By ANDREW SELIGMAN (AP Sports Writer)
CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Bulls saw the stars aligning for the Heat last summer, the “Big Three” free agents uniting in Miami on a quest for a championship.
Joakim Noah wasn’t conceding anything. Nor was Derrick Rose.
Chicago swept Miami in the regular season, and if the Bulls keep this up, they’ll knock the Heat out of the playoffs, too.
Rose scored 28 points, Luol Deng ably contained LeBron James and the Bulls struck first in the Eastern Conference finals, pulling away to beat the Heat 103-82 in Game 1 on Sunday night.
“We felt like we could compete against anybody,” said Noah. “This is just a really exciting situation right now. The position that we’re in is unbelievable. … Nobody believed that we could be in this position right now.”
That belief, along with a major overhaul, led the Bulls to the league’s best record and rekindled an attitude not seen in the Windy City since the Michael Jordan era – when championships were an annual event.
Missing out on the Big Three? Seeing James and Bosh join Wade in Miami?
“We’re not worried about all the offseason stuff,” Rose said. “We’re not worried about it. We’re just trying to go out there and play hard, play with an edge, play with a lot of intensity.”
They certainly did on Sunday, particularly during the second half. The Bulls went on a 10-0 run midway through the third quarter, then pulled away in the fourth.
As the final minutes ticked away, fans chanted “Over-rated!” and “Beat the Heat!”
Game 2 is Wednesday night in Chicago.
Rose settled down after committing three of his four turnovers in the opening minutes and showed why he is the MVP. He hit three 3-pointers and the Bulls converted 10 of 21 in all.
Deng had 21 points. He hit four 3’s, had four steals and seven rebounds, and simply put the clamps on The King, holding James to 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
“Definitely to guard a guy like that the whole defense has to stay focused,” Deng said. “There were times we switched and times we forced him into the double. Our bigs were great at forcing him into the front.”
Carlos Boozer added 14 points and nine rebounds. Noah had 14 rebounds to help the Bulls win the battle of the boards 45-33, including 19 on the offensive end for 31 second-chance points.
“You play defense. You play defense hard and the shot goes up and they get an offensive rebound, kick it out for a three or get a layup or a dunk,” James said. “Those are demoralizing for a defensive team. We’ve got to figure out a way to clean that up.”
Bosh led Miami with 30 points and nine rebounds. Wade scored 18 points, but the Heat simply were overmatched down the stretch.
“Dwayne and LeBron are going to create a lot of attention,” Bosh said. “This is a good defensive team. … They’re going to make them distributors. We have to look at where we fell short as a team for Game 1 and come back with a better approach.”
The Heat were leading 58-57 midway through the third when the Bulls made their move, reeling off 10 straight and seizing the momentum.
Rose and Bogans started it by nailing 3-pointers. A steal by Bogans against Wade led to two free throws by Rose after he got knocked to the floor going for a fast-break layup.
Then, after a timeout, Noah blocked a layup by Wade and scored seconds later on a layup off an inbound pass along the Bulls’ baseline, making it 67-58.
The Heat’s James Jones ended the run with a 3, but the Bulls simply weren’t about to be stopped. When Deng hit a 3 with 1:15 left to make it 72-63, the crowd jumped to its feet and roared. It opened a 14-3 run that stretched into the fourth and put the game away.
Whether it was Taj Gibson feeding Omer Asik for a dunk early in the fourth or Deng racing in to put back his own missed jumper after a 3 by James, there was plenty for the Chicago fans to cheer during that stretch.
For at least some Chicago fans, beating Miami to get to the NBA finals would be sweet redemption after what happened during the summer.
With enough salary-cap room for a pair of stars, the Bulls went after James, Wade and Bosh, hoping to land some combination of the two. Everyone knows the end of that story. Even so, the Bulls wound up in great shape. The Heat did all right, too, particularly down the stretch.
They won 15 of 18 after dropping five in a row, including a loss to Chicago that left players in tears, and then took out Philadelphia and Boston in the first two rounds. Now, the Heat will have to collect themselves again.
“We took it on the chin tonight,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.