The Cleveland Cavaliers tried very hard to blow Game 4. LeBron James simply wouldn't let them. The Cavaliers' star atoned for a late-game blunder, hitting a corner jumper at the buzzer to give Cleveland an 86-84 win that tied their series with the Bulls at two games apiece.
This looked like Cleveland's game before a crunch-time meltdown allowed the Bulls to tie the score. First, James committed an offensive foul trying to deal with a Bulls trap with 20 seconds remaining.
Then, Cleveland's defense, which was so good for most of the game, allowed Derrick Rose to waltz into the lane for the game-tying layup. With no timeouts, James sprinted the length of the floor, but had the ball knocked out of bounds with 0.8 seconds left. Cleveland had no timeouts, but a referee review that reset the block to 1.5 seconds allowed them time to draw up the game-winning play. James shoved Jimmy Butler aside, got himself some daylight and hit the shot.
The victory comes after a slogfest in which both teams showed the effects of Friday's intense Game 3. This game happened just 40 hours after that one ended, and both teams struggled to generate enough energy to score consistently. The Bulls had multiple long scoring droughts, and the Cavs went ice cold to end the third quarter and the game. Cleveland shot just 38 percent, while Chicago shot 35 percent.
The Bulls came out firing offensively early on, scoring at will in the first quarter and early part of the second thanks to Rose and Jimmy Butler. But after hitting 37 points with nine minutes and 17 seconds remaining in the second quarter, the Bulls didn't score again for nearly seven minutes, allowing the Cavaliers to score 16 straight points. The Cavs slipped slightly at the end of the quarter, but still took a four-point lead into halftime.
The Bulls responded early in the third quarter, nailing perimeter shots, shutting down LeBron James and eventually cracking Cleveland's tough defense. Chicago quickly tied the game, then pulled ahead by 11 on a Tony Snell three with under a minute to go in the quarter. The Cavaliers failed to get anything going offensively, especially after LeBron James turned his ankle on a fast break.
Yet Chicago couldn't put Cleveland away. The Cavaliers went on a 16-2 run that began during the end of the third quarter, taking a three-point lead on a James hook shot with just under seven minutes remaining. The Bulls couldn't get anything going near the rim and resorted to contested jumpers that all missed.
It was only Cleveland's own offensive ineptitude that brought Chicago back into the game. A three by Rose cut the lead down to three with under two minutes remaining, and Butler's stepback jumper gave Chicago a shot with 25 seconds left.
3 things we learned
1. LeBron James is still struggling despite his game-winner
James won the game for Cleveland, but it wasn't a superlative offensive performance. He went just 10-for-30 from the field and was hounded by Butler's defense. The Cavaliers' star has to carry such a heavy load without Kevin Love and it has affected him all series. The Bulls continue to force him into low-efficiency shots that he occasionally hits but more often misses.
In the past, James could overpower Butler anyway, but he's clearly lost a half-step from where he was at his peak. That's a problem for the Cavaliers because they don't have anywhere else to turn, especially because Kyrie Irving is still not 100 percent due to a foot problem.
2. Timofey Mozgov was Cleveland's savior
The Bulls did plenty to shoot themselves in the foot, but the Cavaliers' much-maligned defense also has a lot to do with the Bulls' offensive struggles. The Cavaliers sealed off the basket, forcing the Bulls to beat them from the perimeter. They couldn't.
Thank Timofey Mozgov for that effort. The Cavaliers' big man has struggled in the playoffs, but did his job in a big way in Game 4. Whenever the Bulls attacked the hoop, Mozgov was there to put his arms up and contest the shot. Sometimes, his long arms forced misses. Sometimes, his mere presence prevented shots from even being attempted. Either way, he dominated the most important real estate on the floor and saved the Cavaliers on an afternoon when both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were struggling.
3. Chicago's offense was an abomination
Still, Chicago should have done better. The Bulls failed to get any fluidity in their offense and moved side-to-side far too often. Chicago attempted just 12 free throws and missed countless shots around the basket, which was a symptom of the lack of activity.
The Bulls badly missed Pau Gasol's ability to operate in the mid-range area and drag Cleveland's big men away from the basket. Without him, Mozgov and Tristan Thompson could hang back on Chicago's pick and rolls and not worry about the consequences. Foul trouble by Mike Dunleavy also hurt, and Nikola Mirotic failed to duplicate his superlative Game 3.