Despite playing without both Luol Deng (wrist) and C.J. Watson (wrist), the Chicago Bulls clawed back from double-digit deficits time and time again and found themselves in position to win Sunday afternoon's highly anticipated game against the Miami Heat, in a rematch of last season's Eastern Conference finals.
Although, there are no moral victories in the NBA, as coach Tom Thibodeau and his players would say.
"No, you never take any positives from losses," Bulls center Joakim Noah told reporters after his team's 97-93 loss to the Heat. "Tough loss right now, [but] got to bounce back [Monday against the Washington Wizards]."
Bulls point guard Derrick Rose dropped 34 points, six assists and six rebounds in over 44 minutes of action and dazzled the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd all day with an array of acrobatic and insanely athletic floaters and layups. It seemed as if the Heat knew what was coming whenever Rose, who shot 11-for-28 from the field, would attack the basket -- and yet they had no answer. From start to almost finish, the 6-foot-3 star went back and forth with another former league MVP, Miami Heat forward LeBron James, who put up a game-high 35 points to go along with 11 rebounds.
Both teams clearly wanted to win this one badly, even though Thibodeau and Rose had claimed it was simply another game. Obviously, it was a nationally televised contest and players on the two teams could feel the playoff atmosphere in the arena. Backing up Rose in place of Watson, John Lucas III played just over three minutes against the Heat. As far as regular-season tilts go, the stage doesn't get much brighter, the level of play doesn't get much better, than it did on Sunday.
The Bulls placed all five starters in double figures, although nobody aside from Rose scored more than 11 points. The Heat improved their bench during the offseason, with the additions of Shane Battier and Norris Cole, but the home team's scoring output was top heavy. Chris Bosh again crushed the Bulls, posting 24 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 8-for-14 from the field, and Dwyane Wade had 15 points and missed 12-of-16 shots.
However, the Bulls had plenty of opportunities to pull out an improbable win.
For Chicago, everything starts and ends with Rose. He scored 21 of his aforementioned 34 points in the second half and was masterful throughout most of the afternoon against one of the league's best defenses. Rose scored or assisted on 15 of the Bulls' 22 fourth-quarter points. But it was the fact that he missed two critical free throws late in the game that will haunt the two-time All-Star -- and, if fans are looking for a silver lining, give him some added motivation.
After James missed a six-foot shot, Rose rushed the ball up the court and was fouled, sending himself to the charity stripe for two foul shots and a chance to give the Bulls a one-point lead with 22.7 seconds left. Uncharacteristically, Rose missed the pair of free throws, and he looked shocked after each one did not fall. Following an odd sequence where an official inadvertently blew his whistle, Heat guard Mario Chalmers split a pair at the foul line. Yes, the Bulls were still in it, down 95-93 with 9.9 seconds to play, and allowed Rose to attempt to make the type of heroic play he has converted a lot over the course of his career.
But he drove to his left, pulled up at the foul line, was swarmed by James and Bosh and left a right-handed floater short. The missed shot was corralled by Bosh, who promptly put the game away at the free throw line. Although Rip Hamilton appeared wide-open on Rose's final shot, there's no question that Rose wanted to knock down the game-winner, especially given that he had passed a potential opportunity in Wednesday night's 95-90 loss to the Indiana Pacers.
Before missing the two crucial free throws, Rose had been 12-for-12 from the charity stripe for the game and hadn't missed a fourth-quarter foul shot this season (29-of-29). Naturally, the 23-year-old put all of the blame on his shoulders, looked inward when it comes to any criticism directed toward him and vowed Sunday's failure will make him a better player.
"It was me," Rose told reporters after the game. "All the plays at the end, if I would've hit [my] free throws it would've never gotten that far. I know I can live with it. It's just going to make me a stronger player.
"It's definitely tough. All I can say is, I guess God does everything for a reason. I've been in those situations before, knocked them down. But to miss both, I let my team down and the only thing I can do is learn from it."
James, who also missed two crucial free throws late in the fourth quarter, coincidentally one play after Rose had missed his, had nothing but praise for the Bulls' lead guard. Before the game, James told ESPN that he looks "forward to playing with [Rose] on the  Olympic team."
"D. Rose had an unbelievable game," James told the assembled media afterward, "but we know that you guys will all talk about his missed free throws.
"I think it's great anytime you get an opportunity to go against some of the best. [Rose] is an unbelievable talent. He's a great player, a great person. So I always take the challenge. It's good to be out there playing against him knowing that he's one of the best in the league."
Rose was clearly in utter disgust at himself for his missed foul shots, although as a team the Bulls were not able to provide him with enough relief on the offensive end and failed to corral important rebounds and loose balls. Hamilton and Noah had 11 points apiece while Ronnie Brewer and Carlos Boozer chipped in 10 each. Hamilton and Boozer combined for 9-for-26 shooting, six turnovers and 10 fouls.
"This is so unreal right now," a glum Rose said. "I had the chance to change the game, and this time it didn't work out. I know my will to win is still very high, but I guarantee you next time those shots are going down."
Chicago experienced a three minute, 44 second scoring drought in the fourth quarter as the Heat went on a 7-0 run. Each time the Bulls would cut the Heat's lead, Miami would answer, and Thibodeau's squad had to dig itself out of holes all day.
"They kept getting up six, eight, 10," Thibodeau told reporters. "We'd come back, tie it up, and it happened over and over again. I thought we had good resolve, kept fighting. Things didn't go our way at the end."
Added Noah: "We had our opportunities. No excuses. But we'll be back here."
Unlike James, though, Rose doesn't have a reputation of consistently failing in crunch time, and he always points at himself when he does. The fourth-year veteran seemingly always responds after disappointments. After missing a crucial free throw against the Los Angeles Clippers last season, Rose shot over 85 percent from the charity stripe the rest of the campaign.
"I'll go to war with him any day on the basketball court," Noah said of Rose. "I've never been around a competitor like that in my life."
Similar to last spring's playoffs, the Bulls simply couldn't make the crucial play to put them over the top of the Heat. Still, they had countless opportunities to do just that, which will leave a bad taste in every single Bulls players' mouth.
"We were in position to win and we didn't get it done," Thibodeau said.