In the Wake of the News
11:19 PM CDT, May 6, 2013
MIAMI — After his head hit the floor during a collision with LeBron James while diving for a loose ball in the first half of the Bulls' 93-86 stunner over the Heat on Monday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, Nate Robinson immediately grabbed his lip.
It was cut. He was bleeding. Bloodied but unbowed, Robinson retreated to the locker room so team doctors could close the gash at halftime but returned to play because it never occurred to him to do anything else.
Because Robinson playing with 10 stitches perfectly epitomized how this Bulls team with rare toughness and tenacity persevered in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals just as they did against the Nets. Because a Bulls playoff game without a medical subplot would be like a newscast without the weather.
"It was just a hustle play that went wrong," Robinson said as he held an ice pack to his mouth. "You have to play through it."
Like the Bulls play through everything. They are the only playoff participant left whose team bus could be an ambulance. Their postseason slogan has become See Red Cross. Yet somehow they find a way to win.
They find a way because coach Tom Thibodeau refuses to make their mounting medical challenges matter — the latest, greatest proof coming in a road win over the defending NBA champions without Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Derrick Rose.
The Heat can blame rust if they want, but this one was all about mettle. When Thibodeau uses his mantra that the Bulls have more than enough, people think he means players. He must mean resolve. The Bulls lead the league.
"We've been hit all year with a lot of different things, but I like the mental toughness of our team," Thibodeau said. "This is just one game."
What a game it was.
Beating the Nets short-handed in Game 7 lasted 48 hours as the Bulls' most impressive victory of the season. Stealing Game 1 in a series almost nobody gives them a chance to win topped that.
How long can this last? Are the Bulls showing the rest of the league the value of team basketball?
On a night James accepted his fourth MVP award, he wasn't even the most valuable player on the King's court. That honor belonged to Robinson, who scored 27 points overall and 24 in the second half after getting stitched up quickly enough to hold the Bulls together. Teammates kidded Robinson during timeouts about the way he looked, but by now, the Bulls are used to ugly victories.
"He got knocked around a little bit," Thibodeau said of Robinson. "It's all good."
When Robinson nailed a 19-foot jumper to give the Bulls an 88-86 lead with 1:18 left, he smiled as he walked to the bench for a timeout. Clearly, Robinson was having as much fun playing as Chicago and basketball fans everywhere are having watching the Bulls, suddenly America's team in the NBA playoffs. The Heat might be "Hollywood as hell," as Joakim Noah once said, but these Bulls have developed a knack for following a Hollywood script — and who doesn't love an underdog?
Everybody but Heat fans, that is. They started flocking for the exits with 24.6 seconds left even though their team trailed 90-86. A James air ball on an 11-footer that would have cut the lead to two apparently was their cue.
James scored 15 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, but that missed shot will be the one people recall. That and the way he struggled against the relentless defense of Jimmy Butler.
The Bulls came into the series making us wonder if they would stop nothing short of signing Bears defensive end Julius Peppers to a 10-day contract to get physical with James. That seemed logical given the way James whined after the March meeting when Hinrich tackled him.
What seemed illogical was expecting Butler, with Deng back home in Chicago, to neutralize James by himself in Game 1.
For the third straight game, Butler played every minute, this time much to the chagrin of James. James eventually did what James does in fourth quarters, but Butler made him earn every point.
Until then, James served more as facilitator than dominator, going one 11-minute stretch without taking a shot.
When the Heat needed James to hit one in the clutch, he couldn't. Neither could Dwyane Wade, who had more fouls (four) than points (zero) in the fourth quarter. Chris Bosh, the third member of the Big Three who came up little, didn't reach double figures.
"This is the playoffs, there is no excuse," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
On another night to remember, the Bulls demonstrated how true that was.
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