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Bulls Fri May 27 2011
There are losses, and then there are losses that stick around for awhile. You'd think overtime in Game 4 would be one of the latter, one of the games that Bulls fans would remember as a heartbreaker for a long time to come. But somehow, Thursday's epic Game 5 collapse surpassed it with incredible ferocity.
Despite a 12-point lead with just over three minutes remaining, the Bulls fell to the Miami Heat 83-80, ending their season in the Eastern Conference finals.
I approached this game thinking Miami wouldn't try too hard. They're a glittery team -- tough at times, but still flashy. Furthermore, they looked confident, and I expected that would manifest as overconfidence and a halfhearted effort that might send the series back to Miami for Game 6.
For 45 minutes, that's exactly what the Heat looked like. You could suggest it was the Bulls' defense that was making Miami look mortal again, but not for long.
Not after Miami closed the game with an 18-3 run, erasing a 77-65 deficit with 3:10 left. The Heat earned a return date with Dallas in the Finals with a combination of smothering defense (LeBron James again took on Derrick Rose for the final minutes of the fourth quarter, and promptly shut him down save for one fantastic shot) and an explosion of offense (including the previously comatose Dwyane Wade erupting for eight points in the final three minutes, including a four-point play).
There aren't a lot of lessons to be learned from this game, just one very harsh one. For 45 minutes, the Bulls did almost everything right. Before the fourth quarter, Wade had made two shots from the field all night. James started the game well; in fact he was the only player on the Heat able to make shots in the first quarter. But he eventually went cold too, letting the Bulls take command of the game.
This was, dare I say, a boring game for large parts of it: the Bulls led by four or eight points, Miami lacked focus and routinely turned the ball over through mistakes and turnovers, and all looked good for a return flight to South Beach.
But then, with just a few minutes left, the bill came due for Chicago.
It's hard to look back and see what the catalyst was, if any. Was it Carlos Boozer's flagrant foul that woke LeBron up? Did Erik Spoelstra give some inspiring pep talk in his timeout with 3:53 left?
The turnaround came about so suddenly, and so unexpectedly, that it's impossible to find one key play that hinted at what was to come. But then with 3:02 left, Wade hit an eight-footer, stole the ball from Rose, and made a layup while drawing a foul. The three-point play got Miami within eight, and the collapse was on.
Rose is going to take a lot of this on his shoulders, and to some extent, he should. He missed a tying free throw with 26 seconds left, he turned the ball over and he fouled Wade on his four-point play. But he also had LeBron James guarding him, a massive, 6-foot-8 athlete with the quickness of a point guard. Rose's turnovers weren't necessarily the result of bad passes, but the result of a man with six extra inches of reach blocking the passing lanes.
Over the course of the series, Rose took 120 shots and scored 117 points. Not an MVP performance by any stretch. But the Bulls had no one else who could be counted on to score.
Rose is far too proud to ever admit this, but you have to wonder if he thinks that it's just not fair. If he had a Kevin Durant or a Pau Gasol or even a Ray Allen (current, not even vintage!), he would have an actual second option at the end of the game. Without a player of that caliber, however, everyone in the world knows he's looking for the shot himself, and that includes the entire opposing defense.
In Chicago's four losses this series, the 2011 MVP totaled 16 points on 4-of-23 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime. Not the stuff of legends, but you try scoring by yourself against a crunch-time defense featuring the 6-4 Wade and four agile guys 6-8 or taller (LeBron, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh).
Thursday's loss was shocking, there's no doubt about it. But the result of this series, in hindsight, isn't.
Derrick Rose deserved to win MVP this season, but LeBron James right now is the best basketball player in the world. And even when he isn't playing like the best player in the world, he's got other very, very good players to help out.
It's a problem Bulls management needs to solve for next season, and unfortunately, one they'll have a head start on solving.