Heat forward LeBron James looks for room to maneuver against the defense… (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA )
Reporting from Miami
Heat for 10 months in a fiery furnace, serve charred.
Happily for LeBron James, what doesn't burn you to a crisp makes you stronger, and he was strong enough before people started saying he was a traitor, a choker, all about the attention and/or had a point guard mentality.
Actually, as opposed to the media's psychedelic narrative, James was the game's best player when he stumbled while playing hurt against Boston last spring, after leaving for Miami and every day since while being trashed for his diva-swan-dive-into-empty-pool TV show, et al.
"I like LeBron," TNT's Charles Barkley said before the Eastern Conference finals, putting 10 months of trading jibes with him in perspective.
"I think he's the best basketball player in the world right now."
What is there to say but . . .
Of course, when James scored 15 points in the Game 1 loss to the Bulls, the Geek Squad started in on him again.
On ESPN.com's Heat Index, citing statistics such as PER and USG%, Tom Haberstroh noted:
"While we understand a title is a team achievement, not an individual one, he won't be considered a playoff great until he raises that elusive Larry O'Brien Trophy.
"After a dud on Sunday, the pressure is greater than ever."
After all that abstruse math, while we understand the number-of-titles standard is dumb, the pressure is greater than ever, anyway?
The Heat Index has two crack beat writers whose coverage is adrift in a sea of blogging analytics and ever-changing opinions, as if reportage is boring, there's no larger picture and no Real LeBron who won back-to-back MVPs and took his little team deep into the playoffs annually.
Who, us overwrought?
ESPN's Doris Burke just asked 22-year-old Kevin Durant if he was concerned about the impact of his struggle against Memphis on his legacy.
Actually, there's a Real LeBron who keeps resurfacing, taking over at the end of the pivotal Game 4 against the Celtics . . . and Game 2 against the Bulls.
Making it a fair East finals, if neither team may be this beatable again soon, the Bulls have a hole in their lineup the size of a shooting guard.
The Heat is so threadbare, it can upgrade with players off the waiver wire whose names it pulls out of a hat.
That makes this the Battle of the Not Ready for Prime Time Supporting Casts.
The Bulls' is better but has to be since they trail, 2-1, in superstars.
Miami has contained Derrick Rose, who can't get into the lane at will and is getting a lot of his shots blocked when he does with all five defenders watching his every move.
The "something" Miami gives up is rebound position, which is why the Bulls hammered them, 45-33, in Game 1.
This same scheme works for the Bulls with the Heat shooters, No. 7 in three-point accuracy at 37% this season, now floating upside down in the pond like dead fish.
Add it up and it spells "street fight," although the Heat is at home for the next two rumbles.
Games 1 and 2 were eye-openers, showing how big, tough and smart the newbie Bulls are with little-known Taj Gibson and Omer Asik making up for the struggles of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah.
Young as they are, in their first season under Coach Tom Thibodeau, their learning curve explains their success.
Instead of taking on the loaded Heat defense in Game 1, Rose moved the ball, got everyone going and still wound up with 28 points.
In Game 2, unfortunately for them, none of his teammates got going.
So little is known about the Bulls, Gar Forman got 11 votes for executive of the year from fellow general managers, tying him with Miami's Pat Riley . . . as the Bulls' former GM-turned-Executive VP of Whatever John Paxson got three votes to finish No. 3.
As Bulls.com's Sam Smith noted, this kept Forman from winning outright since 14 GMs thought the Bulls did the best job.
Of course, that would have been a worse farce.
Apart from hiring Thibodeau to replace Vinny Del Negro — with whom Paxson tangled after a game — their big move was signing Boozer, whose remaining four seasons at $60.4 million go under, "What have we done?"
Riley built a storied nucleus from scratch, even if he ran out of money several players short of a real team.
"It should've been unanimous [for Riley]," a former executive of the year told Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski. "I'm not close with Pat but I'm embarrassed how that went."
Like longtime foe Phil Jackson, Riley is a solitary figure in an otherwise networked business and enjoys more admiration than affection.
Written off as a mannequin tied aboard Secretariat, he won four titles with the Lakers before being coach of the year, is now loathed in New York where he was once adored and just ticked off everyone again, winning the LeBron Derby.
With Riles now at five rings and counting, whatever anyone thinks will be more and more their problem.