CHICAGO — LeBron James slapped away Derrick Rose’s desperation three-point shot and waited until time expired before he flexed and let out a guttural scream. Then he dropped to his knees, balanced by his right hand, said a little prayer and pointed toward the sky. Only a few minutes before on Thursday night, it didn’t seem as if James or the Miami Heat had any prayer of advancing to the NBA Finals, as it trailed the Chicago Bulls by 12 points in Game 5 with just more than three minutes remaining.
But in an arena that had grown accustomed to watching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen dominate the league and claim the first of six NBA titles twenty years ago, James and Dwyane Wade showed why they may have formed the most lethal perimeter combination since, as they led Miami on a final, unbelievable push that resulted in an 83-80 victory at United Center.
The Bulls had appeared to have silenced them, but James and Wade were merely lurking until they combined to score 16 points during an 18-3 run over the final 3 minutes 14 seconds to pull out a stunning victory.
“We don’t even know what happened,” Wade said after scoring 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter. “I’m not even going to lie to you and say that we do.”
James scored a game-high 28 points, including the decisive 21-foot jumper with 29 seconds remaining, as the Heat set up a rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals with the Dallas Mavericks. Game 1 will be Tuesday in Miami.
James and Wade are back in the NBA Finals for the second time in their respective careers, with James four wins away from claiming the championship that eluded him for his first seven seasons in Cleveland. He once again feels validated for his decision to bolt the Cavaliers to form an all-star trio with Wade and Chris Bosh, who added 20 points, including two free throws with 16.8 seconds remaining.
“I understand a lot of backlash came with me going to Miami, but I understand also that I did what was best for me and my family and what was best for me being a professional athlete,” James said. “I wanted to team up with some guys that I understood would never die down in the moment.”
The Bulls led, 77-65, when reserve guard Ronnie Brewer made a free throw, but Wade, who was limited to just 13 points to that point, made a short jumper and a fast-break layup over Rose. James then made a three-pointer to bring the Heat within five points with just more than two minutes remaining.
Rose responded by spinning and making a floater over James to give the Bulls a 79-72 lead, but the Heat kept coming. Rose fouled Wade on a three-pointer — his first of the series — and he converted a four-point play.
“He’s got something different, a different makeup inside of him that he’s able to rise to the occasion, regardless of what’s happening during the course of the game,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said of Wade, who had missed 6 of 8 shots entering the fourth quarter. “He’s proven so many times. When it’s winning time, there’s really not many players that are better than him in the last two minutes.”
That player could very well be his own teammate. James tied the score with 1:01 left with a three-pointer in front of the Bulls’ bench. With the Heat surging, the Bulls panicked and appeared discombobulated.
Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau left starters Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, leaving Rose to make plays while sharing the floor mostly with reserves. Veteran Kurt Thomas was placed back into the rotation after the Bulls lost backup center Omer Asik for the rest of the season with a broken leg and he contributed four points and seven rebounds, but when Rose tried to find him late, James intercepted the pass.
James then made a step back jumper to give the Heat an 81-79 lead with 29 seconds remaining, and he stomped down the court, nodding his head. Rose went back at James, coercing him into committing a foul, but after he stepped to the foul line with fans chanting “MVP,” Rose missed the second of two free throws.
“I wasn’t tired. I was just making dumb decisions and it cost us this game,” Rose said. “If anything, just get better. This is going to make me hungry.”
Throughout the postseason, James repeatedly responded to criticisms that he couldn’t close games, as he supplied the finishing blows to help him and Wade exorcise some playoff demons against the Boston Celtics. Then, against Chicago, James not only provided clutch baskets, he also shut down Rose, the league’s most valuable player, by using his size and athleticism to disrupt the Bulls’ offense.
After being a one-man gang for most of his time in Cleveland, James could relate to Rose’s struggles trying to carry the Bulls but certainly showed no mercy. Rose scored 25 points but had another rough shooting night, missing 20 of his 29 field-goal attempts. Luol Deng scored 18 points and Brewer had 10, but the Bulls were limited to just 35.8 percent shooting.
Rose had led his team admirably to 62 regular season wins and through two rounds of the playoffs, but the Eastern Conference finals provided another set of problems. The Bulls had won with depth, defense and Rose providing the closing touches, but the Heat countered with superior talent, equally suffocating defense and two closers in James and Wade.
“They got hot. You have to give credit where credit is due,” Noah said. “They are Hollywood as hell but they are good.”