All men must die.
That saying from Game of Thrones is one of the first things that came to my mind as Game 4 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls came down to the wire on Sunday afternoon. The play was physical and guys were dropping like flies. Kevin Love is already out for the season. Pau Gasol missed this game with a hamstring injury. Kyrie Irving was hobbling around on one foot. LeBron James went down hard with a turned ankle. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert were limping around at one point. Taj Gibson suffered a leg injury.
In the end, after the Bulls erased a late seven-point deficit, it was LeBron who played the hero with a dagger buzzer-beater over the outstretched arm of Jimmy Butler one game after Derrick Rose did the same thing to Cleveland:
For the Bulls, this felt like Roose Bolton sticking a dagger into the heart of Robb Stark at The Red Wedding. Chicago just had no business losing this game at home, even with Gasol out with his injury. James shot 10-of-30 and turned the ball over eight times. Irving shot 2-of-10 and was basically a non-factor in the second half. Shumpert was 1-of-6 from three as the Cavaliers shot 5-of-25 as a team from long distance. The Bulls led by 11 points after a Tony Snell three with 42 seconds left in the third quarter. And yet, they still lost.
Several key droughts killed Chicago. The Bulls went up by eight points in the second quarter before an extended scoring drought helped the Cavaliers go on a 16-0 run to take an eight-point lead of their own. Chicago fought back and dominated the third quarter when Cleveland went on a similarly long scoring drought, and with LeBron and Kyrie hurting, it looked like the Bulls were well on their way to a 3-1 series lead.
Only, Chicago shot 5-of-19 from the field in the fourth quarter as the offense fell apart. Rose and Butler both had some huge baskets in the final few minutes as the Bulls made their late charge, but the duo combined to shoot just 4-of-13 in the final frame. The Cavaliers’ defense did a nice job limiting good looks in the fourth quarter, with Timofey Mozgov doing a whale of the job protecting the rim.
On the other end, Smith saved Cleveland with some hot outside shooting. Smith nearly matched Chicago’s offense on his own in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting in the frame, with three of those makes coming from long range. Smith only scored 13 points for the game, so basically all of his production came in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers needed him most. The production from Mozgov and Smith were a necessity with James putting forth another inefficient performance and Irving being just about useless.
16 of James’s shots came from outside the paint in this one, and he made only four of those shots. For the series, he’s just 11-of-50 on shots outside the paint, per NBA.com. But one of those makes was Sunday’s game-winner, and now the Cavaliers have home-court advantage again.
Rose, despite struggling at times in the second half, had another phenomenal game, scoring 31 points on 11-of-23 shooting. This was the second straight game he went over 30 points, and his late three-pointer and layup to tie the game in the final seconds were brilliant. Butler also nailed a huge step-back three-pointer during the Bulls’ comeback, and he did another heck of a job guarding James throughout the game.
But the non-Rose and Butler Bulls managed just 34 points on 13-of-45 shooting. Gasol was missed badly in this game with Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Joakim Noah struggling offensively. Those three combined to shoot just 7-of-28 from the field, with Noah again missing a bevy of layups. And missing them by a lot.
While this game certainly feels like LeBron James giving the Bulls his regards, the series is far from over. The Cavaliers are a wounded team, and they did catch a break in this game when head coach David Blatt didn’t get called for a technical when he tried calling for a late timeout he didn’t have. This series is very evenly matched, and while Cleveland has the edge right now, Chicago can get the momentum right back in its favor with another win in Cleveland in Game 5.
But the Bulls’ offense needs to wake up if they want to win this series. Chicago shot under 40 percent in both Games 3 and 4, and it’s tough to win playoff games when your offense consistently goes through long scoring droughts. Much credit goes to Cleveland’s defense for clamping down, but the Bulls have really stunk it up at times. The inconsistency is a problem that has plagued Chicago all season, and it cost them a very winnable Game 4.
All men must die, and we’ll see if the Bulls’ heartbreaking loss on Sunday will ultimately prove to be the death of them.