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By Sam Smith | 5.13.2015 | 9:00 a.m.
And then there was one, or as the Bulls hope, two more games.
“I feel like we’re a confident group of guys,” Jimmy Butler insisted late Tuesday night in a subdued Bulls post game locker room after Cleveland’s 106-101 win to take a 3-2 lead in the conference semifinal series. “We like the chances we have; obviously we’ve got to win the next two, obviously. That’s what film is for. We’ll go and study and we’ll get back there and get the win on Thursday.
“I like the group of guys we have to take and make shots and guard the way we are capable of,” said Butler, whose 29 points, 14 in the fourth quarter, almost rallied the Bulls back to a miracle victory. “It’s all about getting this win on Thursday with the same group of guys we have. I won’t say we’re desperate, but we know what we have to do. Can’t lose, that’s for damn sure. I think we’re fine. Take care of business at home and then get Game 7 on the road.”
Yes, just like that.
But before then, the Bulls will have to:
- Find out about Derrick Rose. He had a huge start with 12 first quarter points as the Bulls bolted ahead 14-4 in the first five minutes. But with 5:48 left in the third quarter, Rose, according to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, aggravated a stinger that Thibodeau suggested wasn’t serious. But Rose continued to flex his right hand the rest of the game. He shot zero for eight thereafter to finish with 16 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals. “Just missed a lot of shots,” said Rose. “Just trying to loosen my arm a little bit, but no excuses. Just missed shots tonight. I love the way we fought back (from 17 behind with 9:27 left). I thought we had a crack at it. We just didn’t execute right.”
- Find out if Taj Gibson will be suspended. It seems unlikely and the consensus among NBA experts was Gibson probably should not have been ejected with 10:25 left and the Bulls trailing 83-73 after what initially appeared to be a kick at a prone Matthew Dellavedova. On further review, it seemed clear Dellavedova locked Gibson’s leg and Gibson was merely trying to pull away. But official Joey Crawford chose to issue a flagrant two and eject Gibson, who was showered and spat on by Cleveland fans as he left. “That’s what happens when you’re in Cleveland,” said Gibson. “I didn’t kick him at all. He just leg locked me. It got chippy at the end, of course. I tried to pull my leg back. It looked like I kicked him from the way and the force I was pulling my leg out. I have to deal with whatever the league passes out. But I didn’t kick him at all. I gave him a look like, ‘What are you doin’, this is basketball, this isn’t wrestling.’ Both teams kind of swarmed the situation and made it bigger than what it was. Nobody threw any punches. I’m just sad I couldn’t finish the game and help my team. I didn’t say anything to him. We all react. But this is basketball; we can’t fight. I don’t know why guys always take to that kind of fuss, like they’re gonna do something. I just tried to pull my leg back. When you’re on TV, everything always looks different. I started to stand up and he locked me. I just tried to get my leg free and it looked like I kicked him. But by no means did I try to kick him.”
- Find out if Pau Gasol can play. The high scoring center and the team’s leading rebounder this season sat out his second straight game with a hamstring problem. He told reporters pregame he was about 40 percent and remained uncertain about Game 6.
The team that won the rebounding battle won the fifth straight game in the series, and a few key rebounds eluding the Bulls proved fatal. The biggest one was after a 24-9 Bulls fourth quarter run to stunningly get within 101-99 with 1:18 left.
Kyrie Irving then missed a three from the right wing. Rose swooped in for the rebound and took off down court, the Bulls pushing the ball much better all game and finally opening up more easy shots without calling so many plays. But James came from behind and blocked out of bounds Rose’s attempt at a driving layup to tie with 48.8 seconds left.
James was spectacular with 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks. Irving added 25 points and Iman Shumpert 13. “The guy’s a great player,” said Thibodeau of James. “You can defend a great player very well and he can still make.”
Butler was short with a three to take the lead with 45.9 seconds left on the inbounds pass from Rose. James then attempted a step back jumper and missed. Joakim Noah got a hand on it reaching up. But he couldn’t control the crucial rebound with 22 seconds left.
“Big play, big play, big play,” Thibodeau repeated. “When you look at the game, it comes down to the rebound there, the open shot.”
The ball got tapped back, where Shumpert grabbed the rebound in a crowd with Gibson out and threw back to Irving with 19 seconds left. The Bulls had to foul and Irving made free throws to close out the game. Noah then turned the ball over on a pass to Butler to effectively end the game.
“Obviously we miss him,” Dunleavy said of Gasol. “He does so much for us. He can get down there in the low block and score, make jump shots and facilitate, We’ve got a stable of good players we feel are fully capable to pick up the slack; obviously, it hasn’t shown in the win column. But we don’t know his status or availability for Game 6. So we’ll be ready to go again and we believe we can win.”
And so that’s it now after almost eight months of basketball, injuries and intrigue, highs and lows, unlikely victories and crushing defeats. It’s down to the ultimate of clichés, one game at a time. Win and move on to try to win another; lose and pick up the pieces of a season of hope and despair.
“We’ve got to make shots,” an exasperated Thibodeau said at his post game media session when he would only remark “bizarre” in regard to Gibson’s ejection. “If you are wide open you have to make them. We scored 101; that’s not the problem.”
There were many good elements to the Bulls play Tuesday, though they did shoot just 39.5 percent and the bench was again ineffective. The reserves were a combined five for 18 and again were on the floor when the Bulls had their poorest run of the game, a 24-19 late first quarter Bulls lead after a hot start turned into a 35-27 deficit in five minutes.
“The second quarter was a big problem,” Thibodeau noted of four of 22 shooting in falling behind 54-44 at halftime.
But so was James, matching and blowing past the Bulls to start with 24 first half points on 10 of 12 shooting, James’ best offense of the series. After a quiet offensive first game with 19 points trying to defer, James realized how little help he really had. He’s averaging 30.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists the last four games of the series, three of them Cavs’ wins.
“We had one of those stretches again in the second quarter like we did in Game 4; probably cost us a little bit,” said Dunleavy. “We go through some of these lulls and they seem to do us in a little. Last game we had two stretches like that; this game I thought we had one. Hopefully, next game eliminate them and have none.”
It could be with the proverbial backs to the wall game Thursday Thibodeau simply goes with the starters all game, perhaps along with Kirk Hinrich, who was in that small group in the fourth quarter that rallied the Bulls back from the 17 point deficit in the last nine minutes. In this series, Aaron Brooks is seven for 27, Nikola Mirotic is eight for 28 and Tony Snell is four for 12. Though reserves are supposed to play better at home.
The Bulls did a better job of finding Dunleavy, who had 19 points on five of eight shooting, Rose often throwing ahead and the wings running before the Cavs defense could set.
“We want to try to get out in transition,” agreed Dunleavy. “I thought we did a better job of that in the second half. It got us back in the game; we got some threes, some good looks. Hopefully, more of that to come in Game 6.”
Rose despite his shooting woes late, which seemed obviously a result of his hand, wrist or arm injury, was all over the court rebounding, passing and making steals while playing a game most 42:30.
“We had a couple of chances to tie it; just didn’t knock the shot down,” lamented Rose. “But I loved the way we fought back and the way we started the game. We had a stretch in the second quarter where we kind of let them creep away; fought our way back.
“It’s about finding a way to win games right now,” said Rose. “I think everybody is going through it, not only us but everybody in the NBA. End of the year you just have to find ways to win; that’s the only thing that matters at the end. Give your all; that’s everything. Make sure we just stay consistent with our ball pressure, just keep trying to make it hard on LeBron and make sure we keep the others down as far as scoring.”
James’ play carried the Cavaliers as he started the game with one post up after another, repeatedly testing Butler, who drew a troubling second foul with 4:44 left in the first with the Bulls leading 18-10. The game quickly turned as Snell went in for Butler and James went on the attack, the defense trying to help and Shumpert and Irving getting threes off offensive rebounds to turn around the Cavs’ deficit in a matter of a few minutes.
“I love going against Jimmy,” said James. “I think it brings out the best in myself. I try to reciprocate it back to him. Two fouls for Jimmy and he sits down. I felt like at the start of the game I was in a good groove, anyways. It didn’t matter to me. Not tonight, not the way my approach of the game was, not the way I was feeling. Then he sat down for a little bit.”
For his part, it was just going to work for Butler, who nevertheless played another 41 minutes.
“It was no different (with LeBron),” Butler said. “He just made some shots. I feel like he’s come out aggressive for each play; I just can’t foul early like that. We can’t let that (second quarter) happen; no matter who’s on the floor we have to rebound and continue to play hard. We can’t allow them to outhustle us like they did for a little bit at the end of the first and the start of the second.
“I have to do a better job of keeping him in front,” Butler said if no one else did. “Make him shoot jumpers; just keep my body in between him and the basket. We’ve got to continue to get out in transition and get easy baskets. But more than anything we’ve just got to guard. Got to rebound; missed a key rebound late. We can’t let them outhustle us; I think that’s what it came down to.”
It’s remarkable how these games no matter the circumstances have basically come down to a play in the waning seconds pretty much all but Game 2. The last three have been classics, a pair of buzzer beaters and the Bulls with a shot to take a lead in the last minute after trailing by 17 moments before. It’s been great stuff, if not as satisfying for the Bulls being on the wrong end of the win or go home demand.
The Bulls started the second half fast as well with a big third quarter from Dunleavy, who’d been shadowed a lot by James in the festival of cross matching in this series with the Cavs continually seeking to rest certain defenders. They’d done it some with Irving as well given an apparent leg injury, though he looked good Tuesday. But finally passing ahead instead of waiting for the play calls, Dunleavy got space off James for those third quarter threes and 11 in the quarter. But Rose suffered the dead arm/crazy elbow like feeling. It was in a loose ball scramble with Irving midway through the quarter. The Cavs again got a boost from J.R. Smith and scored seven straight field goals to close the third, going ahead 80-68 before Mirotic threw in a 50 footer at the buzzer. Rose stayed in the game and had his hustle if not his shot. There was frustrating building as Noah got a technical foul, Mirotic got in James’ face and James celebrated a three-point play with a vivid fist pump.
Then came the incident with Gibson early in the fourth quarter when Gibson laid a hard screen on Dellavedova, who then ran inside Gibson to get rebounding position. Gibson came up behind, Dellavedova sort of slopped forward and Gibson fell over him. Initially, it appeared Gibson kicked at Dellavedova. But it then was clear as Gibson was trying to get up that Dellavedova put him in a leg lock. It was so obvious Chris Webber on the TNT broadcast and Mike Fratello and Sam Mitchell on NBA-TV all agreed it should not have been an ejection because of Dellavedova’s action. It seemed shocking after the officials had the chance to review they’d still eject Gibson. It’s difficult to say how much it affected the final score since the Bulls then made their best run of the game.
“I don’t know how much impact it had,” said Dunleavy. “We just had a little bit of desperation at that point. Taj getting kicked out, time running out on us, I think we were down pretty big at that point. We were kind of making a last stand.”
But maybe Gibson is back in for defense and rebounding with that last shot and lost offensive rebound that perhaps decided the game. Smith, however, said afterward he saw it as a dirty play because, well, “I know something about dirty play.”
Difficult to dispute that, if not his view.
“Just from the replays above it looked like they got tangled up below and I felt Dellevadova had his leg kind of locked up,” noted Dunleavy. “These (Cavs) guys have gone through it with (Kevin) Love getting locked up in the other series. You get locked up like that as far as I’m concerned all bets are off. You do whatever you’ve got to do to get off somebody.”
A little more conspiracy theory for the NBA anxious to see the great James in the Finals? Though the Bulls did attempt more free throws than the Cavs.
Hinrich has continued to shoot well, five of six on threes in this series. He made one, Dunleavy made another, then Butler with a pair, and he needed just one more. But it came up short.
Just like the Bulls?
“We feel like we can play well against this team,” said Dunleavy. “We don’t need a big fourth quarter comeback to believe we can go into Game 6 and win. Our main focus right now is getting this last win at home; maybe you do get a little momentum with that fourth quarter. We’ll take whatever we can get.”