CHICAGO -- The Bulls were trying to turn back the clock to 2011, and back to 2010 while they were at it, and for the longest time they were succeeding. They were trying to extend their season by pushing LeBron James back out to the three-point line. They were shoving him -- literally -- back to the old days when he would go four-for-15 in the kind of playoff game his team needed him to win.
The difference between the James who lost to Boston and Dallas in successive postseasons and the James who pulled out Miami's 104-94 win in Game 3 of the Eastern semifinal was laid out for everyone to see as the Bulls leaned into him down the stretch. A deep three, a hockey assist, a beat-the-clock drive: He wasn't making those plays two or three years ago. But on Friday he was making them in the final two-to-three minutes to give the Heat a 2-1 series lead.
Coach Tom Thibodeau was angry the Heat attempted five more free throws (30-25) than his Bulls. He had plenty to be frustrated about, but the free throws should not have been at the top of the list. Anyone in his position couldn't help but wonder where his team might have stood if Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng -- and never mind Derrick Rose -- had been available. The Bulls have been stubbornly triumphant in their refusal to give up when no one has given them a reasonable chance of stealing more than a couple of games against the defending champs.
Thibodeau should have also been frustrated that he came so close to this master heist before the Heat, and James in particular, were able to articulate a response in the closing minutes. Throughout the game's midsection they had been tongue-tied, and it started in the final minute of the tight opening quarter when Nate Robinson (17 points, seven assists) had been knocked down on a hard foul while driving at Chris Andersen. Andersen was beginning to sit up when Joakim Noah came running over to shove him away, earning a technical foul before a horde of both teams and referees arrived.
Three minutes later James was dribbling across half court when backup Bulls center Nazr Mohammed lunged from the right to wrap both arms around him like Brian Urlacher. It was a poor impression of the onetime Bears linebacker as Mohammed bounced off him and landed sitting up to see James pointing to his own chest in disbelief, under the apparent impression that referee Joey Crawford had whistled a foul against him. James was just beginning to plead when Mohammed lunged again, shoving hard at James to knock him on his backside and send him sliding upright for several feet as if he'd drawn a charge.
It was an extremely rare physical outburst in a league that has essentially drummed out that element. "From my angle," said Thibodeau, "I just saw a guy basically flop. And I'm going to leave it at that."
It wasn't Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich. But it wasn't a flop, either. "I didn't think it warranted an ejection," insisted Thibodeau. But from the instant Mohammed -- who had been averaging a negligible 11.3 minutes in the playoffs -- went at the world's greatest star for a second time, there was never any doubt he was going to be ejected.
The only doubts were experienced by the Heat, and they came when Mohmmed's tactic appeared to have the desired effect. James was felled in the third minute of the second quarter, and, including an ensuing stint on the bench, he had practically no impact on the game until he generated four free throws in the final minute to edge Miami out to a 52-50 lead going into the half. For much of the second half he would have a hard time plugging himself back in, and so the Bulls were able to prevent their guests from extending their lead beyond five points as they entered the final four minutes.
James was playing as if experiencing a flashback to the postseasons that were sandwiched around "The Decision," before he broke through with the championship that gave him the confidence to do what needed to be done at the end of this game. Until then, however, he could not score consistently from the perimeter, and when he pushed the ball inside there was nowhere for him to go. On this night, when Dwyane Wade could provide no more than 10 points on seven shots, the Heat were leaning heavily on Chris Bosh (20 points and 19 rebounds) to draw out Noah defensively while helping Miami win the glass.
"We're going to get ready and commit to playing better," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, "because we're going to have to play better."
This has been a rare series in this newly enlightened era when players from both teams have wanted to throw punches at their opponents and, occasionally, at their teammates. The shovings by Noah and Mohammed happened entirely within that context, and the Heat didn't know how to conduct themselves in an environment so blatantly hostile. It was as if the wind had been knocked out of them emotionally -- as if they were numb, while the Bulls were engaged.
To focus on the Heat's stats -- shooting 50 percent from the field while committing no more than a dozen turnovers -- was to have no idea just how hard this night turned out to be for them. Every Bulls starter played at least 42 minutes and scored 15 points or more in a sensational sum-of-the-parts team effort. In comparison to the rotation of the Heat, which may send four players to the Hall of Fame, the depleted Bulls looked like a high-end Euroleague team, with Noah (15 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks) and Marco Belinelli (16 points and six assists) carrying the proper passports with Thibodeau demanding incessantly as if in a Serbian accent.
They were maxing themselves out while the Heat were hanging on, its second-half frustration building through James. He missed a corner three, and as he set up defensively cursed himself, "Damn! Damn!" While backpedaling in transition defense and trying to shout instructions he was almost trampled as Butler ran with purpose to clear the lane. A frontcourt turnover by Mario Chalmers earned an over-the-shoulder glare from James even as he sprinted back defensively, unable to prevent Jimmy Butler from finishing the layup.
Chalmers had his own issues. When his drive and kick flew out of bounds, he turned and scowled at Shane Battier, who was clapping to try to encourage a more upbeat response. But others weren't in the mood to make nice: After Taj Gibson had attacked the basket for a three-point play in the third quarter, Bosh leaned down and screamed a tirade at Chalmers, who looked to James for help; but James was backing up Bosh's point of view. That's when Noah stepped in between them along the lane clapping and shouting to emphasize that his Bulls had the Heat right where they wanted them, divided and almost conquered, for one night at least. "We had some careless turnovers, we weren't playing hard enough on defense, they were getting some easy baskets -- those were things we were saying that we couldn't give up," said Bosh. "Those conversations were healthy. I know it might seem heated looking at it during the game, but if we aren't meeting those standards, we hold each other accountable."
The worst of it arrived out of nowhere when the 6-foot-8 James flew past Belinelli in transition -- only to have his layup blocked off his left shoulder by Robinson. It was the ultimate underdog play.
When James wasn't being blocked by a 5-9 point guard, he was settling for flat-footed jumpers while the Bulls were attacking the basket for a 44-28 advantage in the paint. "There were times when we could show a little more poise," said Spoelstra, before quickly acknowledging that Thibodeau's defenses have constipated many contenders over the years.
The Heat were protecting a four-point lead when James returned to the present. With 2:33 left he caught an inbounds pass from under his own basket and went straight up with a deep three in the vicinity of Noah. He drilled it for a 93-86 lead and turned away with a loud scream that Noah tried to pretend he hadn't heard. When LeBron crossed midcourt to set up defensively, he repeated the scream for the sake of the other half of the arena.
Before he made that shot, James had gone 4-for-15 with 15 points. (He finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.) On the next possession reversed the ball out of a trap to Bosh, who relayed it onto Norris Cole, who went 6-for-7 off the bench overall while making all three of his threes, including the final shot that earned a chest bump from James and another yell.
The Miami lead had dwindled to six when James dribbled down the clock to its final grains before bursting past Butler and crossing to his right to finish a difficult three-point play over Noah. His momentum carrying him to the end of the stands, LeBron looked up and screamed once more. A fan expensively seated in the front row stood and bowed to him theatrically.
In case the Bulls fans hadn't heard, James was making it loud and clear: This is 2013, a second championship is his to lose, and losing no longer appears to be among the options.