They are in the NBA Finals after being outpassed and outrebounded Thursday. They were outscored from the field, the three-point line and the paint. They were outrun in transition and outplayed for all but the final 183 seconds, which is all it took for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to steer their team to an ugly but ultimately breathtaking 83-80 win over the top-seeded Bulls in Game 5 of the Eastern finals.
"There hasn't been a whole lot that's been normal or traditional," said coach Erik Spoelstra of this long season and this abbreviated outcome. After the 9-8 start and the five-game losing streak in March that was extended by these 62-win Bulls, the Heat's trio of All-Star scorers have galvanized to form the NBA's most explosive and impressive defense. James, the most intimidating of slashers, has turned himself into Larry Bird at the free-throw and three-point lines. No one can accuse Bosh of being afraid after he averaged 23.2 points while shooting 59.2 percent for the series.
Wade, who needed treatment for an ailing left shoulder before and during the game, and who had nine turnovers in 27 minutes, responded with a 10-point (4-of-5), turnover-free fourth quarter. Afterward, he gave credit to the togetherness that developed after a long season of working through hard times. "I'm a person who really believes that other people give you confidence," said Wade, who finished with 21 points (6-of-13). "When LeBron threw me back the ball -- after me struggling so much and he threw me back the ball -- I was like, well, I have to make something happen."
Many of us expected this team to reach the NBA Finals, but not by so roundabout a route. This was like a team of power hitters that wound up winning with pitching. "It feels like the world is caving in on you, but you have to stay together," said James, who led the Heat with 28 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three steals. "That's what we've been doing this postseason so far. A lot of work to be done still. When you have those times when it's just us, those are the ones that help you when you get in situations like not only tonight, but in the postseason."
Miami has gone 27-6 since early March, including an 8-2 stretch in the last two rounds against two rivals -- Boston and now Chicago -- that had beaten the Heat six of seven times during the regular season. Now they'll be preparing for an NBA Finals Game 1 on Tuesday in Miami against the Mavericks, who swept the two-game series in November and December against a Heat team that looks very little like this one. "It will be a totally new challenge," said Spoelstra of the contrast between the Bulls and Mavs. "We'll have to probably forget a lot about what's happened here, because the keys will change. Our confidence has been building. It's quite well-documented during the regular season we struggled in close games, and the reality is we had to go through a process."
Emerging from that process is the late-game leadership of James, who converted 38-of-44 free throws in this series to go with the frightening number of deep jumpers and huge threes he has made this postseason to convert tight games into convincing wins. It's as if he'd grown bored with dunking and decided to turn himself into Dirk Nowitzki.
Where would the Heat be without the late-game shooting of James and Wade, without the four blocked shots by Chris Bosh to go with his 20 points and 10 rebounds? At the very least they'd be headed back to Miami for a Game 6 against Chicago this weekend. That Miami was flat for most of this evening was not entirely unexpected, given the relentless energy it had expended to win the previous three games.
The Bulls likewise had nothing going, trailing 15-12 when Luol Deng (18 points on 17 shots) woke them up late in the first quarter by intercepting James's frontcourt pass at the source and setting off downcourt. Knowing James was timing to block his shot in pursuit, Deng went up fast with a dunk and landed hard on his back. Though Deng missed the ensuing free throw, the impact on Rose was inspiring nonetheless. All of a sudden Rose was knifing through the defense to score or create as the Bulls ran out to a 25-18 lead, and thereafter their advantage would expand to as many as 13 points.
But that wasn't going to be enough, as they missed too many open threes and contested layups in continuation of a series-long trend. When they look back on this game, they'll realize a sequence in the third exposed the difference between them and Miami.
The Bulls were up 58-47 when James attacked an open lane to the basket and Carlos Boozer (five points and six rebounds in 26 hopeless minutes) blindsided him with a backhanded forearm across the nose that knocked LeBron flat. The loud hockey roar of the crowd sat James up straight as he held his nose, and he walked away without expression as the officials assessed Boozer with a Flagrant 1 foul. The larger meaning that would come out of this exchange was that the Bulls would react emotionally, while for James and the Heat it was all business.
James made both free throws, and teammate Mario Chalmers would make another after he had been run over by Deng while screening for James. A Kyle Korver turnover was followed by a Joakim Noah foul against Bosh that was further inflamed by a Taj Gibson technical. That six-point run, earned entirely at the line, enabled Miami to cling within 62-57 entering the fourth.
"We had some tough calls go against us and then we backed up," said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. "You can't back up against these guys."
What happened at the end of the fourth was inevitable for Chicago and almost incomprehensible for Miami. The Bulls were ahead 77-65 with 3:14 remaining when Wade (eight points), James (eight) and Bosh altogether outscored Chicago 18-3. "Me and D-Wade said we want to watch the last four minutes of the game and see exactly what happened," said James. "We don't honestly know what happened. It went so fast."
It began with Wade driving straight at Rose for four straight points. A James three-pointer brought it down to five. Wade nailed a three as Rose needlessly slapped his forearm, giving Wade a four-point play. Now it was 79-76 with 90 seconds left.
"At the end it's on me," said Rose, who had 25 points on 29 shots to go with eight assists and four turnovers. "Everything is on me -- turnovers, missed shots, fouls ... I wasn't tired. I was just making dumb decisions and it cost us this game."
Of course that wasn't true. In fact he was in the same hopeless position James, Wade and Bosh had been before they joined together -- he was one MVP trying to beat several stars at their collective best. Rose, who had converted a spinning, high-difficulty leaner moments earlier, was unable to finish another difficult runner. At the other end he watched James deliver another three, and it was 79-79 with 1:01 remaining.
By now Rose wasn't able to complete a simple lateral in the frontcourt. It was stolen by James, who dribbled down the clock as defender Ronnie Brewer watched helplessly, then strode left to drain a keytop jumper. Coming out of their ensuing timeout trailing 81-79 with 29.5 seconds left, the Bulls were greeted by a standing ovation. But there was no confidence behind it. It was farewell applause.
Rose drove right at James with no hope but to draw the foul. He missed the second free throw hard off the back iron.
Bosh made two free throws to stretch it out to the final score. It ended when Kyle Korver picked up his dribble 30 feet from the basket as seconds escaped like balloon air until Rose got it back with nowhere to go. He dribbled around the arc in front of 6-foot-8 Udonis Haslem. James blocked his shot from the side.
In that moment as the buzzer sounded, Rose and James were facing each other the way boxers pose, the heavyweight against the bantam. One will seek to improve as James has done, and the other will continue to pursue a goal of which he, Wade and Bosh could never be certain of achieving this season. Even now they still can't be sure of beating Dallas in the Finals, which is a good thing for them. See how well they respond to doubt?