At some point the powder keg was going to explode, after four games of “almosts” and “maybes," the Bulls and Cavs were bound for a meeting of the minds and bodies.
And LeBron James was due for an explosion, with the only question for the Bulls being could they absorb the haymaker and fight back.
Well, James took his shots and the Bulls buckled but didn’t fall, standing emboldened yet undermanned in a hostile atmosphere in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Bodies were thrown, legs were used as weapons of defense and aggression as tempers reached an all-time high for this series.
[MORE BULLS: Bulls' Nikola Mirotic hits half-court buzzer beater]
When the dust settled and the feet were planted firmly back on solid ground, the Bulls found themselves not able to do enough down the stretch in a 106-101 loss, putting them down in the series, 3-2, and 48 minutes away from elimination.
James emerged from his inefficient slumber, putting up 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three blocks, three steals and no turnovers in a tour-de-force 40-minute performance.
It was expected he wouldn’t continue the trend that had him on track for his third-worst shooting playoff series of his career, and he attacked the Bulls, seemingly all night long.
“The guy’s a great player,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You can defend a great player very well, and he can still make (shots). I thought we were a step late with our help (defense) today. We’ve got to correct it.”
[WATCH BULLS: Derrick Rose: 'I love the way we fought back']
Jimmy Butler, James’ primary defender, rebounded from a foul-plagued first half to score 29, including a triple with 1:18 left to cut the Cavaliers lead to 101-99.
And after resiliently fighting from a 17-point deficit with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bulls had a chance to take the lead as both of their big guns had chances to apply serious pressure to the buckling Cavaliers.
But Derrick Rose, in the midst of missing 11 straight and 15 of his last 17 shots, saw his fast break layup blocked out of bounds by James with 48.8 seconds left, and Butler’s open triple off an inbounds pass came up short when play resumed.
“I love the way we fought back,” said Rose, who started off hitting five of seven but finished 7-of-24. “I think we had a crack at it, we just didn’t execute right. We had a couple chances to tie and didn’t knock shots down.”
[WATCH BULLS: Thibodeau: We gotta play for 48 minutes]
Even then, they allowed an old bugaboo to emerge on the ensuing possessions, not finishing defensive possessions and giving up turnovers at the most inopportune times.
Iman Shumpert came up with an offensive rebound off a James miss with 19.9 seconds left and the Bulls trailing by two, as the Bulls’ best chance at completing a rousing comeback ended at the most fundamental of mistakes — controlling the glass.
“Big play, big play,” Thibodeau said. “When you look at the same, it comes down to the rebound there, the open shot.”
On the Bulls’ final meaningful possession trailing by four, Joakim Noah tried to thread the needle to Butler with James guarding him, passing it out of Butler’s outstretched arms and out of bounds with 11.9 seconds left.
James and Kyrie Irving, who though supposedly battling injuries to his right foot and left knee looked healthy as ever on the way to scoring 25 points with five assists, helped kick start the Cavaliers to big leads in the first half — and then the Bulls kicked back.
Early in the fourth quarter, Cavaliers reserve Matthew Dellavedova and Taj Gibson got tangled up on the floor, and Gibson took exception to Dellavedova locking Gibson’s foot with his legs. Gibson kicked out, angrily, starting a scrum that brought all participants on the floor to break it up.
The officials ejected Gibson, and his presence was sorely missed on that final defensive possession, but it helped put the Bulls back in gear after a couple disastrous stretches in the second quarter where the bench again came up lame.
Without Pau Gasol, who missed his second straight game with a strained left hamstring, opportunities opened up for Nikola Mirotic, Aaron Brooks and Kirk Hinrich, but none truly had an impact, leading to more droughts.
[SHOP BULLS: Get your Bulls gear right here]
The Bulls shot just 39.5 percent from the field compared to the Cavs shooting 50 percent, yet made eight more free throws and didn’t turn the ball over much (11 times).
Mike Dunleavy took advantage of having a hobbled Irving guard him after Rose exploited Irving at every chance early in the game, with his triple and 3-point play pulling the Bulls to within six with 4:55 left.
“There’s a bunch of weird mismatches going on in this series because LeBron’s playing the four,” Dunleavy said. “When you get a point guard on you, you want to take a little advantage of it.”
The Bulls made Cleveland sweat after it appeared the Cavs would run away with it, but it’s the Bulls now 48 minutes away from another offseason full of “what ifs” and “what could’ve beens” if they don’t turn things around Thursday.