Down 3-1 to the Miami Heat, the chances the Chicago Bulls were going to win the best-of-seven series were slim. Only three teams in NBA history had came back from a 3-1 series deficit in the Conference finals. No, the Bulls did not become the fourth, though it sure seemed like it there for a second.
But it was the Heat who are advancing to their second NBA Finals appearance in four seasons after defeating the Bulls 83-80 in Game 5 at the United Center. We knew the chances of the Bulls winning this series was slim, but it's not that they lost, it's how they lost.
We'll have plenty of time to break down where to go from here for the Bulls with the offseason approaching, as well as a potential lockout. But with the way this one was unfolding, it seemed the Bulls would strap it up and get ready for Game 6 on Saturday night in Miami.
Instead, once again, they folded down the stretch despite leading 76-64 with just under four minutes remaining in the game. Their struggles came at an inopportune time -- in each of their past four losses of the series -- and lack of a killer instinct did the Bulls in.
All season, the game-plan was simple: play defense and keep the game close for MVP Derrick Rose to closeout. It worked for the Bulls, who were an NBA-best 62-20 in the regular-season. For some reason, versus the Heat, the Bulls couldn't execute that formula. There's a reason Rose won the NBA's MVP, making him the youngest to do so in league history, but after at series end, there was no question who the best player on the court was.
Here's a hint: He held an ESPN special called "The Decision".
Yes, it was the villain, LeBron James. When the Heat needed the big shot, the big play, the big rebound, the big anything, he was there for them. It was a coming of age for LeBron, who's experienced plenty of playoff failure. It's easy, of course, when you have Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on your side, who scored 21 and 20 points a piece, though you've got to tip your cap to the Heat's trio.
The Bulls' trio was supposed to be Rose, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer. Two of the three came to play throughout the postseason. The one who didn't, Boozer, was brought to Chicago in the offseason to be their second option offensively and veteran leader.
In the Eastern Conference finals, Boozer averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds per game, though shot 40 percent from the field and had two games of single-digit scoring.
That won't get it done, we know that. It's just beating a dead horse. Carlos Boozer simply didn't perform to the expectations we had, the Bulls had and even he had. His lift seemed off since the All-Star break; his swagger has seemed off since that point; simply, his game has been off since that point.
A lot can be made of what went wrong with the Bulls in the Conference finals. But the Heat, right now, are the better team. Neither game had much margin for error, but when the big shots, big plays needed to be made, it wasn't the Bulls making them, it was the Heat.
"Sometimes things aren't going your way and you have to nagivate through
that stuff," Tom Thibodeau said to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "You have to play with poise. Going down the stretch there
was a lot that went against us."
Added Thibs: "Sometimes you have to go through things and experience how tough and
hard these games are. Sometimes you have to will it. It's a hustle play
here and a hustle play there."
The Bulls laid it on the line on Thursday, so effort isn't something to blame. They outrebounded the Heat 45-41 and racked up 14 fast break points to the Heat's nine. Whether it was Kurt Thomas' near-heroic series debut or Rose pushing, pushing and pushing on route to a 9-for-29 shooting night, trying to be the MVP that Chicago's wanted to see from him this series, the Bulls gave it their all on Thursday. As Ronnie Brewer tweeted, the Bulls wanted to bring a title to the city of Chicago, but it simply didn't happen.
The Heat had three players in double-figures: LeBron (28 points), Wade (21) and Bosh (20). The Bulls had three, too: Rose (25), Deng (18) and Brewer (10). The disparity between the two teams in talent was quite noticeable.
LeBron, the two-time MVP, had Wade and Bosh at his aid. Rose had no one. But that's how the Bulls have won all season long, and that's why he won the MVP, but when playoff basketball rolls around, you need someone else, another star who can create. If not, then these Bulls will simply get the LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers comparisons.
Just like throughout the series, these Bulls had a chance to take Game 5. For pride's sake, it was tough to see these Bulls falling on their homecourt in front of the United Center crowd, it really was.
They got off to a slow start, trailing 15-12 nearly eight minutes left, but a Deng dunk on LeBron got the quiet United Center crowd energized, as the Bulls finished the quarter on a 13-6 run to take a 25-21 lead after the first quarter. They led after the first quarter in Game 4, too.
But as shown throughout the series, it's not how you start, it's how you finish. In that aspect, the Bulls have a lot of work to do.
They didn't get much help from the referees, though. There were some brutal calls at the end of the third quarter, when the Heat erased an 11-point lead with 2:24 left to just five (62-57) by quarter's end. How did they do it? Eight of 10 points came from the free-throw line.
One of the fouls during that span by the Bulls was a flagrant one by Boozer. It started with a breakdown defensively as a Bull missed his assignment, and Boozer was forced to step up. The one time Boozer steps up defensively, he's still a thorn on the Bulls' side. He raked LeBron across the face, though LeBron, as he did with a Rose loose-ball foul earlier, sold it beautifully.
That's what separates the Bulls and Heat: The former don't whine, flop or fake things. The latter like to drum up the situation, flop and are talking to refs every other play.
Said Noah: "They're Hollywood as hell, but they're a very good team. So you have to give credit where credit is due."
You do. The Heat's comeback was hellacious, sickening and stunning. After Thomas grabbed an offensive rebound off Rose's missed layup, he passed it out to Brewer with the shot-clock winding down and Brewer was forced to shoot a three-pointer. Given that he made just six three's during the regular-season, who saw Brewer making this big three -- his second in as many games, as he knocked down a big one in overtime of Game 4, too?
In hindsight, Thibodeau probably regrets not playing Thomas earlier in the series. "Big Sexy," as Stacey King called him, gave the Bulls tremendous energy on Thursday, in a must-win game if there ever was one. The guy's a veteran, a pro's pro. The Bulls have said he's "always ready" all season, so it was curious to see that Thibodeau went away from his vet in favor of the Turkish rookie Omer Asik, who all but two minutes of Game 4 and all of Game 5 due to a fractured left fibula.
Thomas scored four points on two jumpers, added eight rebounds, four offensive. That's nothing new, Bulls fans have seen it all season, whether it was when he subbed in for Noah at center for a 30-game stretch in which the Bulls went 22-8 or coming in late in games, like Thursday, and making an impact.
TNT's Steve Kerr and Reggie Miller compared his performance to Udonis Haslem's in Game 2. But they're not similar. No one saw Haslem's coming; even when he received playing time in games prior, he wasn't effective. The same can't be said about Thomas. With Thomas, you know what you're getting: a solid midrange jumper and defense.
And Thursday, his pass to Brewer for the three seemed to seal the deal as the Bulls were ahead 76-64 with 3:43 to go. Like the Oklahoma City Thunder before them, however, the Bulls found a way to give it up. Let's go through the sequence of plays.
LeBron and Brewer split a pair at the free-throw line.
Wade hits back-to-back layups to cut the Bulls' lead to eight. Rose has a turnover in the middle of the layups.
LeBron makes a three to cut the lead to five.
Bulls call timeout.
Rose responds right back with a nice spin-move on LeBron to get an eight-foot floater off. Bulls lead at seven.
Wade converts a four-point play as Rose clipped him ever so slightly on the arm on a three-point attempt to cut the Bulls' lead to three.
LeBron dribbles up, gets a straight screen from Haslem and nails a three-pointer right in front of the coach's circle to tie the game at 79 with a minute left.
Rose turns it over (again) on an attempt to feed Thomas who looked to be open. Though LeBron's long arms deflected Rose's pass for the steal with 52 seconds left.
LeBron then brought it up, calm as he's ever been, and made a suddle move to his left before pulling up for a jumper over Brewer from the top of the key. Kerr and Miller alluded to it on the telecast: Defending LeBron's difficult, though if you're going to lead him one way in that situation, make him shoot it when he's going right. He went left, got his shoulders squared up and nailed the jumper. It was cold-blooded. The Heat took an 81-79 lead with 29 and a half seconds left.
Next, Rose drove to the basket without much thought on his mind. He drew contact from LeBron and went to the line. So, he's about to tie it up at 81 all, right? Wrong.
Rose swished the first one to make it 81-80, but rattled the second one in-and-out. His second consecutive big free-throw miss in as many games.
After Bosh made a pair of free-throws, the Bulls got a horrendous look off down 83-80. Rose brought it up as the Bulls ran a play for Korver, but after Korver was being suffocated, he gave it to the bailout man, Rose.
Rose dribbled to his left, double-teamed by Haslem and LeBron and missed the three-point attempt short. It was blocked by LeBron.
Ballgame over. Series over. Season over.
"Everything is on me," Rose said. "Turnovers, missed shots, fouls. Learn
from it. That's all I can do. The series is over with. I wasn't tired. I
was just making dumb decisions, and it cost us the game."
It was Rose's season from top to bottom. He was the NBA's storyline during the regular-season, winning the ever prestigious MVP award. But it was a disappointing series for the 22-year-old, as he averaged 23 points on 35 percent shooting per game. If the Bulls were to win this series, Rose needed to be the best player on the court. What a coincidence: the best player in the series blocked Rose on the final play. Just like that best player blocked Rose from attempting to be the hero time after time after time throughout the series.
Still, there's no question Rose had an elite season, one in which the best point guard debate wasn't even in question by year's end. Without him, who knows where this team goes. But they're happy to have him.
"We're not here without D-Rose," Noah said.
"D-Rose is the best dude I've ever been around. He's a great teammate.
He's selfless. He works so hard. We win together and lose together. All
these experiences will make us stronger."
It's been a long, exciting ride for the Bulls this season. So many storylines, so many moments and memories to treasure. Sure, it would've been great to cap it off with a championship, but that wasn't in the cards.
Think about the positives: Rose winning MVP. Thibs winning Coach of the Year. An NBA-best 62 wins. The "Bench Mob". Deng's resurgent season as the Bulls returned to glory. All the fantastic calls by Stacey King (and his partner Neil Funk). "Give me the hot sauce, Kyle!"
There's always winners and losers in sports. The Bulls just so happened to be the losers this season in the Eastern Conference finals. Who saw the Bulls winning 62 games? How about an Eastern Conference finals berth? Rose winning MVP? Thibodeau winning Coach of the Year?
Oh, and all this despite missing Noah and Boozer for a combined 57 regular-season games.
The Bulls will be back here, probably playing those same Heat. It's a rivalry in the making. The Bulls know they have plenty of work to do in the offseason, but with a team led by 22-year-old Derrick Rose, 26-year-old Joakim Noah and 26-year-old Luol Deng, the future is bright. With Rose's work-ethic, he should only improve. And when your best player works that hard, the rest of the team falls into place.
The Bulls played their hearts out from Game 1 to Game 98 of the season. There were plenty of great moments this season. But plenty more to look forward to.
With Derrick Rose leading the way, you're assured of it.