MIAMI — Before Game 2 on Wednesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, Heat star LeBron James was spotted wearing a T-shirt that said, "UP TO ME.''
Then James went out in a 115-78 rout of the Bulls and backed up his bold fashion statement with a strong message that echoed back in Chicago. You can interpret it as "Uh-oh."
Say goodbye to the passive facilitator James was in Game 1. Say hello again to the aggressor. The King would abdicate nothing on a night he scored all 19 points in the tone-setting first half because the Heat simply didn't need him in the second.
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"We came in with a mindset to be aggressive,'' James said.
Unlike Monday, when James went one 11-minute stretch without taking a shot, he attacked the basket early and often. Sports-talk shows will focus on the officials, who deserved criticism and at times lost control of the game. But James reasserting himself potentially affects the series more than the Bulls' embarrassing loss of composure that resulted in the ejection of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson in a game marred by nine technical fouls — six by the Bulls. It was the most by any team in a playoff game in eight years.
At least the Bulls had the good sense to take the high road back home.
"I should have conducted myself in a better way,'' Gibson said. "It was just frustration. We got blown out.''
Technically speaking, that had more to do with lousy defense than bad tempers.
When James penetrated easily to hit his first six shots, all layups or dunks, that immediately braced the Bulls for a different kind of Heat wave than they experienced in the series opener. James posted up Jimmy Butler on the blocks when he didn't have the ball. He drove and dished to the open man when he did.
This was the South Beach diet of offensive basketball that sustained James and the Heat throughout their historic season. This was a 37-point rout, the most lopsided playoff loss in Bulls history, that seemed inevitable against the NBA's best team.
Teams that win 66 games in the regular season just don't lose two consecutive playoff games at home to an opponent missing its two best perimeter defenders. Keep in mind that the Bulls still got the best they could have hoped for out of their trip to South Florida — one victory — and return to the United Center on Friday hoping to rediscover the answers that escaped them.
Please avoid suggesting one of those answers is Derrick Rose. It isn't. When rapper Waka Flocka Flame tweeted in March that Rose would return, it was more amusing than annoying. But when an Internet report floated the possibility Wednesday that Rose will dress for Game 3 and be available in an emergency, speculation reached the point of absurdity.
Despite TNT's preoccupation with shots of Rose on the bench, this series isn't about the injured Bulls guard. Let Rose's biggest contribution to the series be restraining Noah from going after official Scott Foster.
It would be illogical and unnecessary for Bulls management to allow Rose to return now, two games into an increasingly chippy second-round series. Insert a franchise player who hasn't played an NBA game in more than a year into a rough-and-tumble playoff series? Nonsense.
Tom Thibodeau has enough to address without worrying about the whims of Rose. Thibodeau has 48 hours to restore his players with the poise and confidence they arrived with but lost somewhere near Biscayne Bay.
He can start with Gibson, who risked a suspension after having choice words for Foster he just can't utter. Likewise, Noah needs to understand his passion hurts the Bulls when it results in two technical fouls that make him much easier to guard in the locker room. Credit Noah for having the wisdom not to retaliate after Mario Chalmers wrapped his arm around Noah's neck, but he has to have better awareness.
"Yeah, I would call that not keeping your cool,'' Noah said of the Bulls' six technicals. "Not being very Zen.''
Losing their collective cool should bother the Bulls as much as trailing by 46. The latter can be dismissed easier than the former. The Bulls have a knack for following up a blowout loss with a spirited effort. But they have less experience responding to this kind of mental meltdown.
It perhaps bugged Thibodeau most when Bulls players gave up too many fast-break points after complaining to officials instead of hustling back.
"You can't get wrapped up in that stuff,'' Thibodeau said. "I don't want to put it on the officials. We have to play a lot better.''
That was the best call of the night.