Win a playoff series without MJ? At long last, it’s believe-a-Bull

There are still moments of magic to be squeezed out of this NBA town.

Not for very long, mind you, and never to the level of Michael Jordan-caliber wizardry. Those moments are gone forever. But for the first time in the post-MJ era, the Chicago organization he sometimes bad-mouthed on his way out of town almost a decade ago finally looks ready to win a playoff series without him.

The almost-believe-a-Bulls thumped the Miami Heat 107-89 Tuesday night to take a 2-0 lead. During stretches, they moved the ball so fast and so smartly that it looked like they were staging a clinic for the benefit of the NBA defending champions. And unlike Game 1, they beat the Heat so thoroughly that complaining about the refs wasn’t an option.

“It was a perfect game today,” Miami’s Shaquille O’Neal said. “Can’t really make any excuses.”

It’s easy to look good when a team shoots the ball as well as Chicago did – 55 percent from the field; 65 percent behind the arc – for the game.

“They were on fire,” Miami guard Dwyane Wade said. “They came out in the second half and just put in everything they put up. We got it down to 7, but then they made a run. Then we did it again, but they just continued to make their shots.”

In truth, the Bulls dominated just about every other statistical department, including the hustle categories, by just as convincing a margin. Coach Scott Skiles has preached teamwork and pleaded for that kind of consistency until he’s blue in the face, but there’s mounting evidence that he’s finally getting through to his young squad.

After years of trying to replace Jordan through the draft or via free agency, the organization has come round to building a team slowly, acquiring one complementary piece at a time. So it’s fallen to Skiles to convince them that rather than try to create moments of individual brilliance, the way Jordan routinely did for nearly a decade, they all have to contribute to produce something special.

On this night, emerging superstars Luol Deng and Ben Gordon shared the scoring load, but their points came in the flow of Skiles’ perpetual ball-movement offense. With Ben Wallace playing O’Neal to a standstill under the basket and the Heat shooting poorly from the perimeter for the second game in a row, the Bulls again claimed more than their share of the long and short rebounds, then turned them into easy baskets. Over the two games, they’re ahead 35-9 in points off the fast break.

“We don’t have a choice. That is the way we’re constructed,” Skiles said, “and the way our guys like to play. We are not at the stage yet where we can get away from that game.”

Both Deng and Gordon were mentioned as possible parts in a midseason trade package for Memphis’ Pau Gasol, the kind of proven scorer the Bulls desperately needed. But general manager John Paxson opted instead to keep the pair in Chicago and take his chances. Their increasing production has eased the Bulls’ scoring problems, but just as important, the points have come without Skiles calling too many plays to get them shots, or change his philosophy that every piece of the puzzle is just as important as every other.

But as the series shifts to Miami, Skiles cautions that the picture is far from complete.

“We were up 2-0 two years ago and lost four straight to Washington,” he recalled. “We will look at tape and be as ready as we can be.

“Overconfidence,” Skiles added, “is not a problem.”

The same could hardly be said about the Heat, who pointed out they’ve been in this situation before.

“The bottom line,” Alonzo Mourning said, “is we’re the world champions and the first team that wins four games (advances), and that has not happened yet.”

Last season, the Heat lost the first two games of the Finals in Dallas, then reeled off four wins in a row. Coach Pat Riley delivered what might be the shortest pre-game speech of his career just ahead of the clinching win – “I packed one suit, one shirt and one tie. That’s it,” he said memorably then – but he’d better have a few more motivational tricks up his sleeve if Miami is going to rescue this series.

Riley knows his team has put too much of the burden on Wade’s injured shoulder and knee and O’Neal’s battered body. That’s the risk Riley took when he essentially built a two-man team. He also knows the rest of the squad is either too old, too slow or too out-of-shape at the moment to pick up the slack. That much was apparent by the way Riley responded to a questioner who noted the Heat bounced back after a similarly listless start in the Finals.

“Then we were in playoff condition. We’re not there yet. If we don’t correct some things,” he said, “it will be difficult for us to win at home.”

The most urgent issues facing the Heat are re-establishing O’Neal’s dominance inside over the course of a complete game, and getting Wade healthy enough to take over at the end. The latter is the much-longer shot. Wade, sidelined for more than a quarter of the regular season, showed flashes of his Finals MVP form late in the first game against the Bulls, but never threatened that in Game 2.

“I won’t be at my best in the first round,” he correctly predicted in an interview shown during a break in Tuesday night’s game.

But considering how desperately Miami leans on Wade, anything short of that and there won’t be a second round to worry about.