Leading by 17 points during the fourth quarter and fresh off a Taj Gibson ejection, the Cleveland Cavaliers looked like they were going to roll to a comfortable win over the offensively challenged Chicago Bulls to take a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Cavaliers got their victory, but the 106-101 final score was much too close for comfort.
The lead was 17 points with a little less than nine minutes to go in the game, which was also right around the time the bipolar Bulls started hitting everything in sight––including four three-pointers and a half-dozen free throws––and launched a comeback that would bring them within two points of the Cavaliers at 101-99. Then, it was a classic case of the Bulls being the Bulls and LeBron being Lebron.
With his team down two points, Chicago’s Derrick Rose picked up a loose defensive rebound running full-tilt toward his basket. Of course, as fate would have it, Rose had hurt his wrist near the end of the third quarter and was obviously hesitant to shoot down the stretch. Instead of going right at a backpedaling Matthew Dellavedova––who, coincidentally was the instigator in the earlier incident for which Gibson was ejected––Rose swerved to the right baseline to throw up a floater, which received the vintage “trackdown smackdown” treatment from a charging James and was blocked into the stands:
Then, Chicago blew the ensuing possession on a rushed three-pointer by Jimmy Butler, but he quickly redeemed himself by forcing LeBron into a tough missed fadeaway at the other end with just 22 seconds left. But the Bulls failed to secure the rebound, and Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert grabbed it and kicked the ball to Kyrie Irving, who knocked down a pair of free throws to push their lead to four points, and that was about it for Chicago.
Considering how important that rebound was, the Gibson ejection proved to be quite a pivotal incident. Already missing Pau Gasol to a hamstring injury, the Bulls were left without one of their best rebounders, which surely evoked a happy sigh from the Cavs’ equally thin frontcourt. Both teams wound up playing small-ball lineups down the stretch, a style that Cleveland is much better suited for, even though Chicago made a run with its small group.
The ejection and instigating incident will surely be just another point of animosity between these two teams going forward, as Gibson was only tossed after Dellavedova put him in a leg lock when Gibson was getting up after the pair had been tangled up and fallen down. Initially it looked like Gibson had given Dellavedova a kick, but broadcast replays showed he was only trying to release his leg, however emphatically.
It was a tough break for Chicago, but considering the Bulls’ subsequent comeback, it’s impossible to know how it affected them. Meanwhile, the Cavs went cold late in the fourth quarter, only scoring four points from the 6:39 mark until Irving’s free throws to put the game away with 16 seconds remaining. While James had his best game of the series with 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three steals, he again went iso-crazy down the stretch, killing entire Cleveland possessions by simply holding the ball and hoisting a jumper, something he has been prone to do and not be effective with during this postseason.
Still, LeBron is obviously a concern for Chicago, as is Rose going 1-12 in the second half as he nursed his injury, as is a hobbled Irving finding a way to score 25 points on 16 shots, as is the fact that the Bulls were forced to run their offense through Mike Dunleavy and Joakim Noah for large portions of the game. And yet, they were still right there until the very end in a close game, just as they’ve been this entire series.
Game 6 will be back in Chicago, and obviously LeBron has no intention of letting the Bulls push this to a seventh game. For him, it’s a chance to prove that he can still carry a team and get Cleveland back to the Eastern Conference Finals since he last led the Cavs there six years ago. For the Bulls, their stakes could be much sadder, with the believed-to-be-lame-duck coach Tom Thibodeau potentially coaching his last game in Chicago, as well as Butler’s impending free agency looming this summer.