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Heat swept out of playoffs by Bulls

Apr 29, 2007 - 9:53 PM MIAMI (Ticker) -- The Miami Heat's reign as NBA champions was ended in embarrassingly historic fashion by the Chicago Bulls, who grew up as their opponents grew old.

Never getting a grip on their Eastern Conference first-round series, the Heat were sent into the summer with a 92-79 loss to the younger, quicker Bulls, who completed a four-game sweep.

Ben Gordon scored 24 points and Luol Deng added 22 for the Bulls, who advanced to the conference semifinals for the first time in nine years. They will face the top-seeded Detroit Pistons in what should be a spirited series.

"A sweep was something we never thought about, or at least I didn't," Deng said. "We were taking each game as it came and concentrating on that effort. We didn't look ahead. Every game was a challenge we wanted to be up for."

"For us to come in here and take care of business is huge," Bulls guard Chris Duhon said. "We have a tough task in front of us, but we'll enjoy this and look forward to the next challenge."

Despite the presence of superstars Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal and a handful of battle-tested veterans, Miami became the first defending champion in 50 years to be swept out of the playoffs in the first round, joining the 1957 Philadelphia Warriors.

"It's not easy when you don't fulfill your personal expectations," said Heat coach Pat Riley, who was sidelined himself for a month due to a pair of surgeries earlier this season. "It's not easy, it's never easy. It's one of the most miserable experiences a man will ever have and that's how I think we feel now."

The aging Heat showed some fight, most noticeably in the form of impending free agent James Posey, who grabbed 18 rebounds, and potential retiree Alonzo Mourning, who scored 14 points.

But the series-long problems persisted. Miami missed 14 more free throws and was unable to contain Chicago's dribble penetration, which again created countless open jumpers for Deng and Gordon.

"We could never get a handle on them," Riley said. "We could never get a handle on their speed, quickness, and their energy."

"They just did everything better," O'Neal admitted. "They played harder, got to all of the loose balls, all of the rebounds and hit shots. They just played well."

The Heat never led in the fourth quarter, getting as close as 78-77 on two free throws by Posey with 5:27 to play. But Ben Wallace tipped in a miss, Deng had a steal and layup and Kirk Hinrich made a steal that led to two free throws by Gordon and an 84-77 cushion with 2:48 remaining.

The Heat resorted to intentionally fouling Wallace, a strategy often deployed against O'Neal as a last resort. The worst free-throw shooter in NBA history, Wallace responded by making four in a row to seal the win.

"They seemed to be desperate (down the stretch)," Hinrich said. "They had an urgency about them, and we were able to key in on that and disrupt them."

"The guys just encouraged me to go up there and just shoot the basketball and not really think about it," said Wallace, who was 7-of-8 from the line. "They told me they had my back, regardless of what happens. It just showed how mature this team has become."

Wallace had 13 points and 11 rebounds and Andres Nocioni added 11 points for Chicago, which had lost in the first round each of the last two years but finally shed its label as the "Baby Bulls."

"This is big-time, man," said Bulls forward P.J. Brown, who was brought in to provide veteran leadership. "We beat a solid veteran team over there and that says a lot for the character of this team."

"I felt in both games down here we really grew up a lot," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said.

The last time the Bulls were in the conference semifinals, Michael Jordan was their heart and soul. This group does not have an All-Star - let alone a superstar - but does have a blend of experience, youth, speed and toughness that the Heat have been unable to control.

Being swept out of the playoffs is nothing new for O'Neal. He exited in three games in the first round in 1995 and four games in the 1996 Finals with Orlando. He also was sent packing in four games in the 1998 conference finals and the 1999 conference semifinals with the Los Angeles Lakers.

In addition, there was the embarrassment of the inexplicable loss to Detroit in the 2004 Finals with Los Angeles and the disappointment of losing Game Seven of the 2005 conference finals on his home floor in his first season in Miami.

"I didn't realize it was that long (that he had not reached the second round)," O'Neal said. "It's just something that happens. You just have to regroup."

Facing elimination, the Heat seemed determined to ride their big man as far as he could carry them as the offense went through O'Neal early and often. He had touches on the first four possessions and finished the first quarter with eight points on 4-of-5 shooting.

But the Bulls withstood the brunt and climbed out of an 8-0 hole behind Gordon, who came in averaging 26 points in the series and scored 10 points in the opening period.

"We came out with a lot of energy," Gordon said. "This is a great sign of how much we have matured. This team has grown as players and people."

O'Neal was baited into his third foul by Brown 3:48 before halftime and went to the bench with the score tied, 38-38. Without him, the Heat rebuilt the lead to 48-44 at halftime as Wade finally came alive with a pair of buckets.

However, Miami could not shake Chicago, which forged another tie early in the third quarter and finally took its first lead at 65-62 on a pair of jumpers by Deng, who came in averaging 27.7 points.

    CHICAGO 92

    Apr 29 3:33 PM
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    Bulls vs. HeatApr 29 3:32 PM
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    Bulls vs. HeatApr 29 3:20 PM

    CHICAGO 68

    Apr 29 2:53 PM

    CHICAGO 44

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    CHICAGO 23

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