Back in March, the Bulls ended the Heat’s 27-game winning streak in this building they call “The Madhouse.”
On Friday, the Heat started a slightly more important streak at United Center with a 104-94 victory against the Bulls in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Dating to the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat has won three consecutive playoff games at Chicago’s shrine of basketball. Miami now leads the best-of-7 series 2-1, with Game 4 on Monday at United Center.
After struggling with his outside shot for most of the game, LeBron James drilled a spot-up three-pointer from the wing with 2:34 left to give the Heat a 93-86 lead. Later, Norris Cole’s three-pointer from 27 feet put the Heat ahead by eight points, its largest lead of the game to that point.
From there, the Heat closed it out behind the dominating strength of James, who completed a three-point play with 1:23 remaining.
Ray Allen made one of two free throws to give the Heat a 100-94 lead with 39.1 seconds left. Allen’s miss was his first miss from the free-throw line in the series.
The Heat, which lost Game 1 at AmericanAirlines Arena, once again holds home-court advantage in the series. James led the Heat with 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. He had 10 points in the fourth quarter and was 2 of 4 from three-point range.
Chris Bosh had 20 points and 19 rebounds, and Cole followed up his breakout performance in Game 2 with another impressive show. He finished with 18 points — also his scoring total in Game 2 — and was 6 of 7 from the field and 3 of 3 from three-point range. Cole nearly matched the combined scoring of the Heat’s other two guards, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers. Wade and Chalmers, the Heat’s starters, contributed 19 points. Wade had just 10 points, going 5 of 7 from the field.
“If [Bosh] gets 12, 14 rebounds, we’re a dangerous team,” James said. “It just shows his activity level. He’s out there with one of the best rebounders in the game and guarding Joakim [Noah] play-for-play, and for him to have 19 rebounds and for Norris to come off the bench and defend Nate [Robinson] and also contribute offensively those two guys are the reason we won the game.”
The game was close from beginning to end, with the score never separated by more than seven points until late in the fourth quarter. James knocked down a corner three-pointer with 43 seconds left in the third to tie it 69-69, and the period ended tied at 70-70. The first quarter ended tied 25-25, and the Heat led 52-50 at halftime. There were 10 ties and seven lead changes in the first half alone. Overall, there were 11 lead changes and 14 ties.
“You’ve got to put [Chicago] in the top-three hardest-playing teams in the league, so when you come in here you’ve got to compete at a high level,” Udonis Haslem said. “They make you compete at a high level. If you don’t compete, then you’re going to get embarrassed by their effort.”
A dunk by Wade gave the Heat a five-point lead with 6:23 left in the game. It was the Heat’s largest lead, but it didn’t last long. Carlos Boozer, playing his best basketball of the series, drilled a 16-foot, pull-up jumper seconds later. Boozer finished with 21 points but was outplayed by Bosh, whose 19 rebounds set a career postseason high. Bosh had 10 points and 10 rebounds by halftime.
“You can’t win a championship pretty and shiny,” Bosh said. “You have to get dirty, you’re going to have to play physical, you’re going to have to dive on the floor, you’re going to have to do the things that are extremely tough, and I think people forget just two years ago that we were a grind-it-out, half-court kind of team that was trying to beat you down.”
Led by Marco Belinelli, the Bulls entered the fourth quarter 6 of 12 from three-point range. But Belinelli picked up his fifth foul in the third quarter, which forced Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau to start 5-9 Nate Robinson and 6-2 Marquis Teague in the backcourt to begin the final period.
Belinelli finished with 16 points, and his final three-pointer of the game cut the Heat’s lead to 90-86 with 3:01 left. But the Bulls could get no closer. Belinelli was 4 of 9 from three-point range, and the Bulls were 7 of 22 from distance. Chicago shot 45.4 percent, and the Heat was 35 of 70 from the field (50.0). Led by Bosh, the Heat outrebounded the Bulls 39-37.
James had an off night by his standards, going 6 of 17 from the field. He missed badly from three-point range with 10:15 left in the fourth quarter, and the Bulls countered with a three-point play by Jimmy Butler. From there, the game went into overdrive.
Bosh gave the Heat a 75-73 lead with a three-pointer from the corner, but Robinson answered with a circus shot off the glass.
After nine technical fouls in Game 2, the extracurricular activities continued into Game 3. Bulls reserve forward Nazr Mohammed was ejected in the first half after shoving James to the ground. James and Noah also received technical fouls.
“From my angle, I saw a guy just basically flop,” Thibodeau said of James’ fall.
Said James: “If I get ejected and Nazr Mohammed gets ejected, who wins? It’s as simple as that.”