MIAMI — It’s becoming a new Miami Heat trademark: a late, star-driven, fourth-quarter run that blows open what had been a nose-to-nose defensive battle, an excruciating nail-biter of a game.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade played quietly throughout the first 31 / 2 quarters on Sunday night, letting Chris Bosh do most of the heavy lifting in one of his best performances of the season, but they helped Miami jump out to a 13-point lead that the Chicago Bulls could not overcome in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Heat ended what had been a scrappy, uncomfortable game with a 96-85 victory to take a 2-1 lead in the series and maintain a perfect record at home so far in this postseason. Miami has thrived in front of its white-shirted fans, amassing a 7-0 record at American Airlines Arena. The teams meet on this court again Tuesday night.
“There is absolutely nothing easy in this series,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It is a battle. It is a scrap. It is a fight every single possession.”
Chicago hadn’t lost consecutive games since Feb. 5 and 7. By losing Game 2 in Chicago on Wednesday, the Bulls had given up home-court advantage in the series and the Heat did not want to give the edge right back.
Bosh carried the Heat as Wade struggled to get clear of Chicago’s defense and James played quarterback, distributing more than looking for his shot. Bosh scored 34 points on 13-of-18 shooting, and converted 8 of his 10 free throw attempts.
“Bosh was terrific right from the start of the game,” Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Very aggressive, and I thought we allowed him to get his confidence early, and he’s hard to slow down when he gets going like that . . . Chris Bosh is a lot more than a third scorer.”
He scored on four straight possessions midway through the fourth quarter, capping the run with a dunk off a spin move that kept Miami’s head just above water.
But it was the other two-thirds of Miami’s Big Three that handed the Heat a lead Chicago couldn’t chase down. Four straight free throws by Wade pushed Miami in front by 10 with 5 minutes 25 seconds remaining, and a steal by James and full-court break that led to a lay-in and foul gave the Heat an 87-74 advantage.
James, who had all 10 of his assists before the third quarter expired, finished with 22 points, and Wade had 17 on 6-of-17 shooting.
Bosh admitted after Sunday’s game he had struggled this season getting used to being a third wheel after establishing himself as a dominant big man in Toronto.
“Nobody tells you that’s going to be something you have to worry about,” Bosh said. “I didn’t know I had that big of an ego. . . . It wasn’t easy by any means. . . . If you want to get to where you want to go, sometimes you’re going to have a rocky, rough road to get there.”
Chicago tried to climb back with a pair of putbacks on offensive rebounds by Taj Gibson and a pretty drive by Luol Deng, but a finger-roll layup by James and a jumper by Udonis Haslem, who has proved a force off the bench in the past two games, helped Miami protect its lead. Haslem chipped in eight points.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” said Chicago’s Derrick Rose, who scored 20 points, making 8 of his 19 shots. “Our will wasn’t there tonight. . . . We just got to find a way to win the next game.”
After missing his first five shots, Carlos Boozer gave Miami fits, scoring on short field goals, rim-rattling jams, tip-ins and turnaround jumpers. He finished with 26 points and was 8 of 19 from the field. Bosh and Boozer dominated the scoring in the second quarter, with Bosh scoring 10 straight for Miami and 13 of the Heat’s 25 as Miami took a 43-40 lead into halftime.
The Bulls bemoaned the open shots they gave Miami in the second half. The Heat converted 10 of 19 (52.6 percent) of its field goals in the third quarter, and 9 of 16 (56.2) in the fourth period.
“You’re going to miss shots,” Rose said, “but our defense, that was the key to the game.”
Brutal play dominated early on, as Miami had nearly as many blocked shots (five) in the first quarter as field goals (six) on its way to an 18-15 lead. The Bulls also hit just six first-quarter field goals, with a more miserable shooting percentage than the Heat (25 to 35.3) as Boozer missed his first five field goals and Rose hit just two of eight.
“The first quarter was hard-fought, low-scoring, but after that, it was too easy” for the Heat, Thibodeau said. “The defense concerned me more than the offense.”