By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) – Well, this is getting fun.READ MORE: West Town Area Neighbors Band Together To Catch Man Suspected In Years' Worth Of Package Thefts
On Sunday afternoon, for the second straight time in this Bulls-Cavaliers series, we had ourselves a ridiculous buzzer-beater. This time, it was Cleveland star LeBron James burying a fallaway 21-footer from the left corner off a baseline inbounds to give his Cavaliers an 86-84 win in Game 4 at the United Center. James’ heroics evened the Eastern Conference semifinal series at 2-2 and came two days after Bulls star Derrick Rose banked in a 3-pointer at the horn for a win.
Here are the observations and notes of the crazy afternoon before the series shifts to Cleveland for Game 5 on Tuesday.
1. As if the drama of buzzer-beaters in consecutive games wasn’t enough, get a load of this: James almost didn’t have the chance to hit the game-winner, because Cleveland coach David Blatt – using a free timeout as the officials reviewed the out-of-bounds call and checked the clock – originally drew a play up a play that had James as the inbounder.
That wouldn’t have left time for James to get the ball back with just 1.5 seconds remaining.
“To be honest, the play that was drawn up, I scratched it,” said James, who had 25 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists. “I just told Coach, ‘Just give me the ball. We’re either going to go into overtime, or I’m going to win it for us.’ It was that simple.
“I was supposed to take the ball out. I told Coach, ‘There’s no way I’m taking the ball out unless I can shoot it over the backboard and it can go in. So I told him to have somebody else take the ball out, give me the ball and everybody get out the way.”
You can’t overstate the magnitude of the insanity of Blatt not calling the final play for James when star guard Kyrie Irving limped around all night on a bad foot and with Kevin Love out for the season. It’s absurd, shocking, dumbfounding – you name it.
It was the second of two huge blunders Blatt narrowly avoided down the stretch. After Rose made a tough driving layup to tie the game with 9.4 seconds left, Blatt tried to call a timeout when the Cavs didn’t have one. Fortunately, Cleveland assistant Tyronn Lue pulled Blatt back and the officials didn’t see it.
If they had, the Cavs would’ve been assessed a technical foul, giving the Bulls a free throw and the ball in a tie game.
“That’s why we’re a unit, that’s why we’re a team,” James said. “Players make mistakes. Coaches make mistakes, and we have to be able to cover for one another.”
Added Blatt: “Yes, I tried to call one and almost blew it.”
2. As devastated as they were by the final play, the Bulls felt they forced James into a tough look and couldn’t do much more than what they did.
“It was a tough shot,” Rose said. “Jimmy (Butler) pushed him to the corner, got a chance to adjust his body and square up his body. He shot a hell of a shot.”
Butler contested James’ shot but did so late, so as acrobatic as it was, James did have a clean look. James got open by faking a run to the rim for a lob, then cut back to the left corner. Butler didn’t speak to reporters after the game, so his take is unknown.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau had several focuses on the final play. He wanted a big man guarding the ball to make the pass tougher and then to stop Cleveland from throwing a lob of pass near the hoop.
“You can’t guard everything,” Bulls wing Mike Dunleavy said. “He just popped to the corner, made a contested shot. What are you going to do? Nothing at the rim.
“You take your hat off to him.”
Dunleavy directed the focus away from the final play, feeling as if the game was lost earlier when the Bulls couldn’t hold an 11-point lead.
“We’ve been like that all year,” Dunleavy said. “We just can’t step on people’s throats, for whatever reason. Just too many stagnant offensive possessions, it’s just kind of been our Achilles heel on the offensive end. It’s not surprising. It’s disappointing. It’s almost like nothing comes easy for us. We know we’re going to be in a dogfight and expect it to come down to the last shot.”READ MORE: Small Private Plane Slides Off Runway At Midway Airport
3. If the Bulls lose this series, rest assured that this is the game they will forever regret.
They had an 11-point lead late in the third quarter before they scored just two points over the next 6:21. It was their second notable offensive drought of the game, as they went scoreless for a stretch of 6:56 in the second quarter after opening an eight-point lead.
On top of all that, the Cavaliers received next to nothing from Irving, who was severely hampered by a strained right foot. He had 12 points on 2-of-10 shooting and was hidden defensively on Dunleavy and other Bulls who aren’t off-the-dribble creators.
The postgame mood of the Bulls was interesting. Usually even-keeled and rather non-emotional win or lose, Thibodeau looked shell-shocked during his media session, giving little detail on several questions.
The Bulls’ locker room had a different vibe, expressing defiance. It came most notably from emotional leader Joakim Noah.
“Nope,” Noah said when asked if this was a missed opportunity. “We’re disappointed we didn’t get the win. It’s 2-2. We can win in Cleveland. We’ve done it before, and it’s going to be great.
“We’re fine. They hit a tough shot at the end. Move on from it. Have a great day tomorrow and bounce right back.”
With his young son, P.J., at the podium with him for his postgame interview, Rose wasn’t dwelling on much either when asked how the Bulls don’t let this loss linger.
“This game’s already over,” Rose said, then turning to a Mother’s Day reference. “Just enjoy your day with your mom, with your parents.”
4. For the observers in the anti-Pau Gasol/pro-floor spacing crowd, let Sunday serve as a lesson for you as Gasol sat out with a strained left hamstring.
That hideous offensive performance is what happens when your go-to post player is out and your floor spacers – notably Nikola Mirotic and his 1-of-9 showing from the field – can’t shoot.
Nothing about this Bulls season is black and white. It’s all in shades of gray. From Thibodeau’s job future to Rose’s uneven play in his quest to again be a superstar, it’s all blurred. The same goes for the role Gasol plays.
Sometimes Gasol is a matchup nightmare for Bulls foes and a capable rim protector by simply staying within six feet of the hoop. Sometimes he clogs the paint too much and is exploited defensively in pick-and-rolls. You can never be certain how it’s going to play out.
More than anything, Gasol’s been steady and reliable in averaging 18.5 points and 11.8 rebounds. And a few steady and reliable buckets could’ve made all the difference for the Bulls on Sunday as they went through those aforementioned scoring droughts and the trio of Noah, Taj Gibson and Mirotic combined for 17 points on 7-of-28 shooting.
Because it does have deficiencies and a penchant to go through mind-boggling struggles, Chicago’s a team that needs every weapon available to provide a spark at a given time, a team that needs every last man. And Gasol’s the guy who brings the offensive presence in the frontcourt, taking the pressure off Rose and Butler, who on Sunday were hounded by quality defenders in Iman Shumpert and James.
His absence was felt.
5. Don’t let this get lost in the shuffle, because it means something for the rest of this series: Rose was brilliant Sunday, his second straight high-level performance with one off day. So the one-day/two-day rest narrative specific to Rose can now be put to bed, with the acknowledgement that all players are better with more rest.
Rose scored a game-high 31 points and did so efficiently, shooting 11-of-23 from the field, 2-of-5 on 3-pointers, and 7-of-7 at the free-throw line. And he did most of his damage against Shumpert, a much better defender than Irving.
Rose was again at his best late. After scoring 14 fourth-quarter points Friday, he had 16 on Sunday – including a strong driving layup to tie the game in the final 10 seconds.
Continuing a season-long theme, the Cavaliers have yet to find a good answer for Rose. In what’s become a best-of-three series, that should be the Bulls’ biggest reason for optimism.MORE NEWS: Someone Stole More Than $500 From Her Chime Account, But Bank Wouldn't Reimburse Her Until CBS 2 Got Involved
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.