Bulls

Bulls stave off elimination with emotional win over LeBron James' Cavaliers

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Bulls stave off elimination with emotional win over LeBron James' Cavaliers

The atmosphere was emotional, nervous and unsure inside the United Center, as the Bulls were staring down playoff elimination of a different kind from a familiar and haunting face in LeBron James.

James has put the Bulls out of their misery more times than Bulls fans would care to remember and with the way the Bulls have played recently, James sending them throbbing into the offseason was not out of the realm of possibility.

But the Bulls decided to flip the script for the first time in awhile, although it seems to only delay the inevitable and enrage the desperate fan base in the meantime as they took the third of four meetings from the Cleveland Cavaliers with a rousing second half comeback, winning 105-102 Saturday night.

James did his part, hitting four triples on the way to 33 points, but was on the bench during the decisive 15-0 run in the fourth quarter that saw the Bulls take a 13-point lead.

When he returned, he orchestrated a comeback that made things more than scary for the Bulls, as old demons reappeared from this season. A scare turned into near-nightmare when J.R. Smith missed the second of two free throws, grabbed his own rebound and the ball wound up on the hands of one Matthew Dellavedova.

[MORE: Fred Hoiberg plays 'Dumb and Dumber' clip for Bulls, laments early-season losses]

And with the chance to again put the Bulls out, he shortarmed a triple, missing the entire rim. With one final chance, Smith’s desperation triple came up short to secure the win.

“I had a good look…” Smith said with a wistful smile.

It moves the Bulls to 7-1 against the top two teams in the East, and likely a summer of wondering “what if’s” should the Indiana Pacers win one more game to secure a postseason berth, as they'll take on the 21-58 Brooklyn Nets Sunday night.

Their season is in the hands of a team who inexplicably beat the Bulls at home earlier this season, and has lost seven in a row.

“If you would’ve told me at the beginning of the year we would be 7-1 against the top two seeds and on the outside looking in, I would’ve told you (that) you were crazy,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Crazy night, crazy circumstances, crazy feelings as Hoiberg played riverboat gambler with two players who weren’t even an afterthought on opening night, as Cristiano Felicio was at the end of the bench and Justin Holiday was toiling away in Atlanta as a newly-signed free agent.

But here they were, center stage as they helped lead the charge to start the fourth with Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol all on the bench, with Hoiberg riding Felicio over Gasol for the entire fourth quarter.

“We were going to go with that lineup in the beginning to give Derrick a couple more minutes of rest,” Hoiberg said. “We were very confident in our bench tonight.”

He had reason to be.

Felicio had thunderous dunks, solid screens and active feet on defense, making all seven of his field goal attempts on the way to 16 points and five rebounds. The other catalyst was someone nobody even gave a thought to even upon his arrival at the trade deadline in Holiday, who only had one field goal but could qualify as unsung hero with seven points, four assists and two steals in 22 minutes.

Holiday played solid defense on Cavaliers’ wizardly point guard Kyrie Irving, forcing multiple turnovers when Irving was tasked with running the Cavaliers as James took his usual rest.

Instead, Holiday and Felicio unexpectedly ran the Cavaliers out of the building, helping build a 97-84 lead with 5:16 left.

“His ability to stay in front of Kyrie and force a couple turnovers were huge,” Hoiberg said. “We talked about it at halftime, if we can rebound the ball, we can win the game.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

They didn’t play perfect, as Hoiberg’s stated goal of limiting the Cavaliers to five 3-pointers fell on deaf ears as the visitors hit 19 of 40, with more 3-pointers than twos.

Smith hit seven on the night as the Bulls failed to keep contain on helpside defense and yielded 18 offensive rebounds, two statistics that traditionally spell doom for the Bulls.

Kevin Love got the Cavaliers going, especially with their emphasis on him being a primary option early, scoring 20 points with 13 rebounds, in addition to James hitting every jumper to start.

But they limited Irving to five of 17 shooting and had balanced scoring on their end, with Butler leading with 21 points, 15 coming in the second half as momentum-stoppers when the Cavaliers threatened to end the Bulls’ season, taking a 70-59 lead with 7:13 left in the third.

“It shows what we’re capable of when we play the game the right way,” Butler said.

Now the Bulls must be perfect and have to rely on real lottery teams to help them sneak into the postseason.

If nothing else, they didn’t give James the satisfaction of putting them out once more, avoiding elimination but in the words of Hoiberg, “hoping for a miracle”.

Seven years ago today LeBron James slammed the Bulls' championship window shut

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AP

Seven years ago today LeBron James slammed the Bulls' championship window shut

The Bulls couldn't have known it at the time, but when LeBron James blocked a Derrick Rose 3-point attempt in the final seconds of Game 5 in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, it was the closest those Bulls would ever get to the promised land.

It happened on May 26, 2011, seven long, long, long years ago today.

The game was an ugly one and certainly a fourth quarter the Bulls would love to have back. They took a 12-point lead on a Ronnie Brewer 3-pointer with 3:53 remaining. The Heat closed the game on a 19-4 run, with James' emphatic block on Rose the lasting image of the series.

James finished with a game-high 28 points and 11 rebounds, and added six assists, three steals and two blocks in 46 minutes.

Rose went just 9-for-29, finishing the series shooting 35 percent from the field after being named league MVP over James.

It's probably unfair to say James and James alone shut the Bulls' championship window. Rose's ACL tear the following postseason realistically was the biggest culprit. But these Bulls had won 62 games, had homecourt advantage, had the MVP, the Coach of the Year and all the momentum. And still they couldn't get it done against James.

That win also sent James to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007. He's been there every year since, though that could change as he faces the Celtics on Sunday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Steve Kerr told a Michael Jordan Bulls story to give advice to Kevin Durant

Anyone who lived through the Michael Jordan Bulls remembers those games when he was putting up tons of points, but the Bulls were still struggling overall.

Steve Kerr referenced one of those games to give advice to Kevin Durant during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. The TNT broadcast caught the conversation and aired it late in the third quarter.

"When MJ was with the Bulls, we had a playoff game," Kerr began the story. "He kept trying to score and he was scoring, but we weren't getting anything going. Phil Jackson said 'Who's open?' He said, 'John Paxson.'"

Paxson scored 10 of 12 points for the Bulls during a fourth quarter run in Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals, the series clincher, and famously hit the game-winning shot in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals to clinch that series. Kerr, who later hit his own championship-winning shot on an assist from Jordan in 1997, was trying to get to get his teammates involved.

"I want to trust your teammates early," Kerr said. "What you're doing is you're getting to the rim and then you're trying to hit him. I want you to trust the first guy and then move. Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, OK?"

Watch the video above to see the interaction.

Durant scored 29 points in Game 5 to lead the Warriors, but Houston took a 3-2 series lead with a 98-94 win.