The Miami Heat took another stumble on the road on March 9, this time against the rival Chicago Bulls. After the Heat and LeBron James had their respective hot streaks cooled off with two losses in Texas, the Bulls looked to send an even stronger message to them. It took a while, but Chicago rallied from a slow start and then took control over Miami in overtime by 95-88.
The Bulls kept the Heat skidding by their standards, despite being down by as many as 12 points. Joakim Noah helped turn things around with 20 points and 12 rebounds, while D.J. Augustin had 22 points and Jimmy Butler made the play of the day by blocking a charging James at the end of regulation. From then on in, the Heat had no answers for the Bulls in overtime.
Butler's block was the defining play of a very difficult afternoon for James, who only mustered 17 points on 8-of-23 shooting. The after effects of scoring 61 points in one game on March 3 are still taking their toll, as Miami is 0-3 since then while James has lost his shooting touch at the moment.
When the Heat were winning eight straight games and James was overtaking Kevin Durant in the MVP race, the rest of the NBA had to have a sinking feeling. Miami will still be the most feared team in the playoffs no matter what, but its current three-game losing streak -- with each loss against a playoff team -- is a handy reminder that it can still be knocked down.
The only silver lining for the Heat is that the Indiana Pacers are on a four-game losing streak of their own, keeping Miami a game-and-a-half behind for the East's top seed. The Heat and Pacers have towered over the East to an embarrassing degree all year, yet they are both slumping as the playoffs draw near -- while teams like the Bulls are gaining more confidence.
The foregone conclusion of another Miami-Indiana Eastern Conference final may still be foregone, no matter who has home court advantage. Nevertheless, the more vulnerable the Heat and Pacers are becoming, the more the likes of the Bulls can argue that the East isn't a two-team conference after all.