Derrick Rose grabbed the rebound in mid-stride, charging down court with less than a minute remaining in Game 5. With the Bulls in the midst of a 17-4 run that had pulled them back within two, 101-99, Rose had only Matthew Dellavedova between him and the basket. Or so he thought.
Rose picked up his dribble at the free throw line and took two hard steps to his right, with Dellavedova reading those steps to move in front of the Bulls' point guard. That pushed Rose off-balance before he attempted a floater and was met by a leaping LeBron James, who recorded his third block of the night to maintain the Cavaliers' lead. Out of a timeout Jimmy Butler missed a 3-pointer from the corner, with James securing his 12th and final rebound before Cleveland used six free throws in the final 17 seconds to ice the game, and perhaps the series.
That sequence - James had penetrated to find a wide open Kyrie Irving in the corner before the Rose rebound/transition layup attempt - was indicative of the night James had Tuesday, and the way the two-time NBA champion has performed the entire series.
Yes, James' MVP-like stat line - 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals, three blocks and zero turnovers in 42 minutes - was everything the Cavaliers wanted and hoped for when he made the decision to return home 10 months ago. But in a game where the opposition wouldn't go away quietly for a third straight game, James' performance Tuesday evening was everything the Cavaliers needed to maintain a stronghold on this second-round series.
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"LeBron was outstanding in every element of the game," Cavs head coach David Blatt said after the game. "You can't pick a thing that he didn't do at the highest level."
Blatt's comments were a stark contrast from what James had done the prior week in Chicago. With Kyrie Irving aggravating a foot sprain early in Game 3 on Friday, the Bulls defense was able to focus more of its attention on keeping James out of the paint and living with his outside jumpers. The results were telling, as James went 7-for-31 (22.5%) outside the painted area in Games 3 and 4, with only 24 field goal attempts coming in the paint. In Games 1 and 2, James had attempted 32 shots in the paint as opposed to just 19 outside it.
But the fierce, attacking James was back in Game 5. He quickly drew two fouls on Jimmy Butler in the first quarter, forcing the Bulls' top defender to the bench just 7 minutes in. From there James was honed in, scoring seven of his 10 first-half field goals in the paint and three other jumpers out of the left post. He finished with 24 first-half points on just 12 shots, 10 of them makes.
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"Any time you get some shots going early you feel pretty good. I was able to get my jumper going, able to get my post-up game pretty early and my attack game," James said. "So, just try to feed off it. Feed off the rhythm I had and stay in it as long as I could."
When that rhythm was thrown off in the third quarter by the staunch defense of Butler, as well as constant help defense rotating from the weak side to the post on James' side of the floor, James found his rhythm distributing. Four of his six assists came directly out of halftime, including three in a four-possession span after the Bulls had cut a 10-point halftime deficit to just one. Then James added a three-point play, taking advantage of rookie Nikola Mirotic's subpar defense, to push the lead back out to nine in a matter of 3+ minutes.
Even as the Bulls pulled out all the stops - they made good on their promise to attack Irving's hobbled foot by feeding Mike Dunleavy early and often - it was James' aggressive first half that opened up the Cavs offense in the third quarter, as they connected on 55 percent of their shots.
"(It) opens up the floor. Guys are forced to help, leaves us driving angles, leaves us open shots," said Iman Shumpert of James' aggressiveness, "and it gives us the world of confidence to know that our big gun is ready to go."
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James sensed closing time was near early in the fourth quarter. Though he began the stanza on the bench, the Cavs pushed their nine-point third-quarter lead to 15 by the time James checked in at the 8:35 mark. He showed poise in attacking Butler off the dribble for two and then drained a step-back 3-pointer as the shot clock wound down to push the lead back out to 15 inside 7 minutes to play.
At that moment it appeared the Cavs had seen the last of the Bulls' effort in Game 5 - Taj Gibson had been ejected for kicking Dellavedova and Rose had scored four points since a 12-point opening stanza. But Tom Thibodeau's group clamped down and strung together an improbable 11-0 run in just under 2 minutes to cut the deficit back to four, 97-93. So once again the Cavaliers called upon James to stop the bleeding, which he did by splitting a double team and finding a wide open Tristan Thompson under the basket for a dunk to stop the run. The next trip down James earned a pair of free throws - which he hit - to push the lead out to eight.
Back-to-back triples from Butler made it a two-point game before James clamped down defensively on Rose, swatting away the transition layup and, shortly after, any chance of a comeback.
For as well as the Cavaliers played as a team - shooting 50 percent, making eight 3-pointers, winning the rebounding battle, 11 team turnovers - with Irving (25 points), Thompson (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Smith (+18 in 29 minutes) all contributing, again and again they looked to James to cease any sort of momentum the Bulls gained. And The King answered.
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The first statistic James looks for in the box score each game is turnovers, and on Tuesday night he found a "0" in that column. For all the touches James received in the post, the crosscourt passes he made to open 3-point shooters and the drives into traffic he engaged in, not once did he turn the ball over. For Shumpert, who had 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting, James' model efficiency (he finished 14-for-24 from the field) was his biggest improvement after he committed 15 turnovers alone in Games 3 and 4.
"He made sure that we got a shot every time," Shumpert said. "Even if it wasn’t the best shot, we got attempts. And with the guys that we got, as long as we get a shot at the rim every time down the floor we’ll be fine."
A game that felt like a runaway win for Cleveland was much closer than it should have been. The Bulls haven't won two games in the series, including one in Cleveland, on luck alone. And understanding the fallout that may occur this offseason with Thibodeau and the front office, they won't go away quietly. So while Tuesday night felt like vintage James full of highlight reel dunks, blocks and passes, the truth is that the Cavs' tiny margin for error was filled by an epic performance from James they needed to earn a victory.
"Thibs is one of the best to do it, especially on the defensive end," Smith said of the Bulls' defense. "He makes it tough for us. Fortunately we’ve got a pretty good in player in '23' who bails us out."