MIAMI – Dwyane Wade is limping around in obvious pain. LeBron James’ shooting percentage is down. Shane Battier and Ray Allen have struggled to get anything going from 3-point range.
The Eastern Conference semifinals have been far from perfect for the Miami Heat.
And the reigning NBA champions are now in absolute control of this series nonetheless.
Barely a week ago, there was so much talk about how the Bulls had Miami’s number like no other team. That seems long forgotten now, after three straight wins – by an average of 23.3 points – have the Heat one win away from returning to the East finals. Up 3-1 in the series, the Heat will try to close out the Bulls in Game 5 at Miami tonight.
“You have to have a high-character team,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Tuesday, a few hours after his team returned from Chicago after an 88-65 rout in Game 4 of the suddenly one-sided series. “You have to have a team that’s built strong habits ... not to take games for granted. Our guys have built up habits. They also have built up perspective that boy, these close-out games have been the toughest ones.”
When Miami gets a chance to finish off an opponent, it typically doesn’t waste any time. Since James, Wade and Chris Bosh joined up, the Heat are 8-2 in games where they can clinch a series, winning each of their past five by double figures.
Given the way this series is going, it’s not hard to envision tonight ending the same way.
“Got to take care of business,” Bosh said.
The Bulls outscored the Heat in Game 1, tried to outmuscle them in Games 2 and 3, and then simply looked outmanned in Game 4. Derrick Rose has been gone all season, Kirk Hinrich hasn’t played since logging 60 minutes in the Bulls’ triple-overtime Game 4 against Brooklyn in the opening round and Luol Deng still is dealing with the effects of a nasty bout of illness.
On Wednesday, the Bulls shot just less than 26 percent, scored nine points in the third quarter and saw Nate Robinson – the Bulls’ best offensive weapon in these playoffs – take 12 shots and miss them all.
“Nobody said this was going to be easy,” Robinson said. “We’re professionals for a reason. We’ll go back to the drawing board and figure it out.”
They better figure it out in a hurry.
In a series where Wade – averaging only 11.3 points in the four games – has been limited by continued issues with the bone bruises in his right knee, where James’ shooting is down more than 10 percent from his regular-season pace and Battier and Allen have combined to go 9 for 34 from beyond the 3-point arc,
Miami has been rolling along anyway.
“You analyze what happened in the game, make your corrections, get ready for the next one. We’ll just keep our focus right there,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I don’t what them looking backwards. I don’t want them looking ahead. Just lock into the game that’s in front of us and concentrate on winning that game. We know we’re capable.”
There are so many battles for the Bulls to face right now, all of them being of the uphill variety. No team has ever won four games at Miami in the same season, which Chicago would have to do to pull off this most improbable of comeback bids. There’s the emotional toll that losing three straight games has taken, frustration over how injuries and illness depleted the roster, and it’s a fair question to ask how much the Bulls might have left in their proverbial tank.
“I think we’ve got enough energy left,” Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. “We just need guys to come back and play. We’ve got some guys banged up. But we’ll just keep playing. We’ll just keep playing. There’s no excuses out there.”
Added center Joakim Noah: “We’re still alive. There’s still basketball to be played and we’ve got to fight.”
Wade is doing plenty of fighting on his own.
He was briefly sent to the bench in the second quarter of Game 4 after an inadvertent knee-to-knee collision with Chicago’s Jimmy Butler caught him in one of the particularly more tender spots on the bruised joint. He returned, was scoreless for just the seventh time in a first half in his career, and finished with only six points.
The Heat have outscored the Bulls by 49 points with Wade on the floor in this series, tied with Battier for the best plus-minus on the team.
“Dwyane has proven himself as a warrior,” Spoelstra said. “He’s helping us win.”
Wade has just 31 points in the last three games. Miami has won those games by a combined 70 points, and if they win Game 5 on Wednesday, the Heat would get possibly another full week off to allow Wade time to rest that knee.
The East finals aren’t scheduled to start until May 20 or May 22.
“It’s just frustrating at times, but just try to do what you can,” Wade said. “Sometimes it feels good, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t predict it.”
Regardless of Wade’s health issues, Miami is anxious to clear the Chicago hurdle. The Bulls nearly wasted a 3-1 lead in the first round against Brooklyn, advancing by winning a Game 7 on the road. And Spoelstra is leery of giving Chicago any glimmer of hope.
“We have to go in with the mindset to really approach this with desperation and urgency,” Spoelstra said. “You don’t want to give this team second life. They’re far too dangerous for that type of mentality because they just continue to grind and they compete and we know that. We respect that.”