It was the perfect play for LeBron James to win a game at the buzzer — one-on-one, driving to the basket against a smaller defender, Joakim Noah nowhere near the play.
But this time the locomotive skidded off the tracks.
This time that unstoppable force of athletic greatness never made it to the rim.
This time Bulls defender Jimmy Butler made the perfect defensive play, stripping the back-to-back MVP of the basketball in mid-flight to force an overtime period the Bulls dominated on their home court at United Center.
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The Heat’s 95-88 loss in Chicago ended a disastrous three-game road trip that featured loss after loss after loss.
“I dropped the ball,” James said. “That’s a double-entendre, right? A actually dropped the ball, but I also dropped the ball on my team.”
Literary devices aside, the Heat also dropped another opportunity to move closer to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. The three-game losing streak coincided with a four-game losing streak by the East-leading Indiana Pacers.
In his first full game without his protective mask since strapping it on Feb. 27, James finished with 17 points and went 8 of 23 from the field. He went 1 of 3 from the three-point line and didn’t attempt a free throw. It was the first time James has not attempted a free throw in a game since Dec. 2, 2009, against the Phoenix Suns.
The Heat blew a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter and, amazingly, allowed 14 second-chance points in the fourth quarter and overtime. Despite all that, the Heat had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation.
“I had it,” James said. “And it was a great play, and give a lot of credit to Jimmy — he got his hand on the ball — but I had the lane, and I had the layup.
“I don’t know. I messed up on my scouting report. I knew if I brought the ball back to my left side, then he would strip it, too, and I went in and brought it over a little too far and he was able to get a hand on it.”
Things then fell apart for the Heat in overtime.
A three-pointer by D.J. Augustin to begin overtime gave the Bulls a three-point lead, and then a key offensive rebound and jumper by Butler extended Chicago’s lead to 91-86 with 2:25 to play. Butler finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four steals.
A sloppy pass by Dwyane Wade gifted the Bulls another possession and an offensive rebound and put-back by Noah over Chris Andersen with 1:53 left put the Bulls ahead 93-86. Noah then swatted away a layup attempt by Mario Chalmers on the other end and the celebrating began.
Noah, who led the Florida Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships, bounced and screamed with his signature grimace while Butler ran the floor and forced Wade to foul.
Butler made both free-throw attempts to give Chicago a nine-point lead with 93 seconds left in the game.
The Heat committed 18 turnovers, which the Bulls converted into 19 points. Chicago outrebounded the Heat 47-42 and outscored the Heat on second-chance points 27-6. Augustin led the Bulls with 22 points off the bench, and Noah had 20 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks.
Wade led the Heat with 25 points, going 11 of 12 from the free-throw line. Chris Bosh had 15 points, five rebounds and was 3 of 5 from the three-point range.
A three-pointer by Augustin cut the Heat’s lead to 74-73 in the fourth quarter, and Butler put Chicago ahead with a pair of free throws with 6:34 left in regulation. Butler’s free throws came after a steal and a dunk attempt on Wade in the open court. Wade prevented the basket with a foul, but Butler’s display of force energized the crowd nonetheless.
From there, the end of regulation featured four lead changes and five ties. A three-pointer by Bosh, his third of the game, gave the Heat an 82-80 lead with 3:18 left in the game. Bosh has made at least three three-pointers in six games this season.
A five-foot jumper by Noah tied the score with 2:45 left, and a powerful breakaway dunk by Taj Gibson gave Chicago an 84-82 lead at the two-minute mark. James answered with a driving layup on Noah to once again tie the score and set the stage for a classic ending.
The perimeter steal by Wade on Butler following a Bulls timeout gave the Heat a chance to retake the lead, and Wade did just that with a pair of free throws. A driving layup by Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich then tied it at 86 with 20 seconds to play.