Somewhere along the way, Game 4 of the Bulls' first round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers arrived at a place so agonizing each possession started to bring tangible pain. Every non-call on a physical drive to the lane hit like a blow to your own body. Each bricked uncontested jumper by Chicago felt like a kick in the shins. That string of J.R. Smith three-pointers in the fourth quarter pinched your skin.
The final two minutes of that game were so tense and so frantic it could have left someone numb if we weren't all already there. Derrick Rose hits a bomb to cut the deficit to three, Joakim Noah takes a charge on LeBron, Jimmy Butler makes a thoroughly ridiculous jump-back three, Mike Dunleavy draws another charge on LeBron, Rose leaves Iman Shumpert in the dust and finishes over LeBron at the rim to tie the game with nine seconds left.
It was exhausting even while motionless, which has to be a phenomenon exclusive to sports.
Of course, the Bulls never should have been in position to need the miracle comeback, which is why the end felt so inevitable. Was there any other way that game could finish than for LeBron to rip out your intestines and force feed them back to you? It felt fitting, if nothing. The Bulls and Cavs now go back to Cleveland tied at 2-2 and all of Chicago knows exactly what kind of opportunity was lost.
If the Bulls lose this series, Game 4 is going to be the point where it all fell apart. Maybe you can convince yourself the back-to-back buzzer-beaters from Rose and LeBron cancel each other out. There's only one difference: Game 3 was a slugfest someone had to win; Game 4 was in the Bulls' possession until they choked it up.
With no Kevin Love, an ineffective Kyrie Irving and a version of LeBron that needed 30 shots to score 25 points ... it's hard to shake the feeling that the Bulls lost that game more than Cleveland won it.
When it finished, more than one fine Bulls blogger pronounced this series over. It was that type of loss. It was in the moment and it was emotional and I don't blame them. Hell, they are very likely to be right. But for now, I'm not ready to declare the season dead just yet. If you said at the start of this thing that the Bulls would be going back to Cleveland for Game 5 tied at 2-2, most of us would probably take it.
That doesn't mean it's acceptable. Things have changed. For one, this current version of the Cavs -- the one where Irving can barely run and David Blatt is doing everything in his power to fuck it up, they just aren't that good. It's part of what makes this entire series so anxious: if the Bulls are ever going to beat LeBron, this is the time. They have the talent. Look across the conference and Atlanta is struggling, John Wall is hurt; it just seems so obvious this should be the Bulls' year. Perhaps that's why it's so hard to watch. We know the stakes a little too well.
Fortunately, the players seem better suited for this than we are. Think back to their non-reaction after winning on Cleveland's floor in Game 1. Look at the post-game quotes from Sunday. It doesn't sound like a team that's ready to admit defeat:
Noah has been pumping positivity since Game 4 loss. He says team's mindset is "great."— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) May 11, 2015
Bulls sure don't sound like a team that feels like the sky is falling. They sound like a team that is still convinced it can win.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) May 10, 2015
Deep down, I'd like to think the Bulls know they have more talent -- at least in the current conditions. LeBron is shooting 37.7 percent from the field and 10.5 percent from three in the series. The Cleveland rotation is down to seven guys -- are you really going to let J.R. Smith knock you out of the playoffs? Are you going to watch your coach get fired because you couldn't close out on Matthew Dellavedova or box out Tristan Thompson?
You have to think Thibodeau's status hovers over everything. He's gone if the Bulls lose this series. He's probably still gone if they somehow beat Cleveland and lose in the next round. For as grating as his style might be, I never believed he's lost the respect of the team. Players like Taj, Noah, Rose, Jimmy: this is the coach who made them who they are as players, and helped get them all of the money that came with it. I don't think they want Thibodeau fired. I think they know it'll happen if they don't win two out of these next three games.
There's just so much riding on this series for the franchise, both in the short-term and the long-term. Win and exorcise all past demons LeBron has plagued you with. Lose and there's going to be a new coach with new philosophies and a new style on the way.
This is not the way the Bulls want to go out. Who knows if they can actually win this series; I've just seen this group overcome too much to expect them to roll over.