MIAMI — With their backs against the wall, the Bulls recovered from a horrendous start to Wednesday night’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at American Airlines Arena and delivered a performance emblematic of their hard-knocks, injury-riddled campaign.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, as they fell to their rivals, the defending-champion Heat, 94-91, as Chicago native Dwyane Wade’s fourth-quarter spurt sparked Miami’s comeback effort and ended the Bulls’ season, despite gutsy outings from the likes of Carlos Boozer, Nate Robinson, Jimmy Butler and even Rip Hamilton.
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After All-Star center Joakim Noah won the opening tip, Marco Belinelli’s air-balled jumper seemed like a bad omen for the Bulls in an elimination game.
“We’ve been challenged all year. We’ve always bounced back and that’s what we’re anticipating tonight. We need our best game,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said before the contest. “We’re only focusing on Game 5 and the first quarter and that’s what we’re locked into right now.”
That wasn’t immediately the case for the coach’s team, as the Heat went on to reel off 10 consecutive points before Butler got the visitors on the board, but it didn’t matter, as Udonis Haslem of all people, scored eight points and the hosts made their first seven shots from the field before their guests could score again.
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Meanwhile, Robinson picked up two quick fouls, leading Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau to insert the veteran Hamilton into the contest, though that didn’t do much to turn things around, as Miami’s onslaught persisted and the home team started the game ahead, 22-4.
But despite the stellar play of league MVP LeBron James, Butler and Boozer helped slice into the deficit and a Robinson three-pointer — his first make of the evening, after going 0-for-12 in Game 4 — made it a single-digit affair and at the conclusion of the opening period, the Bulls had narrowed their disadvantage to a 30-21 margin.
Boozer, who shot 6-for-7 from the field in the first quarter and was a big reason why the Bulls finished 9-for-12 after their horrific start, but although he didn’t start the next frame, the backcourt duo of Hamilton and Robinson helped the visitors cut it to a four-point game, not even three minutes in.
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A Butler triple brought the Bulls within a single point, 34-33, as the halfway mark of the second quarter approached, then took their first lead, 38-36, on a Butler trey with 4:46 left before halftime.
The Bulls maintained their slight edge for the remainder of the period, though Heat All-Star big man Chris Bosh began impacting the game by stretching the defense with his extended range and Wade, playing through a knee ailment, started to get it going.
At the intermission, however, the Bulls clung to a 53-47 advantage, as the trio of Boozer, Butler and Robinson led the way, with the latter hitting a contested three-pointer with 0.5 seconds left in the stanza, stunning the home crowd.
“I have respect for them and like I said before the series, these are tough guys. They take on their coach’s toughness,” Wade said before the contest. “Obviously it helps that they dislike us. But what they did in the first round, to win that tough series and to come in here and win Game 1 — and they’re going to continue to fight — so we have to put this team to sleep.
“They’re not going to lay down, they’re not going to give to us at all, so obviously a lot of respect for them, for whatever they go through. They don’t cry about it, they just keep pushing and like Thibs says, they’ve got enough and that’s how you’ve got to feel when you’re having injuries or going through certain things,” continued the All-Star guard, who was raised on Chicago’s South Side before moving out to south-suburban Robbins, Ill., and attending high school in nearby Oak Lawn, Ill. “You’ve got to feel like listen, ‘Whatever I can bring, whatever we can bring is enough,’ and hopefully it is.
After the break, the Bulls held on to their lead and even extended a bit, as Butler propelled them with his ever-developing scoring arsenal.
In their usual fashion, the visitors pounded the offensive glass — one possession contained three offensive rebounds, as well as a Boozer technical foul, ostensibly for complaining about the lack of a whistle against Miami, as the Heat called a timeout to slow their guests’ momentum — and while that seemed to garner the defending champions’ attention, the Bulls continued to plug away.
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Butler’s burgeoning confidence was evident, as he hit an array of shots and showcased an increased aggressiveness offensively, which helped the Bulls fight through their third-quarter ball-security issues.
“A guy like Jimmy Butler has gotten a great opportunity,” Thibodeau said of the swingman’s emergence. “He’s really come on for us, so I think that’s a byproduct of guys being out.”
The Bulls’ lead even swelled to double digits, albeit briefly, as Boozer helped shoulder the scoring burden and heading into the final stanza, the visitors led, 77-69, with Hamilton and Robinson also making timely contributions.
Miami ran off five consecutive points at the outset of the fourth quarter, forcing the Bulls to play the game at a faster tempo than they desired, getting into transition for easy, crowd-pleasing opportunities.
The Bulls tried to desperately hang out to their slim advantage, but Miami was able to regain the lead on a Norris Cole jumper just before the midway point of the period and after Hamilton snatched it back for the Bulls on the subsequent possession, the diminutive Cole threw down a surprisingly vicious southpaw dunk over All-Star center Joakim Noah, a recent All-Defensive first-team selection.
Wade began to assert his dominance as the contest entered its stretch run, hitting clutch shots for the hosts to help extend their edge against the clearly fatigued Bulls, who began to experience one of their periodic scoring droughts — a shot-clock violation put a major damper in their efforts — though a Robinson triple would make it a three-point game, 94-91, with under two minutes to play.
With under a minute remaining, the Bulls had a final opportunity to tie the contest, but a heavily-contested Robinson triple was off the mark and after an offensive rebound, Butler missed another game-tying attempt, finally ending the season of one of the most gutsy squads around.