Posted May 25 2011 11:30AM
MIAMI -- For the Chicago Bulls, Game 4 was the one that should have begun their comeback in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference championship series.
Not yet another one from which to come back.
There was little the Bulls, their coach Tom Thibodeau, their superstar Derrick Rose or their fans could grumble about, the way it all set up for them late in the fourth quarter Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena. Sure, it would have been nice to have a couple of points back, specifically, the two Miami scored on Mike Miller's jumper at 4:25 of the period, bonus points after Chris Bosh's rag-doll collapse sold a flagrant 1 foul against Chicago's Carlos Boozer. But the game had moved on and the Bulls could not kick about the chances they had, down 85-84 with 1:14 to play.
Rose at the foul line for two with 1:10 left. Rose with the ball, isolated on the left wing in the game's final minute. Rose working down the clock, isolated again, game tied, the Heat unlikely to touch the ball again.
So what happened? One of two for a tie rather than a lead. A missed 18-footer, fading back to allow for LeBron James' height and reach as the sole defender in front of him. Finally, after Ronnie Brewer got the ball back for the Bulls by suckering James into an offensive foul, a 17-footer from the right wing, same shooter, same matchup, same missed opportunity.
Then, in an overtime that never should have been, the Heat outscored Chicago 16-8, the Bulls never leading, never putting pressure on a home team that had slipped its noose. Rose was scoreless and at one point dribbled the ball off his leg. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah -- fresh from a timeout -- managed to send an inbounds pass directly out of bounds. Miami's Big Three scored all its OT points for the 101-93 victory.
It wasn't an elimination game for Chicago, mathematically, but it looked like it afterward in the visitors' dressing room. Bulls players slumped in chairs, ground down, worn out. Mumbles in place of statements. Rose sitting for a long while, clicking through a series of text messages before taking his turn in the interview room, the only Bull asked to tackle that chore. Luol Deng navigating a wave or two of cameras and microphones, then bowing his head, his fingers laced atop it, to stare into an icy tub of water into which his feel were plunged.
It wasn't an elimination game for Chicago. But it looked like it, sounded like it, smelled like it.
The Bulls still get Game 5 at home at United Center Thursday night, a shot at earning themselves a sixth game and maybe then a seventh. They get, at least, a chance to have one more shining performance near the end of a special season, on the court where they went 36-5 in the regular season, produced the league's Most Valuable Player and wound up with a Coach of the Year and Co-Executive of the Year to boot.
Still, Chicago needed Rose to be the best player on the court Tuesday and he wasn't -- that was James, who carried Miami early and finished with 35 points, six assists, six rebounds, two steals, three blocks and 13-of-13 shooting from the free-throw line.
James' defense on Rose in the fourth quarter and beyond was enough to stymie the smaller star and his team, a wrinkle that James didn't show much interest in 13 months ago when his Cleveland club faced Chicago in the first round. But the stakes are higher now and the roster around him has others to shoulder more of the offensive load. And Rose's enhanced status -- MVP vs. former MVP -- might grab James' attention in a way it didn't last spring.
Both times in that final minute of regulation, Rose isolated against James, Chicago fans surely wanted to see their guy take the larger man off the dribble. Scoot right by him, collapse the Miami defense, initiate contact, take the freebies from the line. But it didn't happen. Either time.
Turning Rose into a jump shooter, with a bigger man contesting, isn't a foolproof way to lock down a playoff game. But it's a way on which most rivals would take their chances.
"It's extremely hard where a [6-foot-8] guy can easily defend you," Rose said. The Bulls' point guard had gotten into a footrace with James earlier, breaking downcourt, only to have James catch him in time to swat his scoop shot. That might have been in Rose's head so late in the fourth.
Said Thibodeau on what looked like throw-up-your-hands-and-hope play-calling at the end: "We wanted to get the last shot of the game, give him space to get to the spot, you know, and he missed. But listen, Derrick Rose, I wouldn't want to have any other guy. I'm with that guy all the way."
It wasn't an elimination game for Chicago but it would have been a good one, had it been. It highlighted the Bulls' need for more scoring, in the form of another player who can create off the dribble, a reliable outside shooter to spread the floor for Rose or both. It demonstrated that, as good as Chicago's bench was all season, the star system favored by Miami might be the better way to go (even as the Heat's bench of three outscored the Bulls' reserves, 23-18).
It gave Rose all the incentive he needed -- 8-of-27 shooting, 1-of-9 from the arc, seven turnovers -- to take his game even higher in the offseason. With Miami needing one more victory, it's possible Rose could finish with a better taste in his mouth, an explosive night of 30 or 40 points before his summer begins. But this is the DVD he'll force himself to watch again and again, the game where he vowed to be aggressive all night -- and his two soaring dunks in the second quarter were nothing if not that -- but still came up short.
For the Bulls, Game 4 again had them talking about what they were learning and all the things they still could do better in this series. Only the series is running out, and the lessons they're getting may not be fully be absorbed and reviewed until it is too late.
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