be interesting to see what they look like next fall. For now, though, they’ll head home and watch the rest of the playoffs as spectators.
The table is now set for what will be one of the most heated, hotly contested series of the 2007 NBA playoffs between the Bulls and Detroit Pistons. Chicago took the regular-season series, but none of that matters in the postseason. Both teams look like they’re peaking at the exact right time, and both will be extremely motivated to prove they’re the better team. Everyone remembers the storied rivalry back in the day between Jordan’s Bulls and the Bad Boys, and now it looks like that bad blood will be renewed again. Check back at ETB later this week for an in-depth look at the series; you will *not* want to miss any of these second-round contests.