- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- It didn't feel as if the season was slipping away.
The Bulls leading 73-63 after two free throws by Luol Deng with 6:06 remaining in regulation, their fans were in celebration mode, victory stories being constructed, plane reservations to Miami for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals being secured.
Sure, Kurt Thomas missed a 22-footer following a steal by Ronnie Brewer at 5:20 of the fourth quarter. But on the other end, Derrick Rose thwarted a Miami fast break by forcing Dwyane Wade to miss the layup.
And yeah, Deng missed a 20-footer following a rebound, and after a Thomas rebound, Rose couldn't connect on a 3-pointer. But it still felt like the Bulls had the momentum when LeBron James missed one of two free throws, snapping his streak of 32 straight.
Yep, Rose's driving layup was then blocked by Chris Bosh, the ninth straight missed shot by the Bulls. But there was Thomas with the rebound, keeping the drive alive. And when Brewer nailed the 3-pointer to give the Bulls a 12-point lead at 76-64 with 3:53 left in regulation, it sure seemed like the knockout punch the crowd -- by now on its feet -- and the Bulls were looking for.
Apparently, it was exactly where the Heat wanted them.
Having outscored the Bulls 64-47 in the fourth quarters of the previous three games of the Eastern Conference finals and having consistently outplayed them down the stretch en route to a 3-1 series lead, the Heat struck once again Thursday night with a sudden force and decisiveness that stunned the United Center crowd, ended the Bulls' season and strengthened the notion that Miami's star-laden team can perform at will.
When the 83-80 victory was complete, sending Miami to the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, the Heat had concluded a 19-4 run that included 17 points, three 3-pointers, and two steals by James and Wade combined.
But so stunning was the comeback that even the Heat seemed dazed by it.
"We don't even know what happened," Wade said. "I'm not going to lie to you and say we do. I can't remember all the plays. I just remember the timeout, and Coach just looked at us and said, 'We've done this before. We've been in games where we've gone on a 12-0 or 14-0 run. Just believe.'
"We came out of that timeout believing if we get stops, we can give ourselves an opportunity. That's all I remember."
With Deng, Rose, Brewer, Thomas and Taj Gibson on the court, the Bulls had their defensive unit in place, seemingly poised with the 12-point cushion, to hold off a potential rally. And when James missed another rare free throw following the Heat timeout and Brewer followed with one of two foul shots to restore the lead to 12 with 3:14 left, the Bulls' lead still appeared safe.
In fact, after 10,000 simulations, Accuscore.com calculated that at that point, the Heat had just a 1 percent chance of winning the game.
To that point, Wade was 3-of-10 from the field with a whopping nine turnovers through three quarters. Not only did he not seem to be a threat, he was hardly worth keying on. All the Bulls needed was a few stops, a drive or two by Rose, and it was off to Game 6 in Miami.
"[Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau] was basically saying his thing -- 'score, stop, score,'" Gibson recalled. "We had a good lead. It was all about getting stops and who could close it out. But then we really couldn't get any stops and the momentum grew."
Wade would score on an 8-foot runner, follow with a steal off a Rose pass and score on a fast-break layup to pull the Heat to within eight at 77-69 with 2:36 left.
"They hit some tough shots, step-back 3s, runners, you can't take anything away from them," Thomas said. "They know how to put the ball in the hole and they showed it."
On the other end, the Bulls would miss on a 17-foot jumper by Gibson while James would nail a 3-pointer at 2:07 to cut the lead to five at 77-72.
At 1:46, Rose countered with a fadeaway jumper to put the Bulls back up by seven. But that's when Wade delivered the most damaging punch to the collective gut of the Bulls with a four-point play on a 3-pointer and free throw on the foul by Rose to make it 79-76 Bulls with 1:30 left.
James would knock down a 3-pointer and 20-foot jumper in rapid succession, first to tie, then to give the Heat their first lead since the first quarter at 81-79 with 29.5 seconds left.
"I don't think I've ever experienced that," said Thomas, a 16-year NBA veteran. "It seemed like they just hit one big shot after another. I thought we had a nice lead there, and it just slipped away. We let a golden opportunity get away."
James' shots came with Deng's hands in his face, Wade's with solid pressure from Rose.
"We wanted him to take contested 2s, contested 3s," Brewer said. "I guess you have to limit him but he stepped up and he willed his team to victory."
Rose, suffering through his fourth straight nightmarish fourth quarter, would miss on an 8-foot floater, get another pass picked off by James, and miss one of two free throws with 26.7 seconds remaining and the Bulls trailing by two.
"We got good looks for the most part; we just weren't knocking down the shots," Brewer said. "They were being aggressive, getting to the free throw line and knocking down shot after shot."
Still, the Bulls had a chance to force overtime following two free throws by Bosh with 16.8 left.
A Kyle Korver screen intended to draw attention on a potential 3-pointer and away from Rose failed as Rose's final 3-point attempt came in heavy traffic while time expired.
"At the end, it's on me," said Rose, who still finished with a game-high 25 points and eight assists. "Everything is on me. Turnovers, missed shots. Learn from it, that's all I can do."
"Our strength all year long has been finishing games," Thomas said. "I guess for some odd reason in this series, we struggled in the fourth quarter and down the stretch. But we're a young team; we've just got to learn not to make those mistakes."
A young team in shock late Thursday night.
"It's a tough one," Gibson said, shaking his head. "It doesn't really hit you yet that you're on vacation now."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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