Sometimes a shot can define a series. Take Norris Cole’s driving dunk Wednesday.
Translation: Let’s finish this already.
Cole, the Heat’s high-topped point guard, already had his breakout games this series, so the Bulls’ Carlos Boozer should have had some idea that the second-year pro out of Cleveland State could quickly make a defense look silly.
Of course, anticipation on the defensive end has never really been Boozer’s strong suit.
Rushing hard to the hoop, Cole embarrassed Boozer with a fake before soaring high to the rim. Boozer never left his feet, and Joakim Noah was too late from the weak side. The surprising dunk gave the Heat a much-needed burst of energy — and the lead.
From there, Miami held on to defeat the Bulls 94-91 to clinch its Eastern Conference semifinals 4-1. The Heat will now have at least the weekend off before returning to the Eastern Conference finals.
“For it to be a dunk was icing on the cake,” said Cole, who had five points in 21 minutes.
All those off days before the Eastern Conference finals seemed in doubt for most of Wednesday’s Game 5. After taking a 22-4 lead in the first quarter, the Heat allowed the Bulls back into the game and then trailed by eight points entering the fourth quarter. After thumping the Bulls on Monday at United Center, a return to Chicago for Game 6 suddenly seemed possible.
“When you play the Chicago Bulls, you wouldn’t expect it to be any different than that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
But these Bulls weren’t exactly those Bulls the entire series. Not with Derrick Rose, the league’s MVP in 2011, sitting on the bench in a suit; and not with forward Luol Deng out with complications to a spinal tap; and not with point guard Kirk Hinrich also sitting out with a calf injury.
Somehow these Bulls of long odds kept things interesting even when everyone knew, including them, that this whole thing was preordained.
“It was a hard year — a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries, but there’s no giving up with this team,” Noah said. “It’s always about winning and losing, but I was really proud of the character of this team all season.”
The Heat’s story this season was partly about its improved bench, and those reserves cut through the Bulls’ fourth-quarter lead with ease.
Shane Battier started it with a three-pointer before Chris Andersen slammed down in transition a perfect lob from Cole. Another three-pointer by Battier brought the Heat within two points, and Cole’s dunk, following a series of free throws, gave Miami its first lead since about midway through the second quarter.
“In the beginning of the fourth our bench really sparked and gave us some life,” Spoelstra said. “From there, we were just able to make plays.”
Led by its backups, the Heat outscored the Bulls 25-14in the fourth quarter. Battier led the Heat with eight points in the final period. For the game, the Bulls outrebounded the Heat 40-32, but Miami scored 27 points off of 16 turnovers by Chicago.
Despite his sore right knee, Dwyane Wade scored six points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of key floaters in the lane in crunch time. He finished with 18 points, going 7 of 13 from the field with six assists and five rebounds.
“Dwyane is uncanny when the competition is fiercest,” Spoelstra said. “He just finds a way to make big plays.”
After the third quarter, Wade momentarily ducked into the Heat’s locker room to have his knee retaped and “tightened.”
The field medicine helped. Wade’s emphatic put-back dunk on a miss by Cole put the Heat ahead by seven points with 3:02 to play.
“Of all the games in the playoffs, this was the best I felt today,” said Wade, whose 18 points was a series high. “So hopefully I’m on the right track.”
LeBron James led the Heat with 23 points and had seven rebounds and eight assists. In the blue-collar series, James led the Heat with 23.6 points and 7.8 assists per game.
“This series took everything we had,” James said. “I’ve got no energy left. I think this was one of the toughest close-out games I’ve had.”
Boozer led the Bulls with 26 points, and Nate Robinson had 21, going 6 of 15 from the field after shooting 0 of 12 in Game 4.
Chris Bosh had 12 points and seven rebounds, including two three-pointers. His counterpart, Noah, had three points and nine rebounds.