CHICAGO — Just when I had forgotten how much the Detroit Pistons were disliked back in their Bad Boys days, the Miami Heat awoke the echoes again. Or more accurately, the Chicago Bulls and their fans did it for them.
Every time the name LeBron James was announced, the rowdies can’t hold their boos. Every time he touched the ball, it was more of the same. There were enough hard pushes and shoves, well-placed elbows and venomous talk to reach at least 8.5 on the Laimbeer Scale, I’d say.
The Bulls players aren’t big fans, either.
“I hate those motherlovers,” one of them grumbled out loud the other day. “They got a roster full of All-Stars, but they ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of . . .”
Insert imagination here.
See, that’s why the Heat are needed more than ever, as reluctant as some fans and league higher-ups are to admit it. Like ‘em or loathe ‘em, James and his posse strike a nerve like no other team in decades. At a time then the playoffs lack the usual buzz, they’re the kind of heroes-villains that can stoke the fire again.
The Heat aren’t there yet, but after an 88-65 route in Game 4 on Monday night, they moved another step closer.
The undermanned Bulls fought the good fight in Games 1 and 3, but this time the fight finally left them. It wasn’t a game as a much as it was a mercy-killing. The Heat trailed for all of 44 seconds before they laid down the hammer at the defensive end, where they limited the losers to nine points in the third period.
“Their defense is one of the best,” Nate Robinson gave ground grudgingly after he bricked every one of his 12 field goal tries. “They got so many athletic guys who can make up space and play in between two guys and guard two at once. They do a great job trapping on pick-and-rolls. We just got to find out who is the open guy. When we did that, we didn’t make shots.”
In the process, the Heat did a pretty fair impersonation of Michael Jordan’s Bulls, who played some of the best defense ever. It’s a fact not lost on James, who prides himself as a student of the game.
“There have been some great ones,” James started to rattle off name when I asked him to compare the current defense with the best of recent vintage. ”You look at the ’95 Bulls, the ’03 Pistons, the ’99 Spurs, the ’07 Spurs that I faced in the finals . . . also the Chicago team that we faced two years ago and this year . . .
“And we have a good one here. We pride ourselves at the defensive end. We have guys who love to play that side of the floor more than offense, and it results in us winning a bunch of games.”
The Heat still haven’t broken a sweat this postseason, but at some point, they figure to be tested. If the Indiana Pacers get that far, they’re just the team to do it in the conference finals. Like the Bulls, the Pacers are physical and experienced, which are must-haves in any series against the champs. The difference is, the Pacers are infinitely deeper and healthier than the Bulls right now. In Paul George, the best player some people still haven’t seen, they have a star talent of their own. There’s also the matter of Dwyane Wade’s troublesome right knee, which he aggravated in the first half.
Network television better hope that the Heat have their best ahead of them, because a Pacers-Memphis Grizzlies finals isn’t likely to quicken many pulses. Along with the Sybil-like New York Knicks, the Heat are the only marquee name left on the board. As for the rest of the pack, there’s something to be said for the Pacers, Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder, each of whom has a story line of their own. But the Warriors, Pacers and Grizzlies were so far under (off?) the radar in the regular season, it’s difficult to get all tingly about them now. (Quick — name five Grizzlies, and no, Bryant (Big Country) Reeves isn’t one of them.) And without the injured Russell Westbrook, the Thunder aren’t the same team that played with so much energy and flair at this time a year ago. The San Antonio Spurs have name recognition, but can their oldies muster enough energy for one last hurrah? Maybe, probably not.
If you exclude the New Jersey Nets because of their proximity to the New York area, there has been one all-small market NBA Finals since the dawn of the Bird-Magic era. That took place six years ago, when the Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in a rather forgettable series. At least the Cavaliers had James at the time, and lucky for us, he’s still around this spring.
About the only thing we can agree on is that James is the best basketball player on the planet. Otherwise, everything is negotiable. Does he get a superstar whistle above and beyond? As many critics contend, Wade has become a whiner ever since the two became attached at the hip. Does James complain too much especially given his talent level? Or is he really any different in this regard than the superstars before him?
(As a Chicago native, it humors me to hear the locals complain themselves about preferential treatment when there’s a statute outside the United Center of the guy who set the standard not that long ago.)
Even three years after the fact, the critics still can’t get over the fact that James and Chris Bosh would conspire with Wade to form a super team in South Beach. They didn’t break or even bend the rules, but their detractors will tell you there’s something unnatural about the birth of this potential dynasty.
Add a dab of Pat Riley and a dash of championship envy, and it’s easy to understand why the Heat has become the team that so many people love to hate.
And why James and the Heat are the only team left that can turn the NBA Finals into a must-see event.
Paul Ladewski is a veteran Chicago sports journalist and occasional contributor to SheridanHoops.com.