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By Sam Smith | 5.11.2015 | 9:10 a.m.
This one really hurt for the Bulls, Sunday’s 86-84 Cleveland Cavaliers victory to even the conference semifinal series at 2-2.
Not because LeBron James beat them with a 21-foot corner buzzer beater on an inbounds play with 1.5 seconds left after a frantic Bulls rally from six behind with two minutes remaining.
“It was a tough shot,” agreed Derrick Rose, who tied the game on a twisting drive with 9.4 seconds remaining and scored 31 points. “Jimmy (Butler) pushed him to the corner; he got a chance to adjust his body, square up. Hell of a shot. This game is (now) already over. Just enjoy your (Mother’s) day with your mom, with your parents and just look forward to battling and competing again the next time we play.
“When you lose on the last shot there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Rose. “He hit a great shot; he’s a hell of a player. You’ve just got to make sure if we are in that position again make sure we force him out a little more or make someone else get the ball.”
It really wasn’t as much about strategy in not only a second consecutive game with a buzzer beating winner after Rose’s on Friday, but a bewildering and perplexing last few seconds that included:
- Cavs coach David Blatt madly calling three times for a timeout after Rose’s basket to make it 84-84 with 9.4 seconds remaining. Finally, assistant Tyronn Lue grabbed Blatt and pulled him back to the bench because the Cavs had no timeouts. They actually had just used three in a row to get the ball inbounds, which led to a James offensive foul with 18.8 seconds left to give the Bulls one more chance. If the officials had seen the timeout call—and it’s difficult to believe all three missed it—the Bulls would have gotten a free throw and possession to probably end the game
- The Bulls pulled their inbounds trap, perhaps the best in the game, to lure James into an offensive foul with Rose and Mike Dunleavy blanketing James but not fouling; James elbowed his way out to draw the offensive
- Rose’s incredible crossover blowing by Iman Shumpert and then beating James at the basket for the tie and what looked like overtime
- James driving through the ignored timeout call, dribbling full court while holding Butler off with his left hand and then turning toward the basket, where his shot was knocked away by Joakim Noah as James screamed for a foul. The ball was off Nikola Mirotic with 0.8 on the clock. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau appeared to signal for a review of the out of bounds, so the officials went to look at replay. The Cavs appeared to have Matthew Dellavedova taking the ball out of bounds with less than a second. But in the review, the officials added .7 to the clock for 1.5 and James said he changed the play call and told Blatt he wasn’t throwing the ball in but was taking the shot.
“To be honest, the play that was drawn up I scratched it,” James told stunned media afterward with everyone coming up with mental pictures of Blatt being thrown under a locomotive carrying a semitrailer. “I told coach, ‘Just give me the ball. It’s either going to overtime or I’m going to win it for us.’ I was supposed to take the ball out. I told coach there was no way I’m taking the ball out unless I could shoot it over the backboard and go in. I told him have somebody else take the ball out and give me the ball and get out of the way.’” James also regarding the near timeout call volunteered that coaches also make mistakes. But James is a great one, and on the inbounds he faked going toward the basket from the left baseline, pushed off on Butler a bit and then from the deep corner in front of the Bulls bench hit the winner.
“It was a tough shot,” Taj Gibson said in a frustrated Bulls locker room. “You saw him fading; what do you think we should have done? He hit a fadeaway jumper (near) the three-point line. What can we have done better?”
The frustration was understandable, though less because of James’ terrific shot.
Even with Pau Gasol out with a hamstring strain, this was a game the Bulls could not have lost, should not have lost, really had no business losing in what should certainly have a been a 3-1 series lead returning to Cleveland for Game 5 Tuesday.
“Going into the fourth we had a good margin,” noted Gibson of the 68-61 lead and by 11 a minute earlier. “We just blew it. We had a chance. The way it was going we had a good lead going into the fourth quarter, tied the ball up, odds were in our favor going into overtime with our crowd behind us; we’ll take that every day.
I liked our chances. But hey, a day and a half ago we were happy about hitting a game winner; this is frustrating. Jimmy was in his face, one of those plays. Up (seven) going into the fourth, but we just didn’t capitalize.”
Though more than on just a lead they should have built higher if again not for a stagnant offense with relentless play calling and failing to throw the ball ahead enough to set a pace. So the Bulls opened the fourth quarter with yet another shot clock violation, their third of the game, a Mirotic turnover with one second on the shot clock and a Noah last second miss with three seconds on the clock, the bench yet again screaming for someone to shoot with the clock running out. The Bulls then added another 24-second clock violation a minute later and suddenly it was a tie game with nine minutes left, an opportunity gone availing.
Just like the game with a limping and depleted Cavs team ready to be taken down.
Here was LeBron in full revolt against the coach, Kyrie Irving shooting two of 10 for 12 points with a foot problem, Shumpert one for eight for five points with a groin issue, James spraining his ankle in the third quarter. It hardly left the Cavs with any great defensive team, either.
Yet, the Bulls could get double figure scoring from just Rose and Butler, the latter with 19 points.
J.R. Smith riddled the Bulls with three fourth quarter three pointers as Tony Snell laid off too far in helping. That enabled the Cavs to surge ahead 80-73 with 4:04 left. But the Bulls defense on LeBron basically going it alone the rest of the way would give the Bulls a chance, James shooting 10 of 30 along with 14 rebounds, eight assists and eight turnovers. Even James wasn’t very good in the fourth quarter until that last shot, two of seven before then with three turnovers. But he pretty much had to try it alone.
Rose made a three with 2:01 left to give the Bulls a heartbeat, trailing 80-77. James answered that isolating to score on a drive, though Butler again did a terrific overall job defending against James, as good as you could ask. Rose drove and was fouled, making both to bring the Bulls within 82-79 with 1:32 left, on the way to his second straight game of at least 30 points and third in four games of at least 25.
Noah, back at center for Gasol and with eight points and 15 rebounds, got in front of a pounding James to draw a charge. Rose missed a three, and LeBron went back at it, drawing a foul this time and making both for an 84-82 Cavs lead with 41 seconds left to set up the titanic finish.
But it was a sinking feeling for the Bulls with so many vital Cavs out, like Kevin Love, or limping through the game, at home, coming off a dramatic buzzer beating win with a chance to effectively knock out the Eastern Conference favorite and certainly the best player of the game. But once again, through ennui, uncertainty, detachment and who knows what other emotion or inaction, the Bulls—playing hard once again if not efficiently—let slip away a wonderful opportunity. It’s not a lost series, but much tougher going back to Cleveland, where the Cavs only have to win at home to win the series.
“We’ve been like that all year; we can’t step on people’s throats,” noted Dunleavy. “For whatever reason just too many stagnant offensive possessions; it’s kind of been our Achilles heel on the offensive end. It’s not surprising; it’s disappointing. It’s almost like nothing comes easy for us. We know we are going to be in a dogfight. We’re expecting it to come down to a last shot.
“Unfortunately we’ve been pretty consistent in doing it that way,” said Dunleavy. “Little bit of getting stagnant on the offensive end, not getting into our offense quick enough. It’s a myriad of things. It’s kind of been our weak spot.”
Added Rose: “No matter who is on the floor you have to make sure they move around, (make them) defend like three different actions before you actually shoot the ball. When we run we are a pretty good team. We stopped doing that.”
Instead with the Bulls it’s walk it up, dribble hand off, ooops, getting late, someone shoot already!
It was more than that, of course, as the Cavs with Gasol out had the advantage on the boards and outrebounded the Bulls 44-40. The team with the most rebounds has won every game. The Cavs also had a 24-12 edge on free throw attempts, Rose with seven of the Bulls’ puny 12.
“It seems like you’ve got to finish better,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “That was sort of the nature of the game. I want to look at how they got free throws and what happened with us. It looked like there were a lot of shots in the paint we didn’t finish. We’re going to have to be stronger because we’ve got to be able to get the call. We’ve got to take it stronger”.
Thibodeau did go deep into his bench with Mirotic and Snell, but the Cavs generally weak bench outscored the Bulls’ 17-14. The Bulls reserves shot a combined five for 19, Mirotic and Snell a combined four of 16 with James frequently signaling to get Mirotic into screen roll to make him take the switch.
“I thought Derrick put us back in position,” said Thibodeau “Obviously, the fourth quarter we struggled. We had the lead in the third, went to the bench, got hurt. Then we had to fight like crazy to get back and give us a chance at the end.”
It was an intense and active start befitting the circumstances, national TV, the Bulls on the verge of taking out LeBron James. The Bulls even had entertainer Kanye West for performances before the game and in a first quarter timeout. The Bulls rapped out with a spirited first quarter, a 28-26 lead with Rose and Butler combining for 18 of the points. The pair were brilliant in the game.
Kirk Hinrich with a three on his only shot and Aaron Brooks with a skittering drive even closed the first quarter with the last six points in the Bulls best reserve production of the game. But after taking a 37-29 lead early in the second quarter, the Bulls went flat for almost seven minutes without a score before closing within 49-45 at halftime.
This is where the loss of Gasol hurt as Gasol with his accurate jump shot can stop droughts like that, especially against the Cavs with the pick and pop game. With Gasol out, the Bulls went small often with Gibson at center, Timofey Mozgov thus having his best game of the series with 15 points and nine rebounds.
It’s uncertain if Gasol will return for Game 5. Noah was active and aggressive back at center, and while it enhances his defensive game, he remains little offensive threat. Though Noah did finish a few pick and rolls strong for dunks with Rose. But the Bulls lose offensively without Gasol. Still, it’s hard to complain with so many Cavs out or playing at half speed. This is not a series for Bulls injury excuses.
The Cavs also borrowed a page from the Bucks series to seemingly protect the defensively limited Irving and Shumpert. The Cavs continued to switch on pick and roll in sort of a matchup zone formation, leaving the Bulls again to travel mostly side to side and attempt long jump shots. It was one after another in that 16-0 Cavs second quarter run.
Then it was the Bulls turn and it should have turned the game.
Rose hit two bank shots early in the third. But after the Cavs went ahead 57-55 with about eight minutes left in the third quarter, a Gibson offensive rebound and slam dunk got the Bulls going on a 13-0 run with the Cavs shut out for more than seven minutes. In that stretch, the Bulls took a 68-57 lead with a minute left in the third quarter before James thundered in for a drive and then drove and handed off to Mozgov for a basket to close the third with the Bulls lead 68-61.
At home, the Cavs limping, James having missed 15 of 22 shots, the crowd as loud as it’s been all season, Rose having a terrific game with nine of 16 shooting by then, it seemed there for the taking for the Bulls.
But Smith got those threes; Butler and Rose scored 13 of the Bulls 16 fourth quarter points, just barely not enough. The rest of the team was one for six in a 26 percent fourth quarter and the Bulls were the ones this time a play or two short.
“We had our night, they had their night tonight as far as buzzer beaters; I’m sure everyone is enjoying it,” said Dunleavy. “Focus in on Game 5 and only Game 5, have to get that game. We’ve won there before so we know we can do it, make some adjustments and hopefully we can be a little better on the offense end, get some better shots and give ourselves some better chances. Makes for good TV, very entertaining; you have great players going at it. Great players make great plays and you’ve seen that in Game 3, in Game 4. So there’s a lot more basketball to be played. Our mindset going into Cleveland for Game 5 is we’ve won there before, we’ve got the horses to do it and hopefully we can pull it off.”
Following the game, Rose sat at the podium for his media session. His son, PJ, wearing a Cubs jersey and Bulls hat, sat on his lap, gleefully chattering without a care. Rose reflected that, which should be encouraging for the Bulls, confidence transcending chagrin. It was an opportunity lost, but it’s a series and three losses enables you to move on. The Bulls have two.
“Pau, the way that he scores, just his presence on the floor, the way that he shots the ball, rebounds the ball, is huge,” Rose noted. “But I think the guys who stepped in did their jobs and they played well. We lost the game, for sure, but I love our mentality. The way the guys were talking in the locker room; we know we had the opportunity to put them away and we didn’t. I’m not concerned at all. I think we’re a quick learning team. It hurts now knowing we had a couple of chances. The game is over with and we’ve just got to chalk this one up and make sure we’re prepared next time.”