DIE, DIE, DIE. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls wilted late in Game 4 to fall behind the Heat 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals. How did it happen and where do we go from here?
I was yelled at the first time I made the comparison sometime during the second half; a day later, it feels even more apt. Bulls fans have had a lot of creative ways to describe Game 4 in the hours following Chicago's 101-93 overtime loss in Miami. Most were variations of the all-encompassing three-letter written emoticon "UGH"; The Basketball Jones' Trey Kerby went as far to call the game 'Gwyneth Paltrow'. To me, I can't shake the ties to the January's NFC Championship Game. Maybe some of it is circumstantial: I watched both games at the same house, surrounded by the same people, with the same uneasy feeling in my stomach stirring throughout. Still, there's a key word that I believe binds both the Bears' season-ending loss and Game 4 together forever: impossible. That's the way it felt when the Lovie-2 was charged with stopping the Packers' Aaron Rodgers-curated offense, that's the way it felt late last night when the Bulls' season depended on stopping LeBron James as he put his head down and drove towards the rim.
I just re-read what I wrote on Tremendous Upside Potential after the Bears' decisive loss, and so many of those feeling are relatable to this exact moment. Back then, I couldn't even bring myself to write about the game until Tuesday; truth be told, we could all probably benefit from giving our brains a day of rest before being forced to think about all the things that went wrong in Miami last night. Both the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 4 seemed to move simultaneously in fast-forward and slow motion: I vividly remember the moment Rose dribbled off his foot on a late drive in OT, I remember when Luol Deng threw an errant inbounds pass out of bounds the possession before. These images are plastered in my head, and, assuming this series ends the way everyone is expecting it to, they probably won't leave anytime soon. As we dissect this the morning after, though, you have to wonder how an entire season's worth of incredible work burst into flames so quickly. The resilience our Bulls showed in the regular season wasn't a lie; unfortunately, it looks like it just won't shine through as foreshadowing, either.
For a game as tense and multi-layered as Game 4, it's difficult to even pick a starting point. There was Boozer's reliably atrocious defense, which became the fourth quarter target of so many Heat pick-and-rolls. There was all of those dropped passes and missed layups from Joakim Noah, who, despite playing an unbearable amount of minutes in the absence of Omer Asik, still left a lot to be desired with his performance. There was yet another Brick Parade from Kyle Korver, this time when the Bulls needed him most. And then there was Mike Miller, bandaged thumbs and all, rising from the dead to hit several clutch shots and finish with an unreal +36 in plus-minus. We can embellish on all of these things for paragraphs, but I'm not sure I see the point. Game 4 was LeBron James vs. Derrick Rose, and the Bulls lost because the former won the battle conclusively.
ESPN's John Hollinger mocked Bulls fans' blinding and unconditional love of Rose throughout the season, deeming us 'Fan Boy Army' in a series of tweets and ESPN Insider articles. He's not wrong: there's a reason I list D. Rose alongside Radiohead and Mexican food in my SB Nation profile. He's unquestionably my favorite living American; I feel no shame in saying that watching him play basketball in each of our hometowns is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my life. I will remember this season forever, all of the incredible moments he produced on the way to becoming the youngest MVP in league history. He's the best. This is why Game 4 hurts so much. For the first time in his career, Derrick Rose let us down. It's OK, it happened to Michael Jordan numerous times before he finally broke through and won a championship in his seventh season. But Rose has defied logic, circumstance, and expectations throughout this entire season. To see him fail in the year's biggest game, against the universe's most hated athlete, is nothing less than a major, major bummer.
Derrick wasn't without his moments, of course. When Miami stormed to a nine-point lead in the second quarter, it looked like Game 4 was taking a detour straight for Blowout City. But Rose reentered and immediately threw down back-to-back And-1 dunks, including one over Joel Anthony which will survive on his personal highlight reel for eternity. NBA basketball is a different beast than nearly every other sport, though. In this league, it's all about star-power in crunch time, when meticulously crafted offensive schemes give way to the will of your best player. Rose has been so successful in the role this season, leading a swarm of snarky bloggers to deem the Bulls' fourth quarter offense 'hero ball'. You see, in the NBA, you only go as far as your superstar takes you, and if you don't have one, you may as well just pretend and anoint someone unworthy. Rose is worthy in every way, he proved that without a doubt this year, but he simply wasn't up for the task last night.
James switched onto Rose with the Bulls leading 75-74 late in the fourth quarter. I suppose we should give LBJ credit for stymieing such an unstoppable force, but my wounds are much too fresh for that at the moment. The fact of the matter is simple: when pitted against LeBron in both the fourth quarter and overtime last night, Rose effectively wilted, no pun intended. He settled for jumpers twice instead of attacking the rim, abandoning his vow of aggression before the game. We'll be thinking about the last possession of regulation for a long time. Eight seconds left, Bulls ball, Rose isolated versus LeBron. It's a reminder of the type of freak LBJ really is that even Mr. Fast Don't Lie couldn't gain penetration. I can't tell you exactly what happened after the ball left Rose's hand on that final contested mid-range jumper, I believe I momentarily blacked out, but when the shot didn't fall, it seemed like Chicago's season was over. The Bulls' lack of poise in overtime was unlike anything we've seen from this team all season long, as a series of sloppy offensive sets and unforced errors led to clean domination for Miami in the five minute period. Now we're left reeling, focusing more on what went wrong instead of where we go from here.
The series isn't over, it only feels that way. I suppose that's the difference between the NFC Championship and Game 4: the Bulls still have a sliver of hope for redemption, even if you'd be hard-pressed to find a single soul who believes in their chances. I'll say this much: in front of a rowdy United Center crowd on Thursday night, no one should count out Chicago. All three of their losses to the Heat have been winnable games, particularly last night. Their three regular season wins were all too-close-for-comfort, too. These teams are fairly evenly matched, even if the scoreboard now reads Miami 3,Chicago 1. They aren't getting dominated, even if it certainly seems like it.
My advice going forward is this: watch with a clear head, expecting nothing. If we all believe that Game 4 effectively ended this majestic Bulls season, then whatever happens next will only be gravy. If they somehow win Game 5, we'll talk.