Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls had the Miami Heat beat. All night long, in Game 5 of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals, the Bulls had played suffocating defense, forced Miami into bad shots, and capitalized at the other end. As the game unfolded and the Bulls extended their lead to double figures in the fourth quarter, minds began to wander.
"You know, the Bulls could totally win in Miami on Saturday," we started to think. "Both those games went right down to the wire. If they win down there, coming back home... Miami could be in trouble."
'Course, as NBA fans and Heat-haters turned over those scenarios in their head, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were just biding their time. What happened next was less like watching a team choke than watching a team get strangled. It'll go down in NBA history as one of the most memorable playoff games of all time, but I'm not sure it technically qualifies as an instant classic. It may take a few years before we can all enjoy this one again.
It's not like Chicago had been clinging to a lead all night. They controlled the game from the first quarter on, and in the second half, they just looked better than the Heat. Every time Miami cut it to five or six, the Bulls would extend the lead back to 10 or 11. It seemed like Chicago's night.
I was watching with a couple of friends, and as the fourth quarter unfolded, we stopped paying attention altogether. You can only talk so much about a 10-point game between two teams shooting below 40 percent. So discussion turned to Memorial Day weekend, all the awful reviews for that Hangover sequel, our miserable friends in law school, and anything else we could think of to keep things interesting.
Then Wade scored four quick points to make it an eight-point game with 2:30 to go, and we all woke up. Then LeBron hit a three to make it a five-point game, the whole room got a little more tense.
"They couldn't... Could they?"
When Derrick Rose came back with a jumper to push things back to seven, the answer looked like no. The Bulls were answering again, pushing things back out of reach. Then Wade hit his four-point play, and the rest of the way, the room went was pretty much silent. You know what happened from there. The only thing we could say was "Wow" or "F--k."
We've never seen anything like it in the playoffs. It's one thing to blow a big lead, but not with two minutes left. The Bulls were 53-0 in games where they led by double-digits in the fourth quarter, and statistically, Miami had a 1 percent chance to win once the Bulls went up by 12 with 3:14 to go.
But once Wade hit that three (and got a verrrrry generous whistle for the four-point play), you could see the dread creeping in. It happened fast, but it felt like slow motion. Watching the Heat win is always frustrating as hell, but this was worse. Not only did the Heat win, but the Bulls lost in a way that would make a sociopath wince.
They didn't just get their hearts ripped out. LeBron and Wade made their incisions one by one and took things slow. Possession by possession they went to work, methodically dissecting the Bulls, pulling out a heart that was still beating and leaving it on the United Center floor with their victims still in shock.
For the Heat, it's the best example yet of what LeBron and Wade can do together. As I wrote elsewhere today: "for the first time all year, the 2011 Miami Heat were every bit as surreal as their origins--two of the best five players in the NBA, joining forces to form an unstoppable duo of untold explosiveness. In Game 5, the dream became reality."
For the Bulls, it was a microcosm of the whole series, in general. They lost because they didn't have an answer for Dwyane Wade and LeBron James on defense, and because Derrick Rose couldn't do it himself on offense. The final play said it all: The Bulls tried to run Kyle Korver off a pick, the Heat defended it, and Rose had to settle for a desperate heave over a LeBron James and Udonis Haslem double-team. LeBron blocked the shot, and Rose never even had a chance.
It's true: You can look at the silver lining in all this and say that Rose is still 22 years old. He'll learn from his mistakes, and Chicago has plenty of cap room to get him help. Maybe they'll even spring for an assistant coach to help Tom Thibodeau on offense.
There's a chance this game will be the start of bigger and better things in Chicago. But the illusion that good defense and hustle is enough to beat Miami is a thing of the past. Same with the idea that Derrick Rose can win a title playing one-on-five. And good lord... Talk about learning the hard way.