DEERFIELD Luol Deng drove the baseline for a vicious two-handed reverse dunk. Then, Andres Nocioni threw down a one-hander. Practice was over, no one was guarding them.
And a 7-foot-1, 319-pound obstacle named Shaquille O’Neal was nowhere in sight Tuesday, which might have explained the smiles.
Down 2-0 to Miami, the Bulls appeared loose as this first-round playoff series shifts to the Chicago for Games 3 and 4 Thursday and Sunday.
“We’re down, but we don’t feel like we’re out of it,’’ Deng said.
“Everybody in this building knows that the series isn’t over,’’ said Kirk Hinrich, who scored 29 points in Monday’s 115-108 loss.
The Bulls learned how fragile a 2-0 lead can be last season, when the Washington Wizards rallied to win their first-round series in six games.
Like Miami, the Bulls took the first two at home. And they did so in dramatic fashion.
Ben Gordon scored 12 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter as the Bulls making their first playoff appearance since 1998 beat the Wizards 103-94 in Game 1. Chicago rallied from an early 13-point deficit and built a 20-point lead before holding off Washington 113-103 in Game 2.
The Bulls lost the next two games by 18 and seven. Game 5 ended with Gilbert Arenas hitting a 16-footer at the buzzer to lift the Wizards to a 112-110 victory. Game 6 saw Jared Jeffries steal an inbound pass near midcourt and drive for a tiebreaking dunk with 35 seconds as Washington won 94-91.
“I don’t think last year we felt like we had the series,’’ said Deng, who missed it with a torn ligament in his right wrist. “Losing four games in a row was definitely tough, but I think the guys were still playing hard.’’
Washington, of course, didn’t have a dominant duo like O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. Nor did it have a veteran supporting cast like the Heat’s. Miami seems to be reaping the benefits of a mini-makeover that followed the loss to Detroit in the conference finals. Jason Williams is averaging 19.5 points in this series, and fellow newcomer Antoine Walker has averaged 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. O’Neal, meanwhile, is looking spry, averaging 24.5 points and 11.5 rebounds. And Wade is averaging 25.5 points and hitting clutch baskets, like that turnaround shot that gave the Heat a six-point lead late in Monday’s game.
“They put together that team for this time of year,’’ Bulls coach Scott Skiles said.
The first two games mirrored the Bulls’ regular season.
A team that was 10 games below .500 before going on a 12-2 run to finish at 41-41, refused to go quietly in Games 1 and 2.
The Bulls went on a 12-0 run in the fourth quarter of the series-opener to grab a four-point lead before losing by five. And on Monday, they cut a 20-point third-quarter deficit to four late in the game before losing by seven.
The problem hasn’t been their shooting. They are making 49.1 percent of their shots in the series, but the league’s stingiest defense during the regular season has allowed Miami to hit 50.3 percent of its shots.
Now, the series moves to the United Center, where the Bulls struggled for much of the season before winning five of their last six.
A year ago, they left Chicago with what appeared to be a comfortable lead. Then they got a harsh lesson.
“We learned how long a series is,’’ Hinrich said. “Obviously, the series isn’t over when you’re down two games. They held their home court and we have to do the same.’’