Nate Robinson’s teammates hunched over just so they could celebrate at eye level with the shortest player the NBA playoffs have seen in the last seven years.
Earlier in the night, they would have had to bend even lower.
In the second quarter, Robinson sat on the Heat court with blood dripping from his face. He had just collided with LeBron James, 11 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier, while going for a loose ball. Robinson left the court, but he returned in the second half.
And despite his 5-foot-9 frame, Robinson came up big. Really big.
Robinson had just waved off a Joakim Noah screen, driven right past Ray Allen and gotten all the way to the rim for a crucial basket. A timeout followed, and his teammates ducked their heads to share the joy with Robinson.
The Bulls ended Game 1 against the Heat on a 10-0 run, the final seven points by Robinson, for a 93-86 win.
Marco Belinelli made the first big shot of the decisive run, a game-tying 3-pointer with 1:59 left. Robinson pulled up for a go-ahead jumper with 1:17 left, drove past Allen with 45 seconds left and then made a few free throws down the stretch.
Undoubtedly, Robinson and Belinelli deserve credit for their big shots, but those attempts were created by Chicago’s one decided advantage in this game: rebounding. The Bulls outrebounded the Heat, 46-32.
Joakim Noah offensively rebounded a Belinelli miss to set up the guard’s 3-pointer, and on the Bulls’ three defensive possessions after their final baskets, Chicago held Miami to a single shot. Belinelli grabbed two defensive rebounds, and Noah grabbed the other.
Noah played 39 minutes and grabbed 11 rebounds, using his mobility to remain effective when the Heat went small and still help the Bulls rebound. In theory, Taj Gibson also has that capability, but he had just four rebounds in 25 minutes. Instead, Jimmy Butler (14 rebounds in 48 minutes), Belinelli (seven rebounds in 46 minutes) and Carlos Boozer (seven rebounds in 25 minutes) stepped up on the glass.
One of Chicago’s biggest relative downfalls tonight was its backup guards. With Kirk Hinrich out injured, the Bulls gave Marquise Teague eight minutes and Daequan Cook two, even though those two never stood a chance against Miami’s defense. With Teague on the court, Chicago’s offensive rating was 65.4. With Cook, it was 0.0.
Neither played in the second half, which was a sound adjustment by Tom Thibodeau after neither team scored well during a mostly tight first half.
LeBron had just two points on 1-of-6 shooting at halftime, and the open looks he created for his teammates didn’t fall.
As had happened multiple times in their first-round sweep of the Bucks after back-and-forth play, the Heat made a run in the third quarter.
Dwyane Wade dunked. Chris Bosh blocked a shot. Wade made a layup over Noah by seemingly pausing at the peak of his jump and twisting around Noah as the Bulls center was bound by laws of gravity and retuned to Earth. The Heat defense swarmed the Bulls into a bad shot and a miss. Bosh made a corner 3-pointer from LeBron. Bosh stole a pass. LeBron threw a bullet pass to Wade for another layup.
It was a 9-0 run, and even though no timeout was called, the Miami crowd roared while players on the Heat bench stood. Against Milwaukee, this would have been the decisive stretch.
But the Heat led by six measly points. Fewer than two-and-a-half minutes later, they led by only one.
They can’t make only one burst and expect to beat Chicago, which plays hard all game long. The Heat, whose 27-game win streak ended against the Bulls, know this, but sustaining quality play after such a long layoff is easier said than done.
It’s reasonable to expect Miami will be sharper in Game 2, but the Bulls aren’t backing down, and Robinson is stepping up.