If you didn’t see the 3-pointer from Derrick Rose flow like a missile into the rim off the glass, the roaring approval of the United Center let you know the Bulls pulled off an improbable win to take a 2-1 lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 99-96 final.
Rose took the inbounds pass with three seconds left and the game tied at 96, caught Tristan Thompson on a switch and sent the Chicago crowd home with something they haven’t seen in ages, as he flipped the narrative on himself and this Bulls team — putting up a 30-point game with one day’s rest, calmly lifting this franchise to within two games of the Eastern Conference Finals.
“It was a broken play, I was supposed to get the ball in the corner,” Rose said. “When I ran to the corner I wasn’t open so I ran toward the ball. Mike (Dunleavy) threw me the ball, I drove right.”
Dunleavy’s angle gave him the perfect view, as 47 minutes and 57 seconds came down to three seconds, as the Bulls had to improvise on the broken play to make a way out of no way—especially when they gave themselves a heart attack by not fouling on the previous play.
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After J.R. Smith tied the game with 10 seconds left with a triple off a pass from LeBron James, this one seemed destined for overtime but Rose’s shot into the Chicago sky ended the night in 48 minutes—a hard-fought one that could’ve gone the other way and squandered homecourt advantage the Bulls stole in Game 1.
“In some situations you like to do that and these guys are getting pretty good that if they catch facing the basket and you wrap them up, we actually lost a game like that. But in certain situations we definitely want to foul.”
James struggled again from the field, although his stat line of 27 points, 14 assists and eight rebounds looks great, he had to fight Jimmy Butler for everything, often finding the league’s Most Improved Player making his case for Defensive Player of the Year with the yeoman’s work he did on James.
Butler forced James into seven turnovers, with five steals to go with his 20 points and eight rebounds. Butler's late layup with 33.9 seconds left gave the Bulls a 94-93 lead before he forced James into a missed layup on the ensuing possession.
“The two of them in the backcourt played great. We had a lot of guys step up,” Thibodeau said. “(James) reads the game extremely well. He’s seen every possible defense and he shows a lot of patience.”
Taking the all-important swing game lived up to its name, as the momentum swung all night, and kept swinging, even after Pau Gasol exited in the second half due to a left hamstring strain.
James had to make the bulk of offensive decisions because Kyrie Irving was hampered by a right foot injury that limited him to just 11 points and zero assists in 38 minutes. The return of Smith (14 points) after a two-game suspension and Matthew Dellavedova (10 points in 15 minute) helped keep the Cavs from being completely anemic offensively, as they shot 39 percent.
The Bulls fought back from their own ineptitude on offense, shooting 27 percent in the first quarter and 35 for the first half, scratching and clawing behind Rose and bench production from Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson, two of the unsung heroes on the night. Mirotic scored 12 with eight rebounds, giving the Cavaliers fits and forcing them to put James on him while Gibson helped the Bulls to a 54-39 rebounding edge on the glass with nine points and nine boards.
“They played well during the season together,” Thibodeau said. “Niko can space the floor for you. Taj gives you rebounding. They complement each other well.”
The Bulls began to shake out of a slow first half behind Rose as soon as halftime ended. Rose first three possessions, going straight to the basket.
“I just wanted him to read the game,” Thibodeau said. “When he does that, getting it up the floor quickly and getting us to play with pace. That doesn’t mean to the rim all the time but when you generate speed and you get hit, that’s my understanding of how fouls get called. He forced them to make calls tonight.”
Only taking one jumper, Rose’s activity buoyed the Bulls, as he was determined to get to the rim with 10 points in the period, a testy one for both sides as they began to realize neither will back down, leading to some testy exchanges and technical fouls.
But they were lifted early by Joakim Noah’s energy, as he heard the calls for his benching and responded with a fervor only he can bring.
Many presumed Mirotic’s playing time must come at the expense of Joakim Noah’s defensive awareness, but Thibodeau managed to coax the most from both at the same time.
Noah’s activity and Mirotic’s shooting was just what the United Center crowd needed to see—before Rose truly sent them on a high at the buzzer.