CHICAGO -- If the Chicago Bulls don't win this series, and the Tom Thibodeau era ends after this season as many observers around the league expect, the fourth quarter of Sunday's 86-84 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers will serve as a reminder of what could have been.
After a Tony Snell 3-pointer with 42 seconds left in the third quarter, the Bulls held a 68-57 lead. On a day when offense didn't come easy for either team, the Bulls appeared to be in the driver's seat. Playing in front of a loud United Center crowd, all the Bulls had to do was tighten up down the stretch and make some shots against a Cavs team playing with a hobbled Kyrie Irving and without Kevin Love.
The game was there for the taking.
But as has been the case all season, the Bulls made things harder on themselves than it had to be. After it was over, after LeBron James splashed down a jumper right through the city of Chicago's collective heart, veteran Mike Dunleavy admitted what the rest of his teammates have known the whole season.
"We've been like that all year," Dunleavy said. "We just can't -- we can't step on people's throats for whatever reason. Just too many stagnant offensive possessions. It's just kind of been our Achilles' heel on the offensive end. It's not surprising. It's disappointing, but it's almost like nothing comes easy for us. We know we're going to be in a dogfight, and we're expecting it coming down to the last shot."
Truer words perhaps haven't been spoken in the Bulls' locker room all season. Thibodeau's team had this game. Without Pau Gasol (hamstring), the Bulls at first made enough plays to withstand their offensive droughts. But the problem is that when a team scores only 16 points in the final 12 minutes, it gets what it deserves. As Dunleavy noted, the Bulls' offense was not moving well in the final minutes, and that allowed Cleveland team back into the game.
"It's like two heavyweights just slinging it out," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "They hit, we hit right back, that's how the series has been going. ... We just got to be a lot smarter with the lead. Going into the fourth we had a good margin. We just blew it."
The solace for the Bulls comes in the sense that they know they've been consistently inconsistent all season. When fans are ready to write them off, they come together again. The players didn't look like a group that was ready to collapse on Sunday night -- they just looked like a group of guys sick of seeing the same movie over and over.
"We lost the game for sure, but I love our mentality," Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. "The way the guys are talking in the locker room, we know we had the opportunity to put them away and we couldn't. I know we have a lot of veteran guys, guys that know whenever we are in that situation again we just have to work on it and repair ourselves."
The Bulls have been doing that all season. Maybe that's why after failing to come up with another win on the biggest stage of the year, they didn't sound as miserable about it as one would expect. The Bulls haven't made things easy for themselves all season. Why would they start now?
"Hopefully we can keep improving," Dunleavy said. "Maybe our continuity improves and get a better understanding, continue to watch the film and improve. It's never easy for us, it's just the way this group is, and we'll keep battling."