In the Wake of the News
10:59 PM CDT, May 15, 2013
MIAMI — If a special Bulls season defined by perseverance and patience was going to end Wednesday night, it was going to end like this.
With the defending NBA champion Heat feeling threatened until the last possession and lucky to escape a 94-91 series-clinching victory over the depleted Bulls.
With coach Tom Thibodeau raising his arms and screaming in his baritone voice at every call LeBron James got down the stretch because he is LeBron James. With Nate Robinson hitting 3-pointers that kept 20,025 Heat fans on the edge of their seats and Chicago in a state of suspense until his last one with 15.9 seconds left, which would have tied the game, missed during a frantic, final possession.
With the Bulls squeezing every ounce of potential out of an overmatched roster until the Heat's superior talent and depth prevailed in the fourth quarter.
With a haggard Bulls team gathered around Joakim Noah at midcourt one final time, as the Heat celebrated around it, feeling more honor than anguish, more pride than despair.
It sure wasn't going to end like the night started.
Not by looking early on like a team that had quit on Thibodeau. Not by getting blown out for the third time in four playoff losses. Not by lacking confidence and energy and everything that had made Chicago so puffy-chested about this team in the postseason.
So after falling behind 22-4 more than halfway through the first quarter, something inexplicable happened. Something that the Bulls have done so often when backed into a corner but never under these circumstances. Something that sportswriters and commentators fail miserably when they try to put it into words.
How does one describe heart anyway?
"It's always about winning and losing,'' Noah said. "But I'm really proud of the character of this team.''
As anybody who loves sports should be. The Bulls responded to lead the Heat at halftime by outscoring them 49-25 after their horrendous start. They became the first team in the last 15 playoffs to overcome a deficit of 18 or more points and lead by six or more at the half.
"I knew we would fight back, we wouldn't go away,'' Thibodeau said.
They didn't because Carlos Boozer showed no amnesty on whoever guarded him, giving the Bulls the performance they had been waiting for with 26 points and 14 rebounds. Boozer attacked the basket, wanted the ball and played with purpose that isn't always obvious. His aggressiveness on offense almost made up for his failing to step up and impede Norris Cole's momentum-changing fourth-quarter dunk. Almost.
They didn't because Robinson took the court like Game 4 never happened, like the guy who missed all 12 shots two nights earlier was traded for the player responsible for carrying the Bulls throughout the playoffs. That player felt it again, scoring 11 in the second quarter when the Bulls stormed back and 21 overall.
They didn't because Jimmy Butler played 48 minutes and matched James when it mattered most. No Bulls player benefited more from the postseason experience than Butler, who scored 19 and limited James to the quietest 23 points a superstar could score.
"This,'' James said, "was one of the toughest close-out games I've had.''
They did it without typical production from Noah, who managed a meager three points in what must be his least favorite NBA arena. They did it with Rip Hamilton playing well enough for the second straight game to question if Thibodeau's stubbornness prevented him from using Hamilton, buried in the doghouse, earlier in the series. Hamilton came off the bench for 15 points in 35 minutes, his entry coinciding with the Bulls' climb out of a deep hole.
The score got so out of hand so quickly that the Heat stopped playing the Bulls and started preparing mentally for the winner of the Pacers-Knicks series. Once their lead grew to 18, the Heat started treating Game 5 like a two-hour public scrimmage.
Meanwhile, the Bulls remembered it was an elimination game.
"Play the Chicago Bulls and you wouldn't expect any other finish,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
True to form, the Bulls never considered losing a game nobody else expected them to win. Before tipoff, Thibodeau cut off a reporter who asked whether Derrick Rose would spend the summer in Los Angeles rehabilitating his knee.
"We're not even thinking about that right now,'' Thibodeau snapped.
Then the Bulls went out and proved it against a team nobody likely will beat.
They did it by giving all they had when they had nothing left. In pro sports, all that matters are wins and losses. But in losing a game and a series, the Bulls won immeasurable respect.
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