There was some question as to whether Dwyane Wade would suit up on Wednesday. With the Heat holding a commanding advantage over the Bulls in their best-of-seven series, the All-Star guard could have sat out Game 5 to rest his sore knee and the fallout from his absence may have been negligible.
Still, there was no way Wade could miss this one. He may have been hurting. It may be a little grotesque that he is reportedly manually pushing his right kneecap into place, then taping it into position, to lessen the pain enough for him to play. But he could not sit out. Not against the Bulls.
Since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach three years ago, the Heat have been tested by grittier, gutsier opponents than themselves. They were bested by Dirk Nowitzki and a Mavs team on a mission in 2011. They barely outlasted an ornery Celtics squad in 2012. They got by on their unique talent and just enough veteran savvy from role players like Shane Battier.
From a pure heart standpoint, however, the Heat may never have faced a foe as determined as these Bulls.
Forget Derrick Rose for a moment and how his absence could have helped or hindered the Bulls’ cause. Focus more on Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, key players Chicago had come to lean on this season, who were unavailable in this series. The Bulls were not merely missing a former NBA Most Valuable Player. They had moved on, regrouped, learned to rely on other guys, and at the most crucial time of year, two of those “other guys” were taken from them. And yet they played on.
Carlos Boozer, who has been in Chicago fans’ doghouse for years, posted a remarkable turnaround this season and spent chunks of the Eastern Conference semifinal series as the best player on the floor not named LeBron. Joakim Noah made a mockery on Rose’s continued absence by playing through painful plantar fasciitis. Jimmy Butler almost literally never came off the court. Nate Robinson did what Nate Robinson does, shooting the Bulls to victory one night and essentially shooting them into defeat the next night.
Deng subjected himself to a spinal tap, for crying out loud, in an attempt to get back on the floor. We hear those things are pretty painful. We hope we never find out.
In other words, no, Wade was not going to take it easy on Wednesday. Perhaps his team would have found a way to make do without him, but when the Bulls battled back from an 18-point deficit and refused to go away in the fourth quarter, the Heat were happy Wade was in the lineup.
After Boozer missed a free throw that would have pulled Chicago within one point, Wade was there for a floater to give the Heat some breathing room. When Butler tried to get off a 3-pointer with Miami protecting a five-point lead, Wade was there to block Butler’s shot. When Norris Cole missed a jump shot on the ensuing Heat possession, Wade was there for a putback dunk. When Boozer appeared to corral Battier’s miss with 45 seconds remaining, Wade was there to knock the ball off Boozer and out of bounds. (Wade probably hacked Boozer on they play but, hey, nobody is perfect.) If not for Wade making those plays, the Heat might not have gotten their 94-91 victory and they might not be moving on to their third conference finals in as many years.
As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra loves to say: “Nobody said this would be easy.” It shouldn’t be. If the Heat were in the process of waltzing toward a third straight NBA title — as many observers assumed back when James made “The Decision” in 2010 — they might have rings, but they would not be “champions” in the classic sense of the word.
Being a champion involves more than just winning a lot of games and getting an obnoxiously oversized ring. It takes tough opponents to pull out that extra something. Three years into a crazy experiment in team-manufacturing that still has no non-corny nickname, the Heat discovered that the Bulls proved to be as gutsy as any previous postseason opponent, if nowhere near as talented.
Only now, these Bulls are headed home. Hey, nobody ever said toughness was everything.