In this practically decisive Game 4 meeting of the last two MVPs, the Heat won 101-93 in overtime because experience has taught James to do what Rose can't quite accomplish -- not just yet. In earlier years, LeBron had his own playoff nights when he was not quite able to push his team through, when too much was demanded and his team wasn't quite talented enough and there was too much to learn in too little time.
That is where Rose and the Bulls find themselves now, trailing 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals and needing a win at home in Game 5 on Thursday to create hope for winning an almost inconceivable three straight games against Miami.
"Tonight definitely was on me," said Rose. "I had two opportunities to end the game. Couldn't do it. If anything, I learned from it. Too many turnovers. Really was my fault, but I'm going to learn from it."
Rose had the ball in his hands three times over the final 70 seconds of regulation and came away with just one point. With 1:10 remaining, he missed 1-of-2 free throws that left the Bulls wedged in an 85-85 tie. Neither side would score again before overtime. With 6-foot-8 James guarding him over the last 10 minutes, Rose was forced to jab-step twice before missing a fall-away jumper with a half-minute to go. Then Rose came out of a timeout with eight seconds remaining, tried to crossover James and air-balled a 20-footer at the buzzer.
"LeBron played good defense," said Rose. "It was on line but just a little bit short."
Consider the time frames of their opposing careers. Rose is here ahead of schedule. No one imagined that he would be MVP by now while championing his Bulls to 62 wins. Their roster was in transition, and their perimeter shooting and overall scoring will be the next issue to be addressed after this season. But Rose wasn't interested in any of that after he went 1-for-9 from the three-point line -- he scored 23 points on 27 shots overall -- and created seven turnovers to his six assists. Miami's team defense was committed to cutting off his lanes to the basket, poking away his dribbles and deflecting his passes.
"It makes you play harder," said Rose. "I know that if you want to be great, you're going to want pressure."
He responded in the first half with three impressive dunks, including a pair of two-handed slams at the end of the second quarter to elevate the Bulls and notify their hosts that the series outcome was still in doubt. In transition, he jetted past Mario Chalmers, and then the next time down -- this time in the halfcourt -- Rose left Chalmers pinned to a Joakim Noah screen and flew past Udonis Haslem before finishing through the foul of Joel Anthony.
"He breaks down our defense, splits pick-and-rolls and he gets in there against probably our best shot-blocker in Joel Anthony and dunks the ball for an and-one," said James. "Those plays are spectacular. That's why he is who he is."
But James' advantages of eight years in the league, two previous conference finals and this highly difficult regular season in Miami all served to conspire against Rose. "He was attacking the basket ... he hasn't been able to get to the line like we thought he would," said Thibodeau after watching Rose make six of seven free throws. "There's a lot of contact and he hasn't gotten calls."
But James was getting those calls to make all 13 of his free throws, which served as a measure of his experience. He has learned to elevate his play at both ends of the floor -- rarely appearing to relax, which enabled him to run his team at one end and prevent Rose from running his on the other.
"I love defense much more than I do [offense]," said James. "Defense is our staple."
Just as impressive has been James' improved ability to shoot under pressure, whether at the line or in the flow of the game. A pair of free throws by Luol Deng (20 points and eight rebounds) brought Chicago within four points in the final minute of OT. James then dribbled down the clock, pump-faked Deng and nuzzled his right shoulder into Deng's side while making a 17-footer as if no defender was there at all. Throughout these playoffs James has hit one big shot after another, and at his size what can be done to stop him?
In the flow of LeBron's game, the Heat received a breakout 5-for-8 performance from Mike Miller (12 points and nine rebounds) as well as the continuing growth of confidence from Chris Bosh (22 points on 12 shots), who before last month had never won a playoff series and is now averaging 24 points in the conference finals.
Miami was able to win despite a 5-for-16 night by Dwyane Wade, who nonetheless recovered to can a jumper that put Miami up 91-88 with 2:08 left, and then helped protect the lead with a steal and two blocks in the final 65 seconds. "I think I was the only person in the arena that was happy we were in overtime," said Wade. "I was happy because I knew I had another five minutes to make up for the first 48."
This series is more than a showdown of MVPs. And yet, much as it was for James in earlier postseasons against Boston or Orlando, the Bulls will be asking Rose to dominate Game 5 in order to make up for their deficits elsewhere. James will remember what that was like. His recent play, as well as his move to South Beach, are the result of those experiences.