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Bulls let one slip away but aren't backing down

CHICAGO -- One night, it’s Derrick Rose banking a 3-pointer in for the win. Two days later, it’s LeBron James nailing a long, fadeaway jumper for the victory.

Two games and two buzzer-beating, game-winning shots by each team’s best player.

Rose's heroics won Game 3, and James’ shot evened the series by giving the Cavaliers an 86-84 victory. All we were missing was Old Man Paul Pierce calling, “game.”

“I could tell you one thing: I know the NBA office is having a great time with it,” James said. “And the fans. The fans and the league office are having a great time with it.”

As for the players, their respective training staffs are going to be busy Monday.

The Bulls got another great game from Rose (31 points on 11-for-23 shooting), and they held James, who badly rolled his ankle in the third quarter, to 10-for-30 shooting from the floor.

But once again, Chicago failed to pull away from a team in turmoil. It’s the identity of this team. The offense is often unimaginative and liable to go into a long funk, while the defense isn’t as great as it was in years past.

The Bulls are a very good team that is far too gracious with the lead.

The Bulls gave up a 16-0 run in the second quarter and a 23-5 run in the second half, both of which turned burgeoning leads into head-scratching deficits. They missed Pau Gasol (out with a hamstring strain), who can score inside and stretch defenses on pick-and-roll plays.

"Just too many duds for offensive possessions," Mike Dunleavy said. "We've had issues with that all year. Especially here in the playoffs, our ball movement has been slowing us down, and we kind of get stagnant."

That has to change Tuesday -- or Rose has to score 40. Either way.

The Bulls know they had a chance to go to Cleveland with a 3-1 lead, but you didn't get the feeling the Bulls were drained from the loss. James hitting a tough game-winner? You live with that.

It wasn’t an emotional locker room, though at least two Bulls, Nikola Mirotic (1-for-9 shooting in 18:25) and Jimmy Butler (19 points on 8-for-21 shooting), didn’t want to talk to reporters, and Taj Gibson lost his temper when a reporter asked if the Bulls could have defended James’ shot better. (“It was a tough shot," he said. "You saw him fading away from the 3-point line. What [do] you think we should’ve [done] better?”)

Overall, the Bulls seemed disappointed but self-assured of a bounce-back. I'm not talking empty words about hustle and heart, but rather real belief they can beat James on his home turf.

Asked if the team missed a golden opportunity in losing a lead to the banged up Cavs, Joakim Noah was succinct.

“Nope,” Noah said. “We’re disappointed we didn’t get the win. It’s 2-2. We can win in Cleveland. We’ve done it before, and it’s going to be great.”

There is evidence, such as Game 3, that this team can learn from its errors, come out and steal a road game Tuesday.

“We lost the game, for sure,” Rose said. “But I love our mentality. The way guys are talking in the locker room, we know we had the opportunity to put them away, and we couldn’t."

The Bulls are far from perfect, but the good news is the Cavs aren’t a great team. This isn't vintage James, either.

With Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving (12 points, 2-for-10 from the field, 8-8 from the free throw line) hobbled, James has been inefficient (37.7 percent shooting and 2-for-19 on 3-pointers) as he tries to carry the load by chucking shots up all game.

James won it, but if J.R. Smith doesn’t get hot in the fourth quarter (11 points on 4-for-4 shooting), the Bulls have a two-game lead. As Tom Thibodeau noted, he'll have to re-examine some of the close-outs on Smith.

As we knew all along, this series is about James and Rose. Who can do more to will his team to victories?

As for the coaches, if Thibodeau can’t outfox David Blatt, he’s in job trouble and should have an existential crisis. I would argue Blatt’s coaching should give the Bulls added confidence, but not with assistant coach Tyronn Lue and James around to save Blatt from himself.

Blatt had quite an ending. He had to be held back by Lue as he was calling a timeout he didn’t have, after Rose tied the game on a layup with 9.4 seconds left.

No official spotted it. That technical foul would have given the Bulls a free throw and the ball.

After James missed a shot in traffic, the Cavs got a free chance to huddle during a review on the other end. Blatt wanted James to inbound the ball with 1.5 seconds left.

“To be honest, the play that was drawn up, I scratched it,” James said. “I just told Coach to just get me the ball. We’re either going to overtime, or I’m going to win it for us. It’s that simple. I was supposed to take the ball out. I told Ccoach there’s no way I’m taking the ball out, unless I can shoot it over the backboard and it goes in.”

Coach LeBron faked going for the lob, then cut past Butler to the corner, where he got Matthew Dellavedova's inbounds pass and fired a 21-foot prayer right in front of the Bulls' bench.

The Cavs mobbed him, just like the Bulls mobbed Rose after he hit his 3-pointer to give the Bulls a tenuous 2-1 series lead on Friday.

“A day and a half ago, we were just happy about hitting the game-winner,” Taj Gibson said.

As both teams have learned, a lot can change from game to game. These are the playoffs, and for the first time, the Bulls are in the middle of a tough playoff series against James, their most hated opponent. He's not running roughshod over them, and they're not snatching his title as King of the East.

Both teams will make adjustments for Tuesday, but I’m guessing we’ve got three more games left.

Last-shot wins? I'm fine with that.