By Matt Spiegel-
(CBS) Where were you during the NBA playoffs in 1998?
If you have any recollection of the Miami Heat against the New York Knicks in a violent best-of-five, then last night’s Bulls game looked awfully familiar.
It should. Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy’s top defensive assistant coach was a 40-year-old Tom Thibodeau. And Heat coach Pat Riley’s staff included 28-year old-video coordinator Eric Spoelstra.
Larry Johnson instigated a bench clearing brawl that ended up showcasing the 5-foot-9 Van Gundy on YouTube forever, clinging haplessly to Alonzo Mourning’s shin.
We weren’t far from Thibs clinging to a Birdman Andersen’s tattooed limb last night in Miami.
The Eastern Conference playoffs are supposed to be physical, unruly and a little violent. It’s most fitting, and entertaining, when two teams genuinely dislike each other. But it presents the referees with a challenge, one that Scott Foster and his crew simply didn’t handle well.
Not every physical play needs to be a foul, and not every show of emotion merits a technical. Foster and his crew lacked any semblance of sense about when to let physical plays happen, and often tightened up to call techs when they weren’t deserved.
I assume Joey Crawford was sitting at home, jealously signalling techs from his couch.
Their efforts to display, and then re-seize, control failed miserably.
Some of the egregious calls were against the Bulls. Taj Gibson was abused on the offensive end twice, before he lost his cool and got kicked out. Nate Robinson was the victim of refs trying to regain control in picking up a T.
But, don’t pin this loss on the refs. LeBron James came out aggressive, dominating the first quarter. The Bulls allowed a tempo and scoring pace that was never going to work for them. They lost themselves completely, schematically, on defense. They were out of place and out of sorts on the glass, out-rebounded 41-28.
Against a team you can’t afford to, the Bulls turned the ball over 19 times. That led to the 20-2 discrepancy in fast break points. Nate Robinson was bottled up, sometimes by LeBron, and sometimes by his own impatience.
The most troubling trend in both of the first two games is the disappearance of Carlos Boozer. After a terrific season, and an even better first round series against the Nets, Boozer has been a timid no-show. If he’s going to be this version of himself, forget the prospect of even one more win.
There may of course not be another win. Monday’s Game 1 was quite possibly as good as it’s going to get. Watching then, the sensible among us knew that, which made it all the more enjoyable. Game 2 could certainly be the first of four straight losses by a battered and preposterously undermanned team.
But don’t let the magnitude of this blowout convince you that every game hereafter will be the same. NBA playoff history is loaded with blowout wins by teams that ended up losing the series.
I always think of Game 1 of the 1985 Finals: “The Memorial Day Massacre,” when the Celtics beat the Lakers by 34 points. The Lakers won Game 2 by seven, and took the series in six.
Of course, having Kareem, Magic, and James Worthy was helpful.
The point is, the Bulls went down and took one, and last night’s stink doesn’t necessarily have to linger. If Thibodeau can get his team back playing sensibly, and energetically, then Game 1 is not some template by which the rest of the series will play out.
Listen to Matt Spiegel on 670 The Score weekdays from 9am–1pm CT on The McNeil & Spiegel Show. Follow him on Twitter at @MattSpiegel670.