Thursday night is a big night for Chicago sports.  While the Bulls host the Gargamel to their Smurfs in the Miami Heat, the Blackhawks officially kickoff their playoff run in the desert sun of Arizona.  Obviously game 59 of an abbreviated NBA season does not carry the weight of a playoff opener, however given the fact that this is most likely a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals I’m expecting the quality of play on all fronts to be of the highest caliber.  When these situations arise my gut reaction is to take to the internet and spill forth my reactions & observations, thus I present to you the third iteration of my Battle For My Fandom running commentaries…

Chicago Bulls vs. Miami Heat – United Center  Chicago, IL

1st Quarter 7:00 remaining – Someone please inform the Bulls that the game started five minutes ago.  If Derrick Rose and Rip Hamilton met fifteen minutes ago for the first time in their lives I’m convinced they would have more chemistry than they’ve displayed thus far this evening.

Q1 5:42 remaining – Call me crazy but Carlos Boozer has been showing me something of late.  He’s playing with a confidence that we haven’t seen much of during his Chicago tenure, looking for his shots and exuding a sense of authority on the court.  I truly believe that he will be the difference between this year’s forthcoming series and last year.  If he can maintain this pace I think we may see a different result this time around.

Q1 2:12 remaining – Steve Kerr just made a salient point in that he thinks this game is bigger for the Miami Heat than the Bulls because the Bulls know who they are – the more disciplined and organized team.  The Heat however have to send a message that despite having a worse record than the Bulls to date, they are the reigning Eastern Conference Champs and the team to beat when it really matters.  The Heat’s flaw this year has been that lack of a killer instinct and a reluctance to send a message in games that mean more than others.  Everyone knows the Heat have that extra gear that they are capable of hitting but it’s more of a question whether they will or not.  Two weeks ago in a game billed as a Finals preview the Heat went into OKC and let the Thunder walk all over them rather than planting their flag in the sand as THE team to beat this year.  No matter what they say, there are definitely regular season games that mean more than others.

End of 1st Quarter – The Bulls finish strong and close the gap to 22-19 after being down by as many as 9 in the first ten minutes.  From a 10,000 foot view it would appear the Bulls are just getting started and the Heat are going through the motions a bit.

Q2 9:10 remaining – The Bench Mob is doing their thing keeping the Heat from hitting a field goal in the 2nd quarter while running the offense more efficiently than the starters.  For everyone who thinks that the bench is going to be the difference this year keep in mind that benches mean all but nothing in the playoffs (outside of when a starter gets in foul trouble).  Playoff basketball is about which team has the best seven or eight players more so than who can go ten or twelve deep.

Q2 5:47 remaining – Carlos Boozer!!!!  You’re almost making up for last year’s disappoint… almost.

Q2 5:15 remaining – I really like how the starters are allowing Derrick Rose to get back into his rhythm on his own.  This time last year they’d all be standing around waiting for Derrick to start doing Derrick things.  This year, because of all of the games he’s missed, they’ve developed their own mojo and can hold the fort while Derrick gets his sea legs back under him.

Q2 1:51 remaining – Doesn’t it seem like Mike Miller should be busy doing your taxes for you right now?  He’s “that guy” in being the accountant that secretly has a bunch of tattoos under his collared shirt.

End of 2nd Quarter –  At the end of the first half the Heat have re-taken the lead 41-36 once the starters came back into the game despite their bench having scored a total of 3 points between them.  Remember that point I made above about benches being all but meaningless in the playoffs?  Well guess what, as of this evening the Heat’s starters are better than the Bulls’.  It also doesn’t help that this may be the worst game I’ve seen Derrick play in a Chicago jersey.  0-5 shooting and a -18 plus/minus ratio?  I never thought I’d write this sentence but the Bulls would be doing better thus far tonight if they gave John Lucas III Derrick’s minutes.  Meanwhile Lebron James is +14 in the same measurement.  I’m going to go take a shower now.

Q3 8:33 remaining – We’re just about 4 minutes into the third quarter and I have absolutely nothing positive to say about the game since the half resumed.  Someone needs to give Chicago’s starting five smelling salts or something before taking the court.  Thus far they’ve wasted a good ten minutes beginning each half. 

Q3 7:00 remaining –  Right after The Wife notes, “Lebron James looks like an idiot.  His beard is as thick as his headband”, Derrick Rose hits his first field goal. 

Q3 5:45 remaining – Was that Carlos Boozer that just blocked Dwayne Wade’s 3 from the corner?  This wine has a higher alcohol content than I thought.

Q3 1:52 remaining – Luol Deng is forcing Lebron to take ugly shots.  I’ll stand by my belief that Luol plays Lebron as well as anyone in the league.  He just forced an awkward turnaround jumper that resulted in a long rebound which Deng converted as a breakaway dunk.    

Q3 0:25 remaining – Are you enjoying the Rip Hamilton Experience as much as I am?  Sure it took ¾ of the season to get him on the court but we didn’t sign him for his statistics in February.  He’s here for the playoffs and appears to be rounding into shape just in time.

End of 3rd Quarter – Once again the Bulls bench (along with Deng and Hamilton) come in and closes the gap to 62-60.  I don’t ask for much, but if Mr. Rose wants to set the tone for the forthcoming playoffs, these next twelve minutes would be as good a time as any.

Q4 10:45 remaining – Remember during the Scott Skiles era where Luol Deng became a fantastic mid-range shooter who could knock down any shot within the three point line?  I’m glad to see he’s learned to take one more step backwards and start ringing up the threes these past two seasons.  He’s currently 3 of 4 from beyond the arc and is probably the single biggest reason the Bulls are up 2 right now.

Q4 7:28 remaining – I’ll let Lebron James attempt banked in underhanded shots all day against me.  With that said Taj needs to keep his feet on the ground and stop biting on those pump fakes like they’re taffy apples.

Q4 5:23 remaining – Derrick Rose remains fully dressed in his warm-ups and hanging with Scalabrine.  Not a good sign.  Thibs is playing to win with the hot hand that is any-point-guard-but-Derrick right now.

Q4 4:00 remaining – After Taj Gibson drops the spin cycle on Lebron James in the post for two, Kyle Korver comes down on the next trip and bangs home his fourth three of the night.  Things are looking up.

Q4 3:30 remaining – Rose re-enters and Korver knocks down his fifth three for a 78-74 lead.  The Heat call timeout.  Now we see which team has the intestinal fortitude to close out their opponent.

Q4 2:30 remaining – Wade has scored the Heat’s last 6 points and Bosh just airballed a three.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.  Lebron is nowhere to be found.

Q4 1:20 remaining- Wade has now scored the Heat’s last 10 points on a series of runners and grit getting into the lane.  He’s the kind of guy you want in your foxhole.  His partner on the other hand…

Q4 0:49 remaining: Derrick tries to force a drive to the hoop but is missing his fifth gear and the result is a turnover.  On the other end Wade shakes Rose and misses but the rebound goes to James in the corner and he promptly buries a three.  He can go f@ck himself.

Q4 0:48 remaining: Out of the timeout Thibs substitutes CJ Watson for Derrick Rose for the remainder of crunch time.  The move says a lot about Thibs desire to win as well as Derrick’s character to grab some bench for the good of the team. 

Q4 0:02 remaining: Apparently no one told CJ Watson that I’ve been waiting patiently to change the channel over to the Hawks game which started 40 minutes ago.  He’s got alligator blood in his veins with that three.

End of 4th Quarter: It appears it’s going to be the Bench Mob vs. the Big Two for the next five minutes.

OT 4:16 remaining – Asik with a block on Wade and Gibson with a slam on the other end.  Have I mentioned how important having a deep bench is in the NBA?

OT 2:45 remaining – In this game of all-world players going head to head, would you have believed me if I told you a seven foot lanky white guy from Turkey would be the biggest difference maker at the end?

OT 1:44 remaining – The Bulls defense is at a different level than the Miami offense.  That’s what’s seperating these two teams tonight.  That and the fact that the Bench Mob is play unconscious right now.    

OT 1:23 remaining – Taj fouls out to a standing ovation, replaced by Joakim Noah who’s salary is eleven times that of Gibson’s.

OT 1:02 remaining – Kyle Korver shoots threes like everyone else shoots free throws.  The Bulls lead 96-86 with a minute left.  I’d turn it off but I was about to do the same thing when the Heat were up by three with 3 seconds left in regulation.       

OT 0:27 remaining – Two Bulls dive to the floor to tie up Mike Miller and force a jump ball in a 10 point game.  That right there is the difference in these two teams. 

End of Overtime: That’s a ball game.  The Bulls bench proved they can play with the big kids yet again beating the Heat for the second time in a month.  Get ready for the “we should trade Rose” calls coming into sports talk radio in the morning.  For being a regular season game, the Bulls just set the bar pretty high for the Hawks to surpass as we turn our attention to Phoenix and Game 1.

Chicago Blackhawks vs. Phoenix Coyotes Arena  Glendale, AZ

Holy crap… my DVR didn’t take and I’m coming into this game with 12:22 remaining in the second period and Phoenix literally just scored their first goal to tie the game at 1.  DirecTV can go to hell.  I cannot type words right now that convey the proper amount of venom I am spewing.  Taking a page from I’m going to Keep Calm & Chive On.  Let’s move forward shall we?

2nd Period 10:36 remaining – Having just seen a replay of Phoenix’s goal it would appear that Mr. Hjalmarsson has some atoning to do.   

2nd 8:29 remaining – If an entire stadium opts for a “white out” as Phoenix has but the road team is wearing their white jerseys, aren’t they subliminally cheering for the visiting squad?  If you’re a Hawks fan in Phoenix for the game tonight do you wear white to support your team or red to stand out from the crowd?  Dilemmas, dilemmas…

2nd 6:20 remaining – Wait, Radim Vrbata is hurt?  He’s the one guy on this Phoenix team that I think of as a known Hawk-killer.  If he has to miss any time in this series the Hawks odds just improved dramatically from the viewpoint of this couch cushion.

2nd 4:02 remaining – The Hawks just killed an extended 5-on-3 penalty.  In Coach Q’s world they just won the single biggest deciding factor in order to win this game.

2nd 2:33 remaining – Ignore that last note.  Antoine Vermette just took a pass from Raffi Torres (Raffi fricking Torres) and uncorked a laser into the back of the net.  2-1 ‘Yotes.

2nd 1:59 remaining – Good to see Dave Bolland doing Dave Bolland things.  If all you knew was that a Hawk player was going to crash into the Coyotes goalie and end up getting in a scrap with two different players you would have guessed it would have been Bolland right?

End of 2nd Period – Having just arrived at the party I’ve got to say that even if the Coyotes hadn’t scored twice in the past 12 minutes my impression of what I’ve seen thus far is they are the team that is ready to play playoff hockey and it would appear the Hawks assume the Coyotes are a speed bump on their way to bigger and better things.  I don’t necessarily disagree with them but they do in fact need to take care of that little matter of winning four of the next seven games before they can move on.

Fast forward to the 2:45 mark of time remaining in the third period.  I’ve spent the past 45 minutes moving the Chi-Guy family from sleeping in the family room to in bed upstairs complete with rocking The Baby to sleep for the past 20 minutes as she tends to confuse the AM and PM hours on the clock.  She’s just going to work while the rest of you are getting ready for bed.

3rd 2:45 remaining – The Hawks have dominated the pressure here in the 3rd but have no results to show for it.  Their power play is still getting clogged entering the zone and Duncan Keith can’t get a shot through to the net to save his life.  Basically this game has been a microcosm of their season to date.

3rd 1:20 remaining – Coach Q calls a timeout.  I’ve been in these huddles in hockey and they rarely have much good come out of them.  Unlike basketball where play resumes with your team inbounding the ball, the flaw in hockey is that any play that is drawn up is based on the roughly 50/50 chance that your team wins the faceoff.  If you don’t win it, or even if you win it but in the wrong direction to the opposite wing, the whole play is generally shot.  In reality you’re looking at a solid 26.235% chance that all that dry erase marker work the coach puts together actually comes to fruition on the ice.

3rd 0:14 remaining – SEABROOOOOOKKKKKK!!!!!  I feel like we just did this a week ago when the Hawks won in Nashville after coughing up a 4-0 lead but I’ll take it.  Seabrook snuck down from the point to the weakside of the net given the time remaining and pounded home a rebound into an open net off of a shot from Kane.  It looks like we’ll be playing well into the evening today.

End of 3rd Period – As anticipated, the Blackhawks are the better team in this series.  They have more weapons and higher talent 1-23 on their roster.  They also have a bit of arrogance and appear to not have come into this game ready for the street brawl that the Coyotes had in mind.  They’re lucky to be in the locker room right now and not slowly undressing thinking about Game 2.  The Hawks have outshot Phoenix 40-29 and 16-8 in the 3rd period alone.  I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that they end up pulling this one out but the bigger hope is that this game serves as a wakeup call that the playoffs truly have begun.

OT 17:44 remaining – It appears Coach Q lit a fire under the boys in the locker room just now.  They have come out flying, particularly the Sharp/Kruger/Stalberg line.  From a pure skill standpoint there aren’t many teams that can keep up with our boys in white however if this were mixed martial arts I’m not sure we’d win as many fights as we should because the Hawks are somewhat limited in the styles they can play.  While they can skate circles around Phoenix (especially without Vrbata) battles with St. Louis or Nashville downstream are going to prove to be different animals.

OT 12:41 remaining – When did Raffi Torres become a 2nd line player who actually contributes on the offensive end?  This is the same piece of crap that skated around trying to pick fights in Vancouver for the past three years correct?  What’s that you say?  Why yes, yes I d recognize the irony in my question seeing as how I support the team that tried to force feed Daniel Carcillo onto its second line for the first half of the year.

OT 10:37 remaining – Two words why the Hawks have nothing to worry about in this series: Adrian Aucoin.

OT 10:35 remaining – As I typed that last note it occurred to me that I’ve been getting rather cocky as this game goes along.  I promise you that literally as I typed the last “n” in “Aucoin” above, his shot got deflected into the back of the net by Martin Hanzal.  Game, set, match Phoenix.  The lesson as always is that I’m an idiot.

So the Hawks lose a heartbreaker 2-1 in OT to begin their playoff run.  The Bulls on the otherhand allow their bench to beat the Heat re-enforcing the idea that a team will always beat a couple of individuals.  Remarkably a regular season NBA game in early April proved to be more exciting and heartwarming than the opening game of the NHL playoffs – totatlly blowing my premise coming into this some three thousand words ago.  The Bulls have now won all three of these Battle For My Fandom columns as well.  I’d say there’s some deeper meaning to all of this but it’s late and I haven’t slept all week.  It’s time I get some rest because I’m diving right back in on Saturday night for more of the same.

Have a great weekend everyone!