Bulls fall to edge of elimination


May 25

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It was both the cruelty and beauty of sport Tuesday in Miami when the Miami Heat beat the Bulls 101-93 in overtime in a classic playoff game, less for its artistry than its absolutely breathtaking tension and willful desire by both teams.

“I think you could tell that neither team wanted to lose,” said Dwyane Wade, who overcame a horrid game with six overtime points and several crucial defensive plays. “Both teams were clawing. If you’re a fan of the game, it was a great basketball game. It’s not high scoring. This is a defensive battle. This is will. And both teams showed that. We made the plays at the end to eventually pull away, but both teams really wanted it tonight.”

That also is the absolute of sport, that someone has to win and someone then is a winner. The Bulls lost, and they are in trouble in this Eastern Conference finals series now trailing 3-1, though they are hardly losers.

“It’s not over,” said Derrick Rose, who came up short on a potential game winner with 1.9 seconds left in regulation. “We still have games to play. Thibs (coach Tom Thibodeau) talked to us in the locker room about it, where we’re going back to play at home, and we have to stay positive, where they are beatable. But we just have to make sure that we play together and the turnovers have to be down, play defense.”

And it really isn’t over.

Close, sure, as the Heat is now one game from the NBA Finals. But there is a certain psychology to these things: Win Game 5 at home, and then you go back to Miami and the pressure is on them because they do not want to go back to Chicago for a seventh game. It’s gotten teams before. No one in NBA history has recovered from trailing 3-0 in the playoffs. But eight teams have come back from trailing 3-1, the last the 2006 Suns and in the East the 2003 Pistons. The Heat did it against the Knicks in a fight marred series in 1997.

And no one, especially the Heat even with LeBron James getting 35 points, is looking too far ahead.

“We’re looking at Game 5 as a must win,” said James. “We take it upon that challenge, going back into the madhouse. We know it’s going to be extremely loud. They’re going to feed off their fans. We’re going to try to play as desperate as we’ve played the last three games. We’re not taking anything for granted. We’re just continuing to play our game and take one game at a time. It starts with Game 5.”

There’s no benefit in trying to read the mood of a team after a disappointing loss like Tuesday’s, the Bulls first three game losing streak of the season. Luol Deng was somber, but firm. Joakim Noah, as usual was last to leave the locker room, but considering every question as per usual for him doing interviews in English and French. It was quiet, but hardly funereal. This one was so close, but it also was a game most everyone expected to see the Bulls collapse after losing the last two.

But they stormed ahead 19-8, took a 14-0 punch, and then came back to lead at halftime. They absorbed another blow with a 9-0 Miami run to open the fourth and take the lead. But the Bulls never wavered or gave in. Sure, they made mistakes, a brutal 22 turnovers for 26 points, probably the most devastating number. Even more so than a 38-22 Heat margin on free throws, a very unkind whistle, and yet the game was there to be won as they forced Wade and James into misses in the last two minutes and James into an offensive foul with eight seconds left and the score tied 85.

Everyone in the arena was sweating.

What more could you want? Tied with a chance to win the game on the road with your best player with the ball.

Perhaps Rose could have driven to the basket, but this wasn’t a game for foul calls for the Bulls, and likely not to win the game. You had to play it out and make a play, and the Bulls were fine with that.

“We wanted to get the last shot of the game, give him space to get to the spot, and he missed,” said Thibodeau. “Listen, Derrick Rose, I wouldn’t want to have any other guy. I’m with that guy all the way. He’s a great player, a great competitor, and I have great belief in him.”

James by this time as he was for the last five plus minutes of the game was defending Rose, and even though Rose has had successes against James in similar circumstances, it’s still hardly easy. Rose was one of four in that stretch for three points and had six points on one of five shooting in the fourth while playing the entire second half and overtime and 48:30 for the game.

“It’s extremely hard where a 6’8″ guy can easily defend you,” said Rose.

Still, Rose got a good look, a 17 footer from the right wing over James’ reach.

“Just tried to get a good look, take the clock all the way down,” said Rose. LeBron played good defense. It was on line, but it was just a little bit too short.”

And with it the Bulls season could be shortened with one more game.

The Bulls never led in the overtime, though a Ronnie Brewer three brought them within 89-88 with 2:33 left.

But Wade, who had 14 points on five made and 16 of some of the worst shots you’ve ever seen, made his first shot since midway through the second quarter, a baseline 19 footer for a 91-88 lead.

Carlos Boozer, who had 20 points and 11 rebounds to complement Rose with 23 and Deng with 20, knifed down the lane and was fouled, but made one of two: 91-89 Heat with 1:49 left.

Bosh then screened off Deng and James drove hard left and scored past Noah for a 93-89 Miami lead with 1:36 left.

I don’t believe the moment got to the Bulls then, not after the way they continually fought back and parried every thrust of the Heat. But coming out of a timeout, Deng was supposed to pass to Noah at the elbow to start a play. Wade smartly overplayed Noah, and with the five second clock running down and Noah unable to get to the spot, Noah faked right and Deng threw left and out of bounds for a turnover.

“Wade denied me,” said Noah. “Lu felt like I was going baseline, but I was coming back to the elbow. Tough play. We can’t turn the ball over in that situation.”

James, who likes the hero shot, missed a 20 footer that might have effectively ended it. Look, Rose has been great, and he had a pair of dunks at the end of the first quarter that were as good as you’ll see in a playoff game, fighting through double teams and exploding with two hands.

“The two dunks were great,” marveled James. “There’s no point guard in our league I think besides, you have Russell Westbrook, he makes plays like that. But D-Rose on the break, he goes to a jump stop and finishes it with an and one and then he breaks down our defense, split pick and roll and he gets in there against probably our best shot blocker in Joel Anthony, and dunks the ball for an and one. He’s a special player. Those plays are spectacular. That’s why he is who he is.”

But Miami with three All-Star players and a top defense continued to make it no secret they are throwing everything at Rose. Rose drove, getting by James, where Udonis Haslem stepped up and in a welter of hands and elbows and bumps and Wade in there the ball came out. Wade had it and was off for a layup and 95-89 lead with 1:01 left. That had to be about it.

It was a tough time for another turnover, Rose’s seventh of the game as he also shot eight of 27. James was 11 of 26. There was nothing easy in a game like this.

But it raises the question also of whether Rose should have sought out others more with so much pressure being applied to him. Like Thibodeau, I prefer to go with my best. It reminds me a bit of Michael Jordan’s struggles against the Pistons in the 1980’s when they were sending similar waves of defenders at him and the debate always was whether Jordan needed to pass more. This Bulls team is a bit different given its depth of talent, though it’s not particularly offensive talent. Deng has his bursts, and lately Boozer as well. Though they’ve hardly been able to finish well at the end of games against defensive pressure. You can see Rose fighting this ambivalence of being the willing passer, though the last few games most everyone was screaming for Rose to take more on himself in the fourth quarters and get into isolation situations more. Rose did Tuesday, and it didn’t work out in the end.

“Tonight definitely it was on me,” said Rose. “I had two opportunities to end the game. Couldn’t do it. If anything, learn from it. Too many turnovers. Really was my fault, but I’m going to learn from it. As a basketball player, I know if you want to be great, you’re going to want pressure. I think that my teammates have confidence in me to go out there and play the way I play. I trust them, they trust me. Tonight was definitely a tough night where they played great defense. We did, too. But you have to find a way to finish the quarter out, finish the game off in the fourth quarter when we have the lead, and continue to play defense. One of those nights. Losing the ball, careless turnovers. Only thing I can do now is put behind me and go forward.”

Deng did rebound his own miss and was fouled, making both. But James, so much of the season spent on debating whether he could finish off an opponent, finished off the Bulls with a 17 footer isolated over Deng with 29.1 seconds left for a 97-89 lead and the home crowd finally letting out a virtually audible breath after two and a half hours of wavy tension. Wade and James finished it off with free throws after Wade came flying off the weak side to block a Rose layup attempt.

I’m not going to say it was like Bird and Dominique or Bird and Magic, but these Rose/James matchups and shootouts are going to be the highlights of the NBA playoffs for years to come, two amazing talents with phenomenal wills driving their teams with brilliant play and even greater desire.

“What I see is two remarkably explosive athletes, two MVPs, with an incredible — both of them have incredible — wills to win, going at it,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who continues to ratchet up the purple prose rhetoric in the series in calling this one a bloodbath. “They have a speed and a gear that you don’t see very often.”

And this one went to James. Wade was a virtual liability until the overtime, even missing a wide open dunk early that seemed to steal Miami’s momentum to open the game. Bosh, though he had 22 points, was harassed and pressured constantly by Noah, who did a terrific job of making Bosh a limited factor while Noah was disrupting play throughout with 14 rebounds and six assists.

The Bulls again had a big edge in interior points, 44-24, though that was offset by the Heat’s 16 extra free throws, the Bulls, in effect, getting scoring in the paint while the Heat was getting fouls.

“I thought we were aggressive,” said Deng. “I thought we played hard. I thought we were trying to get in there. The last few games the whistle hasn’t gone our way, but that’s the way it goes.”

The Bulls had 12 more shots, though just a 42-41 edge rebounding, and those fatal 22 turnovers. They did move the ball more, 20 assists on 35 baskets to just 12 for the Heat, who play more isolation ball with their three main players.

But Miami got a huge and unexpected boost from Mike Miller, making five of eight shots for 12 points off the bench after making one shot in the previous three games.

The Bulls got 18 points off the bench as Taj Gibson played just 10 minutes and Omer Asik had to leave with his leg injury after about two minutes. Although the team didn’t say anything, he probably is doubtful for the rest of the series. Kurt Thomas did not play. Mario Chalmers also had nine points of Miami’s 23 off the bench while Thibodeau leaned on his starters more with Deng playing about 44 minutes, Noah just under 45 and Boozer just over 49. The Bulls shot 36.4 percent in the second half to 48.7 percent for Miami, and 25 percent in the overtime to 62.5 percent for the Heat.

Perhaps you say it’s fatigue, though Deng, predictably, said it wasn’t, and Thibodeau has gone with his main players all season. After all, James played more than 49 minutes, Bosh 43 and Wade about 41, though most weren’t very good.

“As I said at the end of the game, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” said Wade. “A lot of my teammates kept telling me, ‘You’re going to make plays. You’re going to make plays.” Kept believing me. I believed it myself. I said I’m going to make something happen. I think I was the only person in the arena that was happy we were in overtime. I was happy because I knew I had another five minutes to make up for the first 48. Just trying to do whatever I can to make sure we win the game.”

So maybe that’s part of the difference. The Heat do have three playmakers, and beyond Rose it’s mostly hit and miss with whether the Bulls can have someone else make those plays. The Bulls are more team in the true sense, deeper and probably more relentless, if less offensively gifted. Miami got just enough off the bench and kept Rose out of that 30 point plus area that could perhaps offset the Heat’s star talent scoring.

“You’re never really in control of a basketball game, especially against guys like that,” said Noah, who faced no discernible reaction from fans after his confrontation in Game 3. “It was a fight from the beginning to end. They made big plays down the stretch. Right now, it’s frustrating to lose, but there’s still a lot of basketball to be played. Sometimes effort isn’t enough. You have to do more than that. We had lapses. You can’t turn the ball over against a team like that. They’re not letting Derrick make plays. We have to do a better job with that. No question we feel we can win the next game. We felt like we always had a chance tonight, even going into overtime. It just wasn’t enough. We feel like every game has been right there and we just haven’t been able to finish. We know we’re tough to beat at home. We’re not ready to give this up. We don’t want this to be over.”

The Bulls came out that way, a shocking (to Heat fans) 19-8 lead after Wade blew that open breakaway dunk that could have given Miami a 6-0 lead. Wade’s legs look rubbery and his shot bounded wildly off the backboard for most of the game. We’d been waiting for him to break out in the series, and he seems not to be able to against the Bulls defense, which isn’t falling for his many pump fakes. Still, the Heat did get 38 free throws and made 32 while the Bulls were 17 of 22. The Bulls were six of 14 on threes, and in the only game they won made 10 threes. They made 14 combined in the other three games.

James took over late in the first and started that 14-0 run, finishing the first quarter with 12 points as he began to take Deng and Brewer inside. Noah stayed home more to harass Bosh, which opened things a bit more for James.

Yes, it is tough when there are three such scoring options.

C.J. Watson had a nice run with three straight scores, though Chalmers beat him the other way as the teams tied at 28. Miami again went ahead with Wade’s last two scores before the overtime on an awkward scoop and drive. But Rose made the crowd gasp with a runout and two handed hanging dunk after a Boozer outlet pass as the Bulls did try to speed their offense. After Wade made two free throws, Rose finally split their trap and dunked and was fouled, sending the Bulls bench exploding in support and the Bulls into halftime leading 46-44.

Thibodeau had moved the pick and roll more to the side and it did seem to give Rose some better operating room. When Mike Bibby played Rose early, Bibby was playing way off. But Rose’s threes were short and he was zero for five in the half. He hasn’t shot well from deep in this series, which has enabled Heat to pack the paint even deeper to keep Rose out.

The game simmered in the third as both teams became more efficient scoring. The Bulls moved the ball nicely with extra passing, and Rose did finally made a three to close the third to put the Bulls ahead 68-63.

But Miller scored twice right away on Watson as Thibodeau tried to go with perhaps the Bulls other true ballhandler to open the fourth. But defensively it broke down and Thibodeau quickly called timeout and went back to Kyle Korver. But Korver missed all three of his threes in the game and has had difficulty against Miami’s quicker defense.

Boozer got called for a questionable flagrant foul on a Bosh drive midway through the fourth quarter, but Miami’s defense tightened again, the Bulls shooting 33 percent in the fourth. That was a huge play, though, as Miami, effectively, got a four point play going from trailing 77-74 with under five minutes left to trailing by one. Boozer disputed the flagrant ruling.

But the Bulls had the chances. There were seven lead changes and five ties in the fourth quarter.

Trailing 78-77 on that Miller jumper after the Bosh foul shots on the flagrant with 4:25 left, Boozer got  a nice pocket pass from Rose on the side pick and roll and scored and was fouled, making it 80-78 with 4:09 left. The defense continued to step up to trap Rose, leaving that roll available.

Udonis Haslem made a turnover, but the Bulls wasted the possession with a 24 second violation, the Miami defense forcing a bit too much passing and ball holding at times. Miller then tied the game with a floater with 3:15 left.

Rose leaked out for a fast break score to put the Bulls back on top, but James responded with a three point play beating Deng off a screen with the inside help late. That made it 83-82 Miami with 2:10 left.

Brewer made a nice fake to beat Miller and was fouled, making both to give the Bulls an 84-83 lead with 1:26 left.

This was getting exhausting.

Bosh let Gibson fly by and stepped up and hit a 16 footer to put Miami back on top by one with 1:14 left. Rose drove and was fouled, but missed one of two to leave it tied at 85 with 1:10 left.

Wade missed badly again, but Rose had one spin out with 28.9 seconds left giving Miami seemingly a last chance with the game tied. But James backed over Brewer, and referee Bennett Salvatore, who made the error call in Atlanta, called the offensive foul on James. Wow! Bulls ball with eight seconds left and Rose isolated against James. You’ve got to take that.

“It’s why people enjoy watching the playoffs,” said Brewer. “Why you love playing in the playoffs. See different guys step up and make plays. But we did not have the record we did on a fluke. We came in tonight knowing we were going to win. We had the ball with eight seconds left and a chance to win on the road. We’ll move onto the next game.”

Where now they have to win.

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