Bulls take homecourt with odds, inexperience working against them
CHICAGO -- The Heat have been the hungriest team for the last three games, but that could change now that the Bulls are facing elimination on their home floor.
"It's no different from what you do all season long," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "You learn from each game, so hopefully we can take things from this game, study, learn, correct, grow and get ready for the next one. And we're going step by step ... a great practice, a great shootaround and be ready for the first quarter. That's how we're thinking."
That's how they played throughout this regular season while winning a league-leading 62 games and sweeping their three games against Miami. Since their Game 1 win here, however, the Bulls have been unable to outplay or outwork the Heat, who have taken a 3-1 Eastern finals lead with shot-blocking and "multiple-effort" defense out to the perimeter, as cited by coach Erik Spoelstra.
The pressure to deliver a victory for Chicago remains on Derrick Rose, who is averaging 23 points but shooting 36.3 percent and committing a disappointing 3.8 turnovers to 6.3 assists a game this series. But how much more can he accomplish against a defense that has been able to swarm him in the lane?
One transition breakaway in Game 4 ended with typical frustration as LeBron James chased him down to block his drive in transition. "It's hard where a guy, he's running at top speed, he can easily catch up with you," said Rose. "It's extremely hard where a 6-8 guy can easily defend you."
James bottled up Rose in the final 10 minutes of Game 4 -- regulation and overtime -- and when the Bulls had two possessions that could have evened the series, Rose didn't try to beat him off the dribble. Instead he dribbled himself in position to miss fall-away jumpers over the taller James.
Inexperience may have had something to do with those decisions -- Rose has never been this deep in the playoffs with the ball in his hands to win the most important game of his life. But Miami's defense may have played a bigger role. Since that defense tightened after the Game 2 comeback of Udonis Haslem, Rose has had trouble converting layups as defenders have succeeded in poking away his dribble, grabbing at the ball going up, and contesting or blocking his shot. As Thibodeau would complain after Game 4, Rose hasn't been earning free throws for all of his trouble. So maybe he had good reason to doubt whether he could win the game by taking the ball to the basket.
In any case, those two lost possessions show the difference in the two teams. Miami's defense has defined the series, and Chicago doesn't have enough weapons out to the three-point line to stretch out and expose that defense.
"It speaks to how far we've come along as a team," said Miami forward Chris Bosh, who has averaged 24 points in the series. "Just to beat them once is not easy; to get them three times in a row and have them in this position -- it's an accomplishment in itself. But it's not good enough. So we have to keep going, and it's going to take more work in order to advance."
Dwyane Wade had a tough Game 4, leading to questions about his health, which would suggest he'll have to be more enthusiastic than ever to play well Thursday. The Heat will be trying to close out in five games to give Wade and others time to recover for a 2006 Finals rematch with the Mavericks. "That's the Bulls' defense and how this physical this series is," said Spoelstra of Wade's 5-of-16 performance in Game 4. "It's taken a toll on everybody, on both teams. It's as physical a series as I've been around and been in. But he always bounces back."
James has helped to define Miami's resilience. He committed a turnover with eight seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 4, when Ronnie Brewer drew a charge while James was trying to back in from the free-throw line. In the conference semifinals, James also lost the ball in the final minute of Game 4 at Boston, but recovered to defend Paul Pierce's potential game-winning shot -- much as he would do against Rose.
James described Game 5 as a must win. "We got one game to close them out," he said at practice Wednesday. "We've been in this position twice this year [against the 76ers and Celtics], and we've done a great job doing it. Different circumstances being on the road, but we look forward to the challenge."
Chicago has been stubborn throughout the series, giving itself a chance to win every game despite Miami's superiority down the stretch. The Bulls aren't likely to relent or collapse at home, but they need to augment the scoring of Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng -- who each had 20 points Tuesday -- with better shooting from the three-point line, where they were 6-of-24 overall in the previous game and have gone 24-of-77 (31.2 percent) overall for the series.