Bulls season ends with loss to Miami


May 27

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The Bulls unlikely 2010-11 season came to a stunning end Thursday night, perhaps fittingly, as it began. The 83-80 loss to the Miami Heat, who now go onto the NBA Finals to play the Dallas Mavericks, was as unexpected as the Bulls regular season as the NBA’s best team.

But in the end, the Bulls were not the most talented team, and not that the loss was improbable. Miami came into the series and even Thursday’s game favored. But the Bulls led by 12 points with 3:14 left after Ronnie Brewer made one of two free throws.

From there, it was such an astounding conclusion that even the main participants, and especially the ones who made it so, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combining for 16 points in the last three minutes in an 18-4 Miami finish, couldn’t recall what happened.

“We don’t even know what happened,” said Wade, who had slumped all series, but had 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. “I’m not going to lie to you and say we do. I can’t remember all the plays. I just remember the timeout (with 2:04 left down 77-72) and coach (Erik Spoelstra) looked at us and said, ‘We’ve done this before.’”

“We don’t honestly know what happened,” said LeBron James, who had 12 of his 28 points in the fourth. “We know some big plays happened and we know we won the game. It went so fast.”

How’s that for breaking down the game?

“It was a blur,” said Carlos Boozer, and he was watching along with Joakim Noah as the Bulls went with a defensive oriented lineup down the stretch to avoid just what happened. “I don’t know. It seemed like we had the lead. We had decent shots. They played good D. ‘Bron hit a couple of shots. D. Wade’s four point play (to bring Miami within 79-76 with 1:30 remaining) was huge. It all was kind of a blur.”

But it put into clear perspective the Bulls season and where they go from here.

They are very good, but not good enough. They had to rely too much on Derrick Rose, who had 25 points and eight assists, but nine of 29 shooting. But they never truly established a second scoring option, which was apparent with Boozer sitting out the entire fourth quarter again.

How about this finish: All-Stars James, Wade and Bosh for Miami along with Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller, four potential scorers and a rebounder/hustler.

Compare that with the Bulls closers of Rose, Luol Deng, Brewer, Taj Gibson and Kurt Thomas. And so it was Miami four games to one.

Yes, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau went with what he felt was his best defensive lineup down the stretch, and it wasn’t a bad idea. After all, you figure with a 12-point lead with three minutes left they aren’t even going to score 12 points if you play your top defenders.

But Miami is going with three high powered scorers — Chris Bosh finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds and the two clinching free throws — and the Bulls are trying to match with two guys released last season, a backup and a strong role player, though Deng had a good game with 18 points and seven rebounds. But he had just two fourth quarter points.

And there’s one of the big issues.

The Bulls never could get Rose enough help, especially on offense, and so it looked like Rose failed down the stretch, the MVP supposed to carry the team and outplayed by James and Wade, or how the story will go.

“It was me,” typically accepting the blame.  “Turnovers, I guess fouls, if you call it that.  If anything, you just learn from it and just try to do better next year. At the end, I told you it’s on me.  Everything is on me.  Turnovers, missed shots, fouls. I wasn’t tired.  I was just making dumb decisions, and it cost us this game. The series is over with.”

It will generally be viewed that way even to those who watched. It was not the case.

It’s also too bad the Bulls in the end may be remembered as having choked, perhaps collapsed, not up to the occasion. And in the yin and yang world of professional sports there are only winners and losers.

Sometimes the other guy just beats you and is that good. We agreed often when it was Michael Jordan. Not to say James and Wade are there, but they are a former two time MVP and Finals MVP making big shots while defended well at big times.

“I just go to keep being put in those situations and not be afraid to fail,” said James.

As Jordan liked to say, he constantly failed so he could succeed.

The question raised much of the season about whether the Bulls had any room to raise their game for the playoffs may have grounded them. They played so hard and smart and defensively all season. But when a group with more talent, at least top talent, improved it’s game, it was too much for the Bulls. No, not by much, and everyone will go back and find one possession in each of the last two games and say it would/could/should have been 3-2 Bulls. But it’s not. You are what the final score is, right?

But this was not on Rose even as he was one of four with two turnovers in the last three minutes.

This one reminded me of so many games I saw with Jordan and the Pistons, a five game loss in the 1988 conference semifinals after the Bulls split the first two games in Detroit, a six game in the 1989 conference finals after the Bulls won the opener in Detroit and two of the first three, and then the seven game loss in the 1990 conference finals after the Bulls won Game 6 at home by 18. There was only so far Jordan could carry them as great as he was. So there’s the greatest player ever and he’s not beating constant trapping against an elite defensive team.

So why should Rose fare any better in his first such effort and four years younger than Jordan was. No one thought this was a championship team to start the season, and only its remarkable record continued to suggest so when the Bulls were still going with role players and a sometimes inconsistent Boozer compared to three All-Stars and top five picks in the draft. The Bulls have one top five pick from the draft on the roster, Rose.

So all eyes are on Rose, the basketball world, the fans and the Heat defense.

Actually, I thought the Bulls did some very good, albeit subtle things, with Rose to get that lead. Miami had been zeroing in on Rose in the Bulls usual attack with Rose bringing the ball up into a high screen. Obviously, the isolations didn’t work, as we saw to close Game 4. So the Bulls initiated the offense away from Rose and then brought him off the wing where he could attack or come out high to make a play.

The Bulls had Rose and Deng run more pick and roll, opening up Deng shots from the wing, which was working well along with Deng making what seemed like it could be a momentum defining play early with a steal from James and then dunk over him on the fast break.

Although it was a somber Bulls group in the locker room afterward, no one seemed more deflated than Deng, who played through myriad injuries this season with easily a team high minutes played and always the toughest defensive assignment in easily his best all around season.

While teammates graciously did their post game interviews, Deng had to walk away several times from reporters to compose himself.

“Hurts, hurts a lot,” Deng said, generally answering short. “We played as hard as we could.”

The pivotal stretch of the game and the season was those last four minutes when the Bulls led 76-64 after a Brewer three. Kurt Thomas, who had eight rebounds and a game high four offensive in 18 minutes in his first play since Game 2 against Atlanta, had just helped contribute to four big possessions with three rebounds, a block and assist, his last offensive rebound leading to that Brewer three.

Look, the game was over. I was checking airline schedules to go to Miami for Game 6.

James then made one of two free throws, which were matched by Brewer. No problem. Still 12 with 3:14 left. No way Miami could win this, right? Not against that Bulls defense.

Wade, who had been virtually invisible other than in the overtime of Game 4 and again most of Game 5, drove past Rose with the help late and scored.

Rose then committed the first of his two turnovers, but I’d hardly blame him. One issue the Bulls had, especially with that lineup, was a lack of spacing as Brewer hangs near the lane along with Gibson. I understand going with defenders, but the result is a packed in offense. Rose drove, was trapped, as usual. Haslem stepped up, so Rose tried to slip the pass to an open Gibson. But Deng failed to clear the area and was along the baseline. So Wade stepped in as Deng and Gibson were maybe a foot apart and deflected the pass for the turnover.

Wade ran out and scored when Brewer failed to get back and cover as Rose drove. That made it 77-69 Bulls.

This time the area opened for Gibson as Rose penetrated, so Rose passed to a wide open Gibson, who missed a 16 footer.

Brewer had been defending James, but in transition even though the Heat wasn’t running, he went to Wade. Rose was guarding Wade. So Rose crossed court, figuring Deng would pick up James as Deng was the alternate defender. But Deng stayed with Mike Miller, whom he was guarding with Brewer to be on James. So James was open on the right wing. Rose came flying out and got there, but James let go a 26 footer to pull Miami within 77-72 with 2:07 left.

There was a lot of murmuring in the United Center.

Rose handed off to Brewer and circled around to get the ball. James was on Rose by now, and Rose drove and did a beautiful spin back for a floater and 79-72 Bulls lead with 1:46 left. That seemed like it might be enough.

Rose was then right there on Wade, hand up and close when Wade, shooting bricks for a week, fell back for a three with Rose called for a very questionable foul and four point play, one of seemingly many again as Miami shot 33 free throws to 21 for the Bulls.

Guy makes a fading 27 footer with a hand in his face. What can you do? And a guy who hadn’t made a three all series.

“The last four straight games, going down the stretch of every fourth quarter, it’s a make here, a miss there, a rebound here, a no rebound there that can change the complexion of this entire series,” said Spoelstra.  “That was as competitive and hard hitting a series as any of us have experienced. But we have some special players that when we needed some big time plays to save us at the end, they were able to do that.

You have to give Chicago a great deal of credit for their defense, putting bodies in the paint and taking away a lot of normal relief opportunities.  But he’s (Wade) got something different, a different make‑up inside of him that he’s able to rise to the occasion regardless of what’s happening during the course of the game. But when it’s winning time, there’s really not many players that are better than him.”

One possession game, as they like to say on TV. How did that happen so quickly?

Rose took a screen from Brewer, but it’s not like with Deng as Brewer doesn’t want to shoot. Rose threw to Deng, who threw it right back to Rose. So now it was 10 seconds left on the shot clock and Rose had to do something. Thomas came up to set a screen, which brought the double. Rose beat that around the left side, but ran into Haslem with Wade, James and Bosh in a semicircle around him and Rose missed.

Miami ran back with Deng picking up James. James ran toward the Bulls bench and from almost in front of Thibodeau tied the game at 79 with a three with 1:01 left to stun the crowd and Bulls bench.

Deng inbounded to Brewer, who passed to Rose on the right wing. Thomas, who might have been getting a bit gassed by now, screened James. Bosh picked up Rose sliding left with Miller coming over and James trailing. Rose tried to go back to an open Thomas on the weak side with Wade on Deng. But James deflected the pass for a turnover.

James had just hit his last two shots stepping back left. But Brewer played him to his right and soft. James stepped back left and made a 20 footer for an 81-79 lead with 29.5 seconds left as the Bulls called their final timeout.

Rose this time dispensed with any passing as the Bulls have had issues these playoffs going late in the shot clock and forcing shots. So Rose took the inbounds and drive around James, who fouled him. Rose went to line to tie it, but, ouch, missed the second to leave the Bulls trailing 81-80 with 26.7 seconds left.

Thomas almost made the play of the game as James went into the backcourt for the inbounds and Thomas got a finger on the ball. But a furious James recovered, yelling at Miller to throw a hard pass. Interestingly, James didn’t hold the ball or get it to Wade but looked for Bosh to shoot the big free throws.

Closing games has been an issue all season for Miami, and it’s hard to say James and Wade didn’t in Game 5. They did. But to have the luxury of a third player like Bosh, often criticized as soft but still productive, showed the difference in teams with Boozer sitting out. Bosh made both for an 83-80 lead with 16.8 seconds left, and the Bulls had to go.

They called a baseline play for Korver needing a three. The play has Korver running baseline and coming up over a down screen, this time from Gibson. But the timing was off. Korver said it was a bit confused as they usually run it from halfcourt instead of fullcourt.

Gibson missed Miller on the screen. So Miller trailed Korver all the way to the top with James shadowing Rose. Korver couldn’t find anyone, so he finally gave the ball to Rose with four seconds left in the game. Rose dribbled left for a three, but Haslem stepped up and James came from behind to block the shot to end the game.

And so ended the Bulls glorious season, one in which they had the MVP, Coach of the Year and co-Executive of the Year with Pat Riley. They had the league’s best record and moved into the conversation for the NBA’s best of the near future.

James and Wade were gracious, commending Rose and the Bulls. Bosh called Rose a deserving MVP, saying, “We’re going to be spending every summer thinking about the Bulls.”

“I’ve been in situations where I say why me at this point?” James said about Rose now.  “But you have to keep working and be put in those positions time after time after time where if you fail, you have to be ready to take that challenge again and again and again.  When you’re a leader, D‑Rose, he earned the MVP.  He’s a great talent, unbelievable player.  Chicago got a great, not only a great basketball player, but a great kid, too.  What he’s done for this city and what he’s done for this franchise in just three years is remarkable. The sky is the limit for that guy.  I mean, wow, as a fan, he’s going to get better and better.  Hopefully we don’t have to continue to see him in the postseason.”

Since James and Wade always sit together for their post game interviews, Wade chimed in with,  

“We will.”

“Yeah, we will,” James added.

I don’t think it’s just soothing the loser. The Bulls were right there, though never quite able to finish the game, which is the sign both of a team not in that position much in the post season and with not quite the talent.

After blowing out Miami in Game 1, the Bulls lost Game 2, did trail most of Game 3, but did get within four with 6:39 left. Then they led Game 4 by six early in the fourth and the late 12-point lead in Game 5. Miami was the better team despite it being that close, though not by that much.

“We did a lot of good things,” said Deng. “Played hard four games. We lost to a great team. Couldn’t close them out. It’s something we’ve got to learn. Going forward.”

In the end, the Bulls shot 39.1 percent to 45.3 percent for Miami and just 31.3 percent on threes. The huge early rebounding margin was down to an average of six per game after Miami was outrebounded 45-42 in Game 5. The Heat did average just 89.4 per game, but the Bulls only scored 87.2, and it isn’t a great look when two of your core starters, Boozer and Joakim Noah, cannot get on the court in the fourth quarter of the closing game.

“I do think experience helps,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. ”But that being said, all these games came down to the end. If we make (the last shot) the other night in Miami, maybe it’s a different series. Eight seconds left and you have a chance to win. We didn’t do it.”

I guess since it’s over even Thibodeau doesn’t have to look ahead any more.

Now that’s up to management and the need of a better shooting guard or at least someone at a wing position who can make an open shot and a play with the ball, effectively taking some pressure off Rose. There’s plenty of time since you aren’t likely to find someone like that in the draft, though teams will trade once the Finals is over. Perhaps Rasual Butler, who didn’t play in this series. Maybe after the labor deal is agreed to, whenever that may be, and teams may have to make some serious personnel choices.

Still, it was both a tough end to the season and a season to savor, if less so immediately afterward.

“The season is over, so it hurts,” said Noah, who had five points and eight rebounds. “I feel like I have to work really hard this offseason to be better for this team. They got hot. We have to give credit where credit is due. It hurts right now because we had our chances and opportunities to do something special. To have it over in this manner hurts. They’re Hollywood as hell, but they are very good.”

Though some suggested that was a slap at the Heat histrionics, and it may have been, I also thought it may have been a jab at the officiating as Miami players mugged and fell backward like they were shot and drew foul calls. The Bulls and especially the home crowd didn’t seem or sound all that happy about the free throw disparity, but there isn’t much to do about it.

The Bulls held Miami under 40 percent shooting, outrebounded them, had 15 more shots, a 15-6 edge in second chance points, five fewer turnovers, six more assists and five more fast break points. Miami did make 10 more free throws, but the Bulls just once again couldn’t find enough scoring.

They led 25-21 after one following a slow start that was changed by that Deng steal of a James pass and dunk over a trailing James. That got the crowd into the game and the Bulls scored on eight straight possessions. The Bulls led 45-38 at halftime behind Deng’s 14 points and held onto a 62-57 lead after three as they seemed to be making all the right moves, Thomas filling in and making a pair of jumpers, Rose giving Miami a new look off the side pick and roll.

A Boozer flagrant foul against James, who collapsed in a dramatic heap, seemed to change things after the Bulls led 58-47 in the third as Miami finished with a four point play. But the Bulls regained the double digit edge and despite everything had to hold on for just three minutes with their best defenders on the floor. They could not.

“I’m going to get better,” said Rose.  “I’m not worried about that.  If anything, this is going to make me hungry.  Made it this far with this group.  My teammates, great teammates.  Too bad we couldn’t get to The Finals, but we still got a shot next year.  I won’t take anything back from this year.  It’s been great.  The coaching staff has been great.  Organization has been great, the management, ownership, everybody has been great.  But I think it’s going to make everybody hungry.”

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