HOUSTON — Michael Carter-Williams found himself in an unlikely position at the most unlikely time against the likely Most Valuable Player front-runner, not giving up any space on a crucial possession.
Being called upon in the absence of Jimmy Butler, the adrenaline was flowing after scoring four straight on one possession to tie the game against the Houston Rockets in overtime.
Jostling for position, James Harden appeared to throw himself on top of Carter-Williams, an awkward looking play that sent the league-leader in free throws attempted to the line and Carter-Williams to the bench permanently with a sixth foul.
It wasn't the deciding play, but certainly a definitive one as the Bulls let a winnable game slip away in overtime, falling 121-117 to the Houston Rockets as Harden scored 42 points with 12 rebounds and nine assists.
Taj Gibson joked the Bulls were going to "call the referee hotline" while Rajon Rondo quipped to Gibson not to say anything that would make his next paycheck lighter with a fine.
"He gets so many calls his way, it's ridiculous sometimes," Gibson said. "It was some rough calls late, but we had some guys who learned a lot tonight."
"That was a big call, a tough call. But we had a chance to win the game. The game goes on. The refs can't overturn it. James blatantly jumped on his back."
"That's a great question," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, diplomatically living up to his nickname of "The Mayor" as he wanted no part of criticizing the refs but the frustration was obvious.
"I'll have to go back and look at it. It looked like they were both fighting for position and Harden ended up on Michael's back. I don't know."
The Bulls were incredulous, both with the call and themselves as they let an eight-point lead in regulation slip away after clawing back from a 17-point deficit in the first half.
In other words, the game and finish was similar to their topsy-turvy, unpredictable, inspiring and maddening season to date.
"I was proud of the way our guys went out and fought with Jimmy out of the lineup," Hoiberg said.
Clearly, having Butler on the floor would've meant things going a lot smoother late when the Bulls needed a closer, and especially in overtime when their offense went through fits and spurts as they scrambled through possessions to get open shots.
It's almost a wonder they were in it through the overtime period because they were left to lean on Wade, who played 36 minutes, to make every play. Wade didn't hesitate when asked about how the team looks without Butler on the floor.
"Everything," Wade said. "Everything is centered around Jimmy. He guards the team's best player. We go to him on the offensive end. A lot changes. But that's not the reason we lost tonight. We gotta find a way to win that."
The foul occurred with 2:02 left in overtime, and the Bulls took a 117-116 lead on a Dwyane Wade jumper the next time down. But with a team playing on a slim margin for error with their best player out, their chance to win flew out the window when Carter-Williams sauntered in frustration to the bench after a surprising performance, scoring 23 points with nine rebounds and six assists in 35 minutes — many of them shadowing Harden to varying degrees of success.
"I felt confident enough to start him against Harden," Hoiberg said. "And I thought he battled and made him work for everything he got. Obviously, he's a heck of a player and made big plays down the stretch and overtime."
Taj Gibson scored 20 with six rebounds, Wade scored 19 as the Bulls shot 48 percent from the field and had 23 assists, taking advantage of the Rockets' defensive mishaps before things got hairy late.
But the Bulls had their opportunities to close the game before Harden used some chicanery to get Carter-Williams fouled out, and before his step-back jumper and fall earned a foul call on Paul Zipser with 36 seconds left in overtime, giving the Rockets a 119-117 lead.
Holding an 84-79 lead to start the fourth quarter, the Bulls' ball movement and opportunistic play turned into a 106-98 lead when Wade hit a step-back triple over a reaching Trevor Ariza with 3:19 left.
On the previous possession, Wade went baseline for a reverse dunk that harkened back to the player who would've went play-for-play with Harden years ago.
But Ariza got his revenge, stripping Wade on the next possession and getting a layup with two minutes left, making it a winnable game for either side.
"We had it, the opportunity," Wade said.
They kept the other Rockets' shooters in check, with Ryan Anderson missing his six 3-pointers and Ariza going two for six. Harden went five for 13 as the Rockets hit 16 of their 43 attempts.
Eric Gordon came off the bench to hit five triples, scoring 21 in 33 minutes, as the Rockets took a 50-33 lead before the Bulls stomed back.
Gibson, Paul Zipser and the Bulls bench helped them get back into the game, trailing by 11 at the half and storming the Rockets in the third, 32-19, looking as if they would take advantage of another team on a back-to-back.
But Harden scored 13 in the fourth and almost ended it in regulation with a step-back jumper after the Bulls squandered a possession with 27 seconds left.
What looked like opportunity only gave the Bulls five more minutes of false hope and a little regret, letting one slip away, putting them back below .500.
"If we continue that focus and continue that as a unit," Wade said. "The last 31 games will be fine."