Bulls return home on the brink


May 25

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It was the day after Game 3 in Miami, the Joakim Noah apology day, a film session for the Bulls without a practice, a chance to recover physically and mentally after losing two straight to the Heat.

The NBA arranged the player interviews in a ballroom in the team’s hotel, and after everyone had finished, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, never one to leave if someone wants to talk basketball, was entertaining a few last questions.

In the heightened immediacy of this era’s media, every game equaled a conclusion, and then trailing 2-1, the Bulls were being dismissed nationally.

Mike McGraw from the Herald decided to preface a question in saying, “I’m sure a lot of people are saying your backs are to the wall…”

With that, Thibodeau, leaning with his back, yes, against the wall, grinned and looked playfully over his shoulder at the wall.

The Bulls made sure after practice Wednesday before Thursday’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals not to have Thibodeau do any interviews on the edge of a cliff.

All the clichés are being brought out now as the Bulls are, indeed, one game from the NBA’s playoff firing squad or that desperate drop into the offseason.

“We’ve got to stay positive,” said Luol Deng at Bulls practice Wednesday. “It’s the position we’re in. We’re not happy with being down 3-1. But, hey, this is what it is. Got no choice.”

Though it all shows just how ephemeral NBA success is and that thin line that separates destiny from depression.

Your best player, Derrick Rose, who carried you all season and made numerous game winners while teammates watched happily, has a chance to win it and misses. Make it and Thibodeau is golden, pushing the right button. Miss it and, yeah, let’s go to Deng, the famous closer. Silly, of course, but that’s also the fun of sports.

“We look at every game we’ve lost, and we’ve really been in it,” said Deng. “It could have (gone) either way. But at the end of the day, it’s about winning. Sometimes everything you do in that game is… just when you don’t win, nobody sees it, or it’s all gone. The focus is all on the negative. But somehow we just got to take the positive out of those and try not to repeat them. Every game is going to be close. We’re going to keep on fighting. We just have to find a way of just winning those games, and we could turn this thing around.”

We can tell Miami is the big favorite to win the series now because they have a 3-1 lead in games. It’s in all the media.

Does it also mean they are the better team?

If they win, sure, because that is our template for sports.

If the Bulls were being dismissed down 2-1, you can imagine the view now. Though it would be premature to discount the Bulls given Game 5 Thursday is at home and the Bulls were an inch or two from a Rose winner and being considered the favorites at the end of regulation of Game 4.

“I think a lot of us haven’t been here and we’re learning as we go through,” said Deng. “We’ve just got to close games. The last three games, we haven’t been able to (the Bulls have been outscored in the fourth quarters of the last three game and overtime 80-55).

“We’ve just got to win every game,” said Deng. “We’re not out of it. Obviously, we don’t want to be in this position, but we are in it. We’ve got to deal with it and now take it a game at a time and try to make it happen.”

I’m not sure what this means, but C.J. Watson tweeted he believes the Bulls will win, and he has the most Twitter followers on the team. It might mean something, though it’s not clear what.

Coming back from 1-3 to win a playoff series has happened before and it’s not so rare in the NBA, eight teams having overcome 3-1 deficits and four within the last 15 years. The main thing is to have home court. Six of the last seven teams to overcome that deficit had home court advantage, as the Bulls do.

“It’s an opportunity,” said Dwyane Wade. “You don’t want it to slip away. We understand they’re going back home, and the crowd is going to be amazing. Their energy and effort is going to be amazing. We’re going to have to withstand all that and be there at the end of the ballgame and be able to win it. We’re a desperate team as well. We didn’t work this hard to put ourselves in the position to be 3-1 to not be able to match the energy and effort. This team is high energy, high effort. That’s what they’re great at. Obviously all series we’ve been battling to try to match that as well. But I think we’re up for the challenge. There’s no tomorrow (Hey, that’s the Bulls’ cliché). We have to get this game. It’s a must win.”

Every basketball game, because there are so many plays, leaves many what ifs and could have beens, much like a sports season. Every coach I’ve ever been around points to five games they should have won and notes how they should be 10 games better, in effect.

Though we have become accustomed to accepting that things happen as they are supposed to and you are what your record says you are. If someone wins, someone has to lose. Although the home fans always blame the refs.

So now is LeBron James better than Derrick Rose? What if Rose’s shot went in? It wasn’t a bad shot, certainly good enough to go. We’ve seen him make it before. The second guessing when something doesn’t work is to suggest the opposite, to drive the ball. Still, Michael Jordan hit a not too dissimilar shot in 1989 to beat the Cavaliers.

“We wanted the last shot,” said Thibodeau of the Game 4 close. “That’s his shot. If he sees an opening where he can drive, we want him to drive. But if he wants to pull up, he’s made that shot all year for us. So if it goes in, we’re all praising him. It doesn’t go in, everyone wants to criticize him. One game he’s shooting too much. The next game he’s not shooting enough. That goes with the territory. The thing I love about him is he’s got the courage to take and he’s got the ability to make. And so I trust him. There’s no one out there I would rather have than him.

“He’s not going to make them all,” Thibodeau added. “I just want him to have the courage to take, and he does. He never hesitates. The next time it comes around, I’m confident he’ll make.”

It’s also, obviously, what you do from there, and the Bulls went on to prove they were the superior team back after that famous Jordan game winner against the Cavs.

It’s difficult to suggest that about Miami from this series. Ahead 3-1 says it, though not the games. There were 14 ties and 14 lead changes in Game 4, and the Bulls with the last shot to win. It doesn’t get much closer. It was wonderful theater, if not as satisfying in the Midwest. They get tropical breezes and a win, too?

Miami has thwarted Rose, holding him to 23 per game, which actually is just a basket below his season average. The Heat does have a big edge in shooting, 46.8 percent to 39.9 percent for the Bulls.

That was expected as Miami has three All-Star players in James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Bulls had one this season, Rose. Tougher playoff series expose your weaknesses. The Bulls don’t have a second player to create off the dribble, a classic catch and shoot two who can get his own shot. So Miami packs it in against Rose knowing this group of players is not historically top shooters except for Kyle Korver. I might have taken a harder look at Rasual Butler, but it’s difficult now after never having played.

But the Bulls have dominated where they were expected to, in rebounding and second shots and additional opportunities. The Bulls are averaging almost eight rebounds more per game, a huge edge, and 18 more shots per game from offensive rebounds and hustle plays.

The Bulls had the size and depth, which has proven out, while Miami has more skill, which has also shown with Bosh having a pair of 30-point games and James with 35 in Game 4.

The Heat has continued to play a brutal form of isolation basketball, lacking much variety or innovation in getting just 12 assists in an overtime game Tuesday and averaging about 15 to almost 20 by the Bulls.

It’s been a retro Eastern Conference series with the Heat scratching out 91 per game to 89 for the Bulls.

The irony, perhaps, is the team, Miami, condemned all season for being unable to close games, one of the worst sins in sport, effectively flirting with choking, has been the one to make the bigger plays to win the games.

Not those last shot game winners, but the ones to break from an even game late as Miami did in Games 2 and 3, and then in overtime Tuesday, though it was more then on the defensive end with blocks and timely plays.

“We want to win and we want to close out on their floor,” said LeBron James. “We’re looking forward to the challenge. We know it’s going to be tough. They have some of the best fans in the world. So we’ll see.”

Yes, that is a lot of what sport is about, who makes the game changing play at the conclusion or which leads to it. In this series it has been the Heat. Though the Game 4 last five minutes was a classic for both teams, exchanging baskets, LeBron on Rose, James with the huge mistake with a late charge and missing three of his last four regulation shots, and only escaping with Rose’s final short shot.

So then Rose is the loser and James the winner?

The Bulls still have a chance if they can force Miami into a must-avoid-a-seventh-game rematch in Miami for Game 6. The Bulls haven’t shown any signs of cracking even in falling behind. If they were going to give up, it was in Miami for Game 4 after being hit with a 14-0 burst early and then a 9-0 in the fourth quarter which wiped out their lead. But they never backed off and got into position to win at the buzzer. You can’t ask for much more on the road.

The Bulls will be without backup center Omer Asik, out for the playoffs with a fracture. Kurt Thomas could see some time, though even Taj Gibson played limited minutes in Game 4 as Thibodeau went longer with Carlos Boozer’s scoring. The Bulls need to make more shots, especially threes, which is usually easier at home. They need to equalize the free throw disparity which, again, is easier to do at home. They need to reduce their turnovers while at the same time quickening their pace, not generally mutually exclusive.

Though possible.

If the Heat should win the series, they are better. That’s how we decide things, and no one changes that.

But because Hakeem Olajuwon beat David Robinson did that mean Robinson was a loser? Because Karl Malone lost a ball and Michael Jordan made a shot, was Malone a loser? Or Charles Barkley or Reggie Miller because they didn’t have as much depth of talent as Bulls teams?

James is in their group now, never with a title while Wade has one with Shaquille O’Neal in 2006.

“Just trying to seize the moment and understand these opportunities don’t present themselves every year,” James told reporters in Florida before the team left for Chicago Wednesday afternoon. “Me and D-Wade talk about it all the time. If you would have told us we wouldn’t have an opportunity to be close to the Finals in five or six years, we would have thought you was lying to us. It’s been ’06, and ’07 for myself. Understanding what type of team we have. Understanding we have a good enough shot. We don’t want to waste the opportunity.”

At this point, the Bulls and Heat are set up for some monumental series and competitions in the next several years no matter who wins this series. No one seems in their class in the East anymore.

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