CHICAGO -- The Evil Empire doesn't exist.
These Miami Heat are beatable, never mind the fact that they beat Chicago 85-75 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals to even the series at 1-1. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade don't strike fear into the hearts of coach Tom Thibodeau or his many talented players, even if they did bounce back from subpar Game 1 outings to combine for 53 points on 20-of-37 shooting and 19 rebounds.
No, the Bulls' arch nemesis is far more daunting than the boys in black and red who teamed up to take over the NBA universe. It's themselves.
The enemy that they battled so often in earlier rounds against Indiana and Atlanta returned on Wednesday, when the very fire and will that defined Chicago's Game 1 win went missing at a most puzzling of times.
Those loose balls that the Bulls seemed to have a copyright on were the Heat's to have. That plus-12 rebounding edge they held in the opener was followed by a 45-41 Heat advantage on the glass this time around. That suffocating defense that looked so capable of killing Miami's championship hopes inexplicably came up for air. Stop us if you've heard this before in this postseason, but the Bulls didn't play up to their potential.
Of course it didn't help that reigning MVP Derrick Rose was just 7-of-23 from the field, but this was still their game to win and a priceless chance to take a 2-0 series lead. Yet after being tied at 73-73 with 7:16 remaining, Chicago stood idly by as Miami finished on a 12-2 run that had far less to do with what the Heat did right than it did with what the Bulls did wrong.
"There are always going to be adjustments in the game, but overall their energy and their effort was better than ours tonight, and that sucks," said Bulls center Joakim Noah, the spiritual leader of this team that temporarily seemed to lose its spirit yet again. "In the first game, we got every loose ball. And in this game, they got every loose ball. The team that brings that energy has a huge advantage. We know we can compete with this team."
This may turn out to be the game the Bulls regret the most if they end up watching the Finals at home. They were 16-of-26 from the free-throw line, 3-of-20 from three-point range and just 28-of-82 from the field overall (34.1 percent), in large part because of a lack of focus that left a far greater impression than the marginal increase in Miami's aggressiveness.
"I missed a lot of layups, shots that I normally hit," said Rose, who finished with 21 points and eight assists. "They just weren't falling tonight. But if anything, I think we lost this game because of our intensity and defense."
Thibodeau put it best, saying of the Heat: "They had a lot of fight to them."
There was an unspoken indictment in those words, one that will surely eat at Thibodeau until he and his team have a chance to right this wrong in Game 3 on Sunday in Miami.
"We played low-energy offense," Thibodeau said. "We played low-energy defense. And the result was not great.
"We have to be more consistent. We have to start the game off playing defense. And then we have to sustain that effort throughout the game."
Only the Bulls know if fatigue is to blame, although that's a tough sell considering they had two days off coming in. There was plenty of blame to go around, with Luol Deng (who shot 5-of-15 while his counterpart, James, had 29 points and 10 rebounds) and Carlos Boozer (3-of-10 shooting, seven points) struggling as much as anyone.
The Heat have hope now, having downed the Bulls for the first time in five tries this season. And the Bulls, who had long since eliminated the fear factor that can come with the South Beach squadron, should be afraid.