MIAMI — Facing a 22-4 deficit to begin Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, it was easy to leave the Bulls for dead.
But as they’ve done all season, Wednesday night at the American Airlines Arena, with few in attendance besides themselves believing that they stood a chance, the Bulls, on the brink of elimination, were resilient.
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“It’s sort of the story of the season,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said afterwards. “I told these guys this yesterday. Obviously we’re disappointed in losing the series, but I was never disappointed in our team.
“Our team fought hard all year long. There was no quit in them. We were disappointed in our Game 4 performance and I felt we would come in and give it everything we had today.”
And that’s what his team did, recovering from their disastrous start to get within single digits by the end of the opening period, then seizing control of the game and maintaining a lead through the fourth quarter.
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“They came out and they hit us hard and you knew you were going to have to withstand the early surge, but I knew that we would fight back, that we wouldn’t go away, so you battle back, try to get it inside 10,” Thibodeau explained. "Once we got it inside 10, we just kept going. We had a lot of guys step up, started playing some defense and started moving the ball, then worked our way back into it. “
Nate Robinson chimed in: “I told my guys, ‘All it takes is one bucket.’ We get one, slowly keep getting good shots and the shots are going to fall, and later on in that quarter, they did. We stuck together, gathered our composure and we fought like hell. We came back and made it a game.”
Joakim Noah echoed: “It was definitely a fast start, but we kept fighting. We just stayed in it.”
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Boozer was dominant on the interior.
“Just to be aggressive, to win. Do whatever it takes to win,” he said of his approach, accompanied by his two young sons in the postgame press conference, alongside Noah. “Being down in this series, we fought hard. I thought we came out after the deficit, playing much better defensively, played much better offensively.
“Just one play at a time and slowly, but surely, we got a couple more stops to end the quarter, got a couple more baskets,” continued the power forward, who notched game-highs of 26 points and 14 rebounds. “[Thibodeau] just said, ‘Go quarter by quarter, play each possession hard.’ We did, but it’s more what we said to each other. We basically said, ‘Play for each other, grind it out together,’ and we did. We didn’t quit, we grinded it out. We had chances. We just fell a little bit short.”
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Robinson made big shots, as he’s done the entire postseason. Veteran Rip Hamilton, a forgotten man in the playoffs until the Bulls’ Game 4 loss Monday in Chicago, scored 15 points in a season-high 35 minutes. Jimmy Butler, the second-year swingman, played yet another complete, 48-minute game, guarding league MVP LeBron James and chipping in 19 points of his own.
But down the stretch, Miami stormed back and with Chicago native Dwyane Wade — who was playing through a knee ailment and struggled previously in both the game and the series — making clutch shots down the stretch, the Heat regained the lead and had the Bulls down three, 94-91, in the final minute.
But with 26.4 seconds remaining, the Bulls had an opportunity to either tie the game with a three-pointer or score, foul and potentially have a chance to win the game.
On their final possession, Robinson had a look at a contested triple, missed and after a Boozer offensive rebound, Butler ended up with the ball, and his shot to send the game into overtime was also off the mark, and although Robinson ended up with it, there wasn’t enough time to make a difference.
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“I just missed the shot. I missed a great look, Nate missed a great look,” Butler told CSNChicago.com. “It happens, but everyone wishes we could have them back, so we could make them.”
Thibodeau added: “Either or,” when asked about whether his strategy was to get a quick two and foul or try to tie the game.
“The open floor, I thought was our best chance and oftentimes, it’s the scramble. You want to see the quick swing, so you live with it,” he went on to say. “You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. They’re a great team. They play to win, play for each other, so they’re not going to beat themselves. You’ve got to beat them. You’ve got to play well for 48 minutes.”
While there are no silver linings in a loss, the Bulls can hold their heads up high, knowing that the effort that symbolized their entire tumultuous season was symbolized in the way it ended.