Saturday April 28th, 2007

Had Pat Riley seen a preview of the evening's box score, he might have imagined the cities had been typographically reversed. The team that missed 19 free throws, failed to exploit turnovers and wasted a game-high 12-point lead in the third quarter wasn't the young visitors from Chicago. The wilters were the defending champions from Miami, who now trail 3-0 in their first-round series after Friday's 104-96 collapse against the Bulls.

"Obviously, we dug a deep hole for ourselves,'' said Riley, who watched his fans evacuate the arena though they were merely five points down with 38 seconds still to play.

The Heat no longer inspire confidence. They blew a 72-60 lead late in the third quarter as the Bulls cashed in big performances from Ben Gordon (27 points overall, in spite of a 1-for-6, three-turnover first half), Kirk Hinrich (half of his 22 came in the final period), and Luol Deng (24), whose steadying 11-point opening quarter prevented Miami from heaping pressure on a team that hasn't won a playoff series since the long-ago Michael Jordan era.

Many of the pregame questions had to do with the Bulls' nerve. Were they the contenders who had seized the first two games in Chicago? Or the pretenders who blew their season-ender at New Jersey that plummeted them from the No. 2 seed to No. 5? "Every time we feel like we've conquered that (question), we shockingly have a game like the New Jersey game,'' said Chicago coach Scott Skiles before Game 3.

Now the burden of answering difficult questions has been placed entirely on the Heat. The names are mostly the same as last year, but the identity has changed. As Dwyane Wade tried to shoot them back to life -- bringing them within 99-96 on a turnaround jumper with 1:25 to go -- the crowd wasn't quite sure what to make of it. For every Wade success was offset by an error, whether it was a turnover from a pass forced into the paint or one of his six misses at the free throw line (4 of 10 overall).

Of course, the Heat wouldn't have had any chance without Wade's 28 points, nine rebounds and five assists, which he managed despite his infamously sore knee and shoulder. "He's doing the best that he can do,'' said Riley.

Ever since their Halloween-night 108-66 loss to these Bulls in this building, followed by the injuries to Shaquille O'Neal (23 points and 13 rebounds in this game) and Wade, the Heat have been unable to overcome the post-title blues. That they went 16 of 35 from the foul line in the game that could have saved their season will add to the general feeling that this team has never truly had the mindset to defend its championship.

"Come back Sunday, get a win and see if they can close,'' said Riley of the task ahead. "It's not easy sometimes to close a series.''

Maybe so. More likely is that the Bulls accomplished the hardest part already by winning this pivotal game.

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