Hopefully Game Three wasn't the Bulls last really good chance to steal another win, because I thought they played very well before letting down a bit at the very end. We knew the Heat weren't 30-40 points better than the Bulls like they showed in Game Two, but it was encouraging to see the Bulls not only prevent another blowout loss but actually look for a long while like they could pull off another stunning win.
In front of an extra-pumped UC crowd (the capacity makes it sound cavernous in the regular season but really helps this time of year), the Bulls started the game with a 7-0 lead, but soon after both teams were off to a pretty good rhythm. The half wound up with a 2-point Heat lead and both teams over 50%. And outside of two cheap fouls on Butler and a couple tech-y, shove-y incidents (and I prefer we talk about that in this separate post) it was a game of solid offensive caliber and flow, something we wouldn't normally expect from this 'physical matchup'.
Each team was scoring in different ways in the half. The Bulls had a very solid paint-or-three philosophy working. Carlos Boozer got off to a hot start and wound up with his best game of the series, with 10 of his 21 points coming in that first quarter. Booz was active off the ball trying to find space in the lane instead of relying on post-ups, and had several layups and even a follow-dunk. Joakim Noah was once again huge in getting extra possessions: 5 offensive rebounds for him in that half to help him score 11 points and lead to a couple of Bulls threes. The Bulls also started out with the edge in that department, with Belinelli and Butler coming out to a 5-6 mark from distance. As we've seen many times since the Bulls have gone to this lineup (and since the injuries, that means an all-game lineup), they're a far more 3-pointer-reliant team than they were during the regular season, and that first half was another instance of them using it to hang in the game.
The Heat, meanwhile, were pushed more towards their secondary and third options in terms of scoring chances. LeBron had a relatively unproductive first half, failing to even do much when Butler's two fouls had Thibs put Taj Gibson on him (seeing enough from Daequan Cook in Game 2 apparently, as he earned a DNP). Dwayne Wade looked to be downright sleepwalking, from some lazy passing into some anticipatory Bulls defenders to not even attempting a shot until several minutes into the 2nd quarter. The two main Heat stars had a combined 10 points in that half.
But what was working for Miami was finding mid-range opportunities for their third wheel, Chris Bosh. The Boshtrich was purposely given these looks as the Bulls looked to limit the Heat's paint/threes scoring, and he delivered with 10 first-half points. Udonis Haslem also hit on a couple of jumpers, and though they were the what the Bulls wanted Miami to shoot, they were making a very high percentage. What then later backfired was that after starting the game 1/5 from three, the Heat bench caught fire a bit, with Norris Cole and Shane Battier hitting 3 threes in that time. Combining that with the Heat getting to the line (building off of the Bulls getting in the penalty early in that quarter) meant that despite the Bulls great offensive first half they were still down.
The third quarter started with more back-and-forth action from both teams, including Wade heating up a bit and a couple of ridiculous Bulls makes from Butler and Robinson. But it quickly became a much less proficient form of basketball as the shooting percentages dropped and the foul calls went up. Neither team's lead was above 4 and it was merely a 20-18 margin for the Bulls in that quarter. The tightness of the calls was definitely more critical to the Bulls, as their lack of depth meant more of hiding Butler off of LeBron and even using a Robinson-Teague backcourt after Belinelli picked up his 5th. Even with this advantage, though, Miami failed to make a run. They went into their own scoring droughts and I thought settled a bit with their shot selection, especially considering the foul trouble the Bulls were in (though credit to Bulls defenders for playing without fouling in that stretch too).
The Bulls did their job and kept the game close through the beginning of the 4th quarter. Butler and Robinson had a couple more crazy finishes inside, and even in a dangerous stretch where Noah received a breather, the game was still in reach. Throughout the middle of the 4th quarter Jeff Van Gundy was imploring the Bulls to push the pace more as to not let the Heat's defense settle in, but I thought their offense was actually doing some decent work spreading the floor, and that slow pace would ultimately keep the game close. Maybe have things within a possession or two near the end...Nate Robinson time...that kind of thing.
But as the 4th went on, it was clear that the Bulls defensive was not able to keep the Heat from getting stronger, and LeBron James led a small-ball Heat lineup that was starting to carve them up. Norris Cole had another amazing game, capping an 18 point (6-7 shooting) night with 7 coming in the 4th. Chris Bosh had 6, finishing with a monster line of 20 points and 19 rebounds. That included a really fortunate stretch for him as Noah was called on fouls working the offensive glass on nearly-consecutive possessions (the second being a total blown call), and Bosh getting FTs on both of them. He nailed 3 of 4, and overall the Heat were getting to the line and making them, finishing 26-30 while the Bulls shot 17-25 (68%). LeBron James then provided a couple of daggers: first directly answering a Belinelli three (that had brought the Bulls within four at the 3 minute mark) with one of his own, then soon-after with one of his now-patented unstoppable and-one drives.
That LeBron and-one put the Heat up 9 with less than a minute and a half remaining, and the rest of the game was the Bulls trying some desperation plays that wound up in more foul calls. The fans got a minor thrill of seeing a Nate Robinson dunk, and being able to provide a nice sendoff for both Belinelli and Noah as they fouled out of the game.
Overall in that the 4th quarter, the Bulls once again looked too tired to raise to the level of the crunch-time Heat, as the offense really slowed down. I mentioned the Belinelli three, but that was the only make from distance the Bulls had in that quarter: Belinelli also missed 2, Butler missed 1, and Robinson was 0-3. (if you're being mean you can throw in desperation launches from Boozer and Teague too). Defensively, you could see some tired grabbing on Heat drives. The Bulls played with their fouls well and thus still allowed them to keep their incredibly short rotation, but it's a unavoidable risk that at the end of games that the Bulls same 5-6 guys don't have enough after expending so much to just hang close. So instead it was the Heat having that late push on Friday. The final score wound up being 10, but this could potentially be seen as one of the closer outcomes this series. Reinforcements don't appear to be coming, so it's a bit demoralizing to think this may have been one of their last great efforts in a season of them. Though satisfactory that they gave these efforts in the first place.