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After the Bulls took a 2-0 lead in their NBA playoff series with the Heat at the United Center Tuesday night, Miami coach Pat Riley said he thought the best thing that happened to them was their regular-season-ending loss to the New Jersey Nets, which pushed them from the second seed to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and set up their rematch with the defending-champion Heat, who beat them in six games a year ago.
"That pissed them off," said Riley. But I'm not so sure. If anything, the Bulls have looked cool and composed over the first two games--a little too cool, to my way of thinking. I'm used to the playoff ways of coach Phil Jackson, who in the Bulls' six championship runs used to routinely emphasize how each game of a series grew harder until you had to cut the other team's heart out. When I asked Bulls coach Scott Skiles before game one if he emphasized that aspect with his young players, he said no, he simply wanted them playing with their usual intensity and focus. Not to go all macho, but that seemed counterintuitive to the unique demands of playoff basketball--until I got the chance to ask Stacey King about it. King played on the Bulls' first three championship teams and now does color analysis of their games carried on Comcast SportsNet Chicago, so he's well acquainted with both.
"Different approaches," he said before the second game. "This is a very young team, and you want them to have confidence, but you also want them to understand the magnitude of the games they're playing. When we had a veteran team like the one I was on in Chicago, we knew the importance of going out there, establishing ourselves, and putting our will on the other team and really getting them to the point where they believed they had no chance.
"This team here," in contrast, "this is a young team, and you don't want them to get overconfident, because that puts pressure on them, because expectations are there."
With the Bulls up 2-0, so far, so good, and it looks as if Skiles's matter-of-fact, one-game-at-a-time approach is working. But the Bulls were up 2-0 two years ago and lost to the Washington Wizards, and won two straight at home a year ago to tie their series with the Heat at two before losing the next two. If the Bulls can beat the Heat by just playing their usual game with perhaps a little extra focus, so much the better--first prove you can do it before trying to inflict your will on an opponent--but I still believe at some point they're going to have to take it on themselves psychologically to, in effect, kill the king and be merciless. As for King, he'd like to see the Bulls sweep--but expects the series to go the full seven games.