The View From Section 122
Let's talk about Wade for a second. The man is a warrior. The official brother of the Ron Karkovice Fan Club last night questioned why the Heat would even allow Wade to play this post-season. I think the situation is this: Shaq doesn't have much time left, and when he retires, the Heat become the 2006-07 Lakers. In other words, the Heat's window is now, and when Shaq leaves, the team may be locked into a half-decade of mediocrity. Wade has to suck it up now, no matter how banged up he is, because he's looking at a dry spell in terms of championship calibre teammates starting very soon. And Wade is banged up. Everything he does, he does tentatively. He can't fight through picks, so he can't guard Kirk Hinrich or Ben Gordon. Relegated to guarding Luol Deng, he's a defensive liability because of his size. He can't attack the rim. Watch his break away dunk last night. There was no explosion, and he finished with one wing pulled tightly to his body. Even passing the ball, he's out of synch because a crisp, two-handed chest pass (you know, fundamentals) is not an option. It's sad, and national experts understated the importance of Wade's injuries when they universally picked the Heat in this series.
That's especially true because Shaq, as good as he is, is no longer the absolutely unstoppable, put his team on his shoulders and carry them, force that he once was. He is still the strongest man in basketball. If he gets good position, he is nearly impossible to contain. But his lateral mobility, an underrated strength in his prime, is fading fast. Defensively, penetrating guards don't need to worry about him unless they take the ball right into his chest. Offensively, if he kicks it out to re-post, a wily defender like Ben Wallace can often beat him to his spot and take away the angle on the entry pass. He gets everywhere he's going a step slower than he used to, and that's why he's getting in foul trouble more often.
As for the Bulls, their two best players were the two best players on the floor last night. Ben Gordon had nine first-quarter points as the Bulls built a 10 point lead after one period. He finished with 27 points, and the Bulls outscored Miami by 18 while he was on the floor. But the player of the game was Luol Deng. Deng had a slow first half, but he scored 20 points in the second half, most of them during a 15-2 fourth quarter run that put the game away. Deng was an astonishing +21 on the night.
One other player deserves special mention for the Bulls. The not-so-secret x-factor in this series so far has been Bulls' rookie Thabo Sefolosha. He played only 12 minutes last night, but had a disproportionate effect on the game. At one point I mentioned to my brother that Sefolosha had seemed very involved in the game for a man who, at the time, had 2 points, no assists and no rebounds. The raw numbers got better -- nine points on four of five shooting -- but still don't capture his full impact. Somehow, despite the Bulls winning the game by 18 points, every Bulls' reserve had a negative +/- except for Sefolosha. Thabo was +12 in only 12 minutes. And, it's no coincidence. His harassing defense, and surprisingly steadying hand on offense made the Bulls a better team when he was on the floor.
My brother insisted at dinner last night that he expected the Heat to win the series, and wouldn't be surprised if they won last night. Only one quarter into last night's game he turned to me and said, "You're right, the Bulls are just the better team." There's no question about it. Now, anything can happen in a short series. The Bulls blew a 2-0 lead two years ago to the Wizards. But this much I know for sure: the Bulls are just the better team.