It’s simple for the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night: win Game 5 and extend the best-of-seven series with the Miami Heat to six games.
Instead of being tied 2-2, the Bulls are heading back to the United Center down 3-1 after a 101-93 overtime loss. A loss is a loss, but the Bulls had plenty of chances to win in regulation: Derrick Rose missed a free-throw and two jumpers which would have won the game. If everything played out the same, the free-throw was the difference.
We’ll see what these Bulls are made of Thursday in what could be their final game of the season, one in which they won an NBA-best 62 regular-season games.
Let’s take a look at five keys for the Bulls to take Game 5 in Chicago.
1. Pride: TNT’s mantra is, “Win or go home!” Well, Chicago, this is it. If you want to extend your season, winning Game 5 is a start. Even still, the odds are against the Bulls to take the series, as only three teams have ever came back from a 3-1 series deficit in the Conference finals. The last team to do so: the Boston Celtics in 1981 over the Philadelphia 76ers. These 2010-11 Bulls have been counted out all season, ironically. And it’s nothing different now. They’re in chartered waters: People writing them off. These guys have pride, as all NBA players do. But can a Derrick Rose, Tom Thibodeau led team actually lose four straight games? Although it’s improbable that the Bulls win the series, they certainly have the makeup to extend this to a Game 6 in South Florida. Said Luol Deng: “I really believe we have a group of guys who are going to keep on
fighting. There’s no quit in us or in our locker room.” Omer Asik, who attempted to play with a fractured left fibula in Game 4, is done for the series, though his courageous effort shows what these Bulls are all about. They may see the writing on the wall, but they have too much pride to end their season on the United Center floor. Heck, they could win on pride alone.
3. Big three containment: The Bulls have done a good job containing the Heat’s big three of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, though only have one win to show for it. The three have scored 63, 63, 73 and 71 points in Games 1 through 4. Considering how potent the trio is, that’s pretty darn good. But in Game 2, the Bulls allowed Udonis Haslem (13 points, five rebounds) to get off; in Game 3, Bosh, the third-wheel of the big three, scored 34 points on wide-open jumpers all night; in Game 4, Mike Miller scored nine of his 12 points in the fourth quarter. The Heat’s been getting solid — not great, but solid — contributions from the supporting cast. Although LeBron and Wade scored a combined 49 points (35 by LeBron), they did it on 16 of 42 shooting. The Bulls are forcing them into tough shots, but have struggled to contain the rest of the Heat’s cast. And here we all thought a major Bulls advantage lied in the bench, who have been outscored in two of four games this series. If the Bulls can contain the Heat’s big three once again, they should be right there in the end. But allowing guys like Haslem, Miller, Mario Chalmers (nine points in Game 4) and Mike Bibby (11 points in the past two games) to get off is a losing formula.
4. Same energy, support: Rose isn’t going to do it on his own, if that hasn’t already been made clear in this series. One of the disappointments in the Game 4 loss was that the Bulls got 20 points each from Deng and Boozer and a game-high 14 rebounds from Noah, yet still found a way to lose. It’s no given that either of them can repeat the effort, although it’s good to see Boozer’s finally producing — on the offensive end — with back-to-back 20 and 10 games. But Noah’s energy set the tone for the Bulls. He missed seven of 10 shots, but played an active role defensively, even stripping the Heat’s big men a couple times to lead the Bulls’ fast break. Noah’s had six assists in each of the past two games — that’s from your center! It would be fitting, though, if the Bulls’ cast didn’t show to play — an ironic finish to what’s been a nagging issue versus the Heat.
5. Put the heat on the Heat: Want to see what your opponents are made of? A Bulls victory on Thursday would put plenty of pressure on the Heat to close out in Game 6 at home. The Heat’s handled pressure very well in the postseason — the polar opposite of the regular-season — but let’s see how this star-laden team handles a 3-2 series lead with a must-win Game 6 at their house. Because the Heat knows if they lose Game 6, the decisive Game 7 is in Chicago. They’ll want Game 6 bad, but so will the Bulls — especially if they can take some momentum into Miami with a solid win in Game 5. Right now, all the Bulls need is confidence, they need to show themselves they can beat the Heat (again). A series can certainly change if one team has the edge, confidence over the other team. Expect the Bulls to want Game 5 to extend this series further; can’t see the MVP, Coach of the Year and these prideful Bulls losing four straight games after winning Game 1, losing series in five games. Put the heat on the Heat. Let them feel some pressure heading home — and we’ll see if they rise or fall, because they won’t want to come back to Chicago for a Game 7.