The Bulls flat out embarrassed the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. When the Bulls lost to the Nets to end the season and thus put themselves up against the Heat and the Pistons instead of the Wizards and the Nets or Raptors, I looked at it as a huge mistake. But the Bulls honestly looked like they lost on purpose to the Nets so they could play the Heat in the first round.
They clearly humiliated the defending champions. But when you look a little deeper... Could you really be surprised?
The Heat came into this season still celebrating last year. They reminded me of a free agent who just got paid and said "Wow, it’s over; I can rest now." Jerome James of the Knicks comes to mind.
The Heat forgot how hard it took them to win their first NBA title. I wonder if they remembered how bad it looked being down 0-2 to the Mavericks last year in the Finals and on the way to being down 0-3 until Dwyane Wade went ballistic.
The Heat players talked about unity and effort. They talked about hunger and respect, but yet the effort they had for representing a champion the following year was disrespectful. The Heat did not represent a true champion the way multiple champions did – like the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, Rockets and Bulls of past years.
That’s why I respect those past teams so much – because they could have laid down or become satisfied, but the hunger remained. They wanted more.
I am sure most critics will point the finger at Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade, but that would be wrong. They are not to blame for this meltdown. It was the players around them that let Miami down.
Let me explain why.
When I played with the Rockets in the 1996-97 season, we were preparing to go against the Utah Jazz for the Western Conference championship. We had a players-only meeting to air out some feelings and strategy and when it came time for me to say something, I laid it out like this...
I pointed at Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and said, "If we are waiting for these two to carry us to the Finals, then we might possibly fail." I went on to say that it was wrong to expect two players that have already accomplished the feat to do it again.
I then pointed to Charles Barkley and every other player in the room that had not won a title or was a role player on a title team. I said, "This is on us, not them. They have won already and if they do not win another, they have succeeded and lived up to their star status."
Then I said that we, on the other hand, would just become players who failed to win a championship. I said that we had to prove to them that we wanted it badly and that we were willing to add everything and then some to help them reach the level to carry us to a championship and only then would I expect those two to climb to the level that we expected of them.
We failed that year, but I can honestly say every player on that Rocket team made every effort to make things easier on our stars.
I wonder if Shaq and Wade feel like their supporting cast let them down, because they did not reach the level of consistency they had last year.
Key players like Udonis Haslem, Antoine Walker, James Posey, Gary Payton and Jason Williams, who played a role in the title last season, were non-factors in this series.
The Heat organization suspended Walker and Posey earlier in the year for being out of shape and that was the first sign of the meltdown. The Heat should have known that they went to war with players that have fought for many years and probably should have looked to go with a younger nucleus this season, but Pat Riley is a very loyal coach and I suspect he felt the mistake in not going younger once training camp started and he noticed players like Walker and Payton had aged even more.
Maybe that’s why Riley decided to leave the team for surgery, but sending a message before he left by suspending Walker and Posey.
The only Heat role player that played with passion this season was Alonzo Mourning. He was the single reason why the Heat stayed competitive while Shaq was out with injury. It was not surprising that Mourning played well despite winning his first championship. After having a kidney transplant, he will never take anything for granted the rest of his life. I guess it was fitting that Mourning was the only role player to stand tall in the final game by scoring 14 points.
I will excuse Gary Payton as well because at his age and the minutes he has played in his career. He really struggled to maintain any consistency this year.
The Heat will undoubtedly be a different team around Shaq and Wade next season and if Riley can pick up a key free agent or two, things could change again for the better next season. But until then, Miami will have to suffer through the embarrassment of being swept in the first round.