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Bulls Wed May 25 2011

Overtime Loss Pushes Bulls to Brink of Elimination

Well, that one was quite a dagger, as far as basketball games go.

The Bulls played their best defense since Game 1, had the opportunity to take advantage of their deep bench with the game going into overtime, and yet threw away Game 4 with three turnovers in the extra period as Miami won their third straight, 101-93.

bulls heat series logo.PNGTrailing the Eastern Conference finals 3-1, Chicago now needs to win three straight, starting Thursday back at home, to keep its season alive. Only one team in NBA playoff history, the 1995 Rockets, has pulled off that kind of a comeback.

Nobody had a pretty game Tuesday night; while there were certainly a few stellar dunks and acrobatic finger-rolls, the marquee attraction was the all-out intensity of both teams, particularly on defense. Any preseason worries about whether the Heat's stars would be willing to put in the dirty work defensively have been decisively put to rest in this series, while Tom Thibodeau's men had a return to the defensive form that got them this far in the first place.

While Chicago's dominance in Game 1 is starting to look like a fluke, Game 4 at least was a return to some normalcy, as the Bulls shot 40 percent but held Miami to 42 percent. Yet despite their offensive troubles, Chicago still had the chance (two of them, really) to win the game in regulation -- but Derrick Rose was unable to get anywhere close to the basket due to the intense defense of LeBron James. The new MVP wound up attempting two long, step-back jumpers, and with that lack of creativity and conviction, it's not so surprising the Bulls wilted in overtime.

This game was a prizefight, with both teams landing good combinations before the other would bounce off the ropes and return the favor to even it up. With the defense each team was playing, it never felt crazy to say "it's only a four-possession game."

But after a frustrating, potentially decisive loss for the Bulls and their fans, these were my biggest takeaways:

1. LeBron James is better than Derrick Rose.

The traditional stats tell only part of the story: James scored 35 points on 11-of-26 shooting, hitting all 13 of his free throws, while Rose had 23 on 8-of-27 shooting. But James' ability to finish off the Bulls this series almost single-handedly has been the biggest reason they've won.

Chris Bosh had a monster Game 3, it's true, but even then, Chicago was close enough to make a run if not for the defensive and offensive force that was LeBron. Tonight, it was painfully obvious in the Bulls' final two possessions, when the best play they could draw up was isolating for Rose at the top of the key. Unfortunately, James' combination of size, strength and comparable speed enabled him to keep Rose 15 feet away from the basket at all times. The result was two pitiful shots, the last one in regulation a rainbow arced extra high over James' long arms and falling way too short of the rim.

In overtime, the contrast was even clearer, as Rose and the Bulls lost the handle, turning it over three times while at the other end, James sank his jumpers and converted his free throws.

In the past three games -- the Miami wins -- Rose has scored a combined 10 points on 2-of-14 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime. James had only three in that time frame in Game 1, but a combined 32 points in the past three games.

2. Despite having the better bench, the Bulls still faded down the stretch and looked like the far more exhausted team. I haven't decided yet whether to chalk this one up to coaching or not, but across the board, fans and pundits alike believe Chicago has the much better B-team in this series.

But this time, Thibodeau rode his starters extra hard, with nobody on the bench playing more than 21 minutes of what ended up being a 53-minute game. Perhaps that was the right move, as the starters were clearly doing well enough to keep the game close and even stay on top of Miami for large stretches, like the entire third quarter when the Bulls held the lead.

But some of the plays in the final few minutes just screamed lack of concentration and focus, like an inbounds pass from Luol Deng that went to nobody and out of bounds for a turnover on a crucial possession in OT.

I agree that Miami is physically stronger and quicker than any of the teams the Bulls defeated previously in the postseason, and perhaps this is to be expected at this point in the series. It certainly seemed to apply to Miami, as coach Erik Spoelstra rested his stars for large periods of the second half -- yet the Bulls couldn't seem to take advantage of the difference in talent with their starters or their reserves. This was the biggest surprise of the night for me, even more than Mike Miller contributing 12 points and nine rebounds.

3. More than any opponent this season, the Heat are exposing the Bulls' biggest weakness: They have nobody else that can score enough to carry a game if Rose goes without.

Dwyane Wade hit 5 of 16 shots (though he came through in the end with three monster blocks in the closing minutes), but LeBron was still able to get 35. Boozer and Deng each had 20 points to complement Rose's 23, but neither of those totals are anything close to enough to get a win if Rose is scoring under 30.

Unfortunately, those are actually great nights for both players, especially considering Boozer's 11 rebounds. Looking across the Bulls' roster, it's hard to find a place where you could honestly have expected to get more points. Maybe five more for Korver, who had seven? Taj Gibson is about the only answer, as he went scoreless, but he only got one shot off in 10 minutes of play.

I want to put a positive spin on this, and perhaps this is it: The Bulls haven't been beaten decisively in these three losses. Yet again, they did enough to have a chance to win the game in the end, and that's all you can ever ask of a team.

But it's also true that Chicago gave away Game 4 with another shaky fourth quarter and a pitiful overtime, and that's a truth that's not so easy to spin. Unless they can suddenly find solutions for the three problems above, I fear the writing is on the wall.

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