When Derrick Rose’s three-pointer splashed through the net as the buzzer sounded, it did more than win the game. He changed the narrative.
Everything to that point had gone according to script for the Chicago Bulls’ previous to engagements with LeBron James-led teams.
The Bulls came out and socked the Cleveland Cavaliers in the face to steal Game 1 on the road. That had happened the previous two times, too. But on each of those occasions the Bulls lost the next four.
So, when Cleveland took the Bulls down, essentially in the first quarter of Game 2, it looked like things were going to follow their previous course.
True to form, the Cavs took an early 24-18 advantage in the first frame of Game 3. Tom Thibodeau had been typically stubborn in refusing to play Nikola Mirotic at the 4, but happy to play Kirk Hinrich at the 2.
Almost as if it were a move born of sheer desperation, at the start of the second quarter, Thibodeau finally played the bearded Montenegrin, and the Bulls responded well. Mirotic scored 11 points on six shots, and the Bulls won the frame 29-25.
The Bulls and Cavs traded punches all through the third and fourth quarters. Neither team was able to get any distance from the other. It all had the air of the previous matchups, where the Bulls would fight hard but go down in the end.
When J.R. Smith hit the three to tie the game, it seemed like a loss was inevitable. The Bulls were going to fall in overtime, just like happened in Game 4 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals when Rose missed a shot with 1.9 seconds left and James guarding him.
Or in Game 5, when Rose missed the free throw that would have tied the game with 26.7 seconds left, mandating that Keith Bogans foul Chris Bosh. Bosh sank his freebies, the Heat went up by three, and then Rose had his three-point attempt blocked LeBron.
The bad calls and bad luck that seem to follow the Bulls around were present. Pau Gasol had a hamstring injury and wasn’t going to be back for the rest of the game.
The missed calls piled up. LeBron James got away with an obvious charging call on Rose. Butler got called for a clean block on a James shot. James didn’t get called for a hit to Jimmy Butler’s head on a late three-point attempt. An obvious goaltending call got missed (the second one in three games).
Rose had not hit a field goal in the clutch yet, though he was driving into the paint and got a couple of calls, as well as a three-point dime out to Jimmy Butler.
Even the out-of-bounds play seemed pretty typical. It was the sort of thing that worked when the Bulls play other teams, but never against a James-led team. As the ball left Rose’s hand and the time clicked off the clock, two things were certain: It was going to miss, and the Bulls would lose in OT.
And then the world changed. The ball went glass and parted nylon.
The Bulls were up 2-1, just like that. It was a euphoric moment. The outwardly ecstatic Noah embraced the inwardly rapturous but stank-faced Rose. The UC was bananas. Twitter exploded. It was storybook. Rose’s three years of injuries swept away with one fantastically awkward, beautiful, feel-good and slightly lucky shot. If you were a dry-eyed Bulls fan, you weren’t a real Bulls fan.
Suddenly the Cavs were the ones answering questions about what went wrong. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that James’ team would win the series. “Kyrie Irving’s feet are hurting” they excused while declaring they weren’t making excuses.
But it is one, and it’s a valid one. And more importantly, it’s raising questions for the rest of the series. With the Cavs already limited to all-iso, all the time, things are going to get tougher without Irving playing his best.
The Bulls may face an injury question of their own, with Pau Gasol, but the Bulls are built better to survive that loss. If anything, it means more Mirotic, whose net rating this series is plus-24.7, per NBA.com/Stats.
And this wasn’t a case of the Bulls pulling out a trick. They’ve won nine of 12 quarters. Their starting five is plus-12 per NBA.com/Stats. Rose has outscored Irving 69-46 while both players have been on the court. In the Bulls two wins when Butler is James’ primary defender, James is shooting 13-of-37 with 12 turnovers.
The Bulls aren’t ahead of the Cavs 2-1 because they got a few breaks. They’re ahead because their starters are playing better and their stars are playing better. They didn’t just win games, they’re winning games. They’re actually beating LeBron. And because it’s 2-1, they know it.
Even the bank being open on that shot, for whatever Karma is worth, is almost like a sign. Maybe the breaks can go Chicago’s way. For once.
Rose’s buzzer-beater wasn’t just game changer, but a series changer. That one “flicka the wrist” enables both the Bulls and their fans to believe.
And that matters for Game 4. There will be a palpable electicity when the teams square off Sunday afternoon. If that shot had not gone in and the Bulls had lost in overtime, the energy would be entirely different. The fans could have beaten the Bulls before tip-off.
It’s still only two wins. The Bulls can’t count this over until they’ve won four, but they can’t win four until they’ve won three and they couldn’t do that without two.
And even if they win, they’re only halfway to the finish line. No one is looking ahead of anything. But they’re halfway over biggest obstacle in their way for the last half-decade, and that’s closer than they’ve ever been. And that’s enough to change the narrative.