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.
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”.