CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Bulls had the best regular-season record in the NBA, an MVP in Derrick Rose and the coach of the year in Tom Thibodeau. Now they’ll have a long summer after a crushing defeat that ended their season in the Eastern Conference finals.Chicago blew a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter Thursday night, falling apart when they appeared on their way to victory and losing a stunner 83-80.
It’s a setback that will no doubt linger throughout the offseason.
“Just learn from it,” Rose said quietly afterward. “We’ll get closer as a team, get better, and all we can do now is work on our games this summer. … If anything this is going to make me hungry. We made it this far with this group, my teammates, great teammates. Too bad we couldn’t get it to the finals.”
The Bulls won the opener of the series in convincing fashion, but then couldn’t find their way in the latter stages of the next four games. Nothing could sting more than losing on their home floor in the fashion they did Thursday night.
Rose fouled fellow Chicago native Dwyane Wade on a 3-pointer and after the Heat guard sank the free throw with a minute and a half left, the four-point play was the fuel Miami needed to complete the remarkable rally.
A 3-pointer by LeBron James tied it and then his jumper gave Miami a two-point lead.
Rose, who scored 25 but shot only 9 for 29, then missed the second of two free throws. Chris Bosh’s two free throws put the Heat up three and all Chicago could get was an off-balance 3-point attempt by Rose in the closing seconds.
“They played great defence so it was hard to get good shots,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said.
“All the games were hard-fought games that came down to the end. …Sometimes things aren’t going your way and you have to able to navigate through that stuff,” he said. “Down the stretch there were a lot of things going against us, but that’s part of it.”
Thibodeau looked back to Tuesday night’s overtime loss when the Bulls had a chance to win in the closing seconds of regulation and Rose missed a shot.
“Tonight we had the lead and couldn’t hold onto it,” Thibodeau said. “Hopefully we learn from that. … You use this experience to drive you so you can improve for next year.”
The Bulls couldn’t land James or Wade in the offseason and instead built a powerful team by adding forward Carlos Boozer and sharpshooter Kyle Korver. But both struggled against the Heat, with Boozer finishing with only 5 points and six rebounds in the finale and Korver with just five points.
The Bulls shot just 35.8 per cent for the game and managed only 18 fourth-quarter points. Rose, guarded by James, was 2 for 9 in the final period when the Bulls went 6 for 18 as a team.
“I wasn’t tired. I was just making dumb decisions and it cost us this game,” Rose said.
Luol Deng had another good game, finishing with 18 points, but Taj Gibson couldn’t rekindle the energy he brought to the Game 1 victory. He had seven rebounds and no points in nearly 24 minutes.
And no one had an answer for Wade and James.
“Both of them have been here before and we haven’t,” he said. “Their whole defence was good and LeBron played great against Derrick. We obviously didn’t play this team 82 games this year.”
It looked like the Bulls would get a big lift from veteran 38-year-old centre-forward Kurt Thomas, who had four points and seven rebounds in the final quarter of his first game in three weeks. Ronnie Brewer’s 3-pointer after a nice shovel pass from Thomas put Chicago up 76-64 with 3:53 left.
The Bulls were still ahead 77-65 with 3:14 to go when Brewer made 1 of 2 free throws. But then James and Wade took over and the Bulls couldn’t respond in the clutch.
“It is what it is. They’re a good defensive team,” Rose said. “They were playing tough defence. At the end it’s on me. Everything is on me — turnovers, missed shots, fouls. Anything, learn from it. All I can do right now. The series is over.”
Thomas said the Heat’s play was extraordinary over the last several minutes.
“It was an amazing three minutes. They got themselves back in the game so quick. They kept hitting big shots,” he said.
Chicago won 62 games this season and was 3-0 against the Heat in the regular season. The Bulls finished 42-8 at the United centre, including the playoffs, with two of those losses to the Heat in this series.
“It hurts,” said Chicago centre Joakim Noah. “We definitely had our chances. … They got hot. They are Hollywood as hell, but they are very good.”