It's been a little over a week since the Chicago Bulls grabbed a statement victory over the Miami Heat in Game 1, but it certainly feels like it's been a lot longer than that.
Since their seven-point win on May 6, the Bulls have suffered three straight defeats and made numerous undesirable entries into the history books.
Their Game 2 debacle saw them labor through the worst playoff loss in franchise history, a 115-78 drubbing by the scalding Heat. Their effort (or lack thereof) in Game 4 set a new Bulls basement for offensive futility, as Chicago set franchise-worst marks for points scored in a game (65), points in a quarter (nine) and field-goal percentage (25.7).
The Heat haven't played a perfect series either.
LeBron James' field-goal percentage has re-entered Earth's atmosphere (45.4). Dwyane Wade has worn the effects of a nagging knee injury (11.3 points per game). Shane Battier (28.6) and Ray Allen (23.1) can't shoot their way above the 30 percent mark from three.
But Miami's made enough plays, particularly on the defensive end, to now be sitting one win away from its third straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
Time: Wednesday, May 15, 7 p.m. ET
Where: AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami
Series: Miami 3-1
Game 5 Key Storyline: Tangibles and Intangibles
Chicago didn't need its opening-round win over the Brooklyn Nets for this season to be considered a success.
No matter how badly the Bulls tried to avoid it, the ominous shadow left by Derrick Rose loomed large over their heads all season. The media played a role in keeping the story alive, but so too did the leaked reports of a March medical clearance or the former MVP's pregame sightings.
Tom Thibodeau's team made the right play in this series, upping the physical ante early and often. But the undermanned and overworked healthy players couldn't respond when the Heat met that physical challenge.
Grittiness and heart can only carry so much weight when the talent gap is this one-sided.
Save for a complete Miami collapse in Game 5, Chicago will be forced to draw from its already depleted reserve tanks.
But even that might not be enough to delay the Heat's passage to the next round of their title defense. Miami's superstar collection rightfully dominates the coverage of this team, but the Heat have hustlers and garbage men lining their roster.
With Wade far from 100 percent and Bosh (14.0 points per game in the series) still feeling his way around his new role as the second in command, the Heat need players like Udonis Haslem, Norris Cole and Chris Andersen to continue to hit the deck for loose balls and bang for boards.
The Bulls know how to beat this Heat team; they've done it three times this season. But Miami has the blue-collar workers to fall back on if the contest gets ugly.
Series Star So Far: LeBron James
By his own MVP standards, James has shown a hint of mortality in this series.
By any other metric, though, the King has claimed his throne atop the basketball world. And when the lights have shined brightest in the postseason, he's responded with his most brilliant performances, via ESPN's Numbers Never Lie:
His And Hers @HisAndHers
The King is CLUTCH. @KingJames is averaging 13.5 PPG in the 4TH QTR this postseason. He's averaging 13.7 in the first 3 Qtrs combined.5/13/2013, 5:26:52 PM
He's led all scorers in two of the four games and never finished outside of the top two. And his diverse skill set has afforded him ventures across the box score.
His series averages haven't strayed far from the regular-season stats that brought him his fourth MVP in five seasons: 23.8 points, 7.8 assists, 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals. The only chink in his postseason armor, struggles at the free-throw line, has since been sewn up with a 19-of-20 showing at the charity stripe in his last two games.
Projected Starting Lineups:
Chicago: Nate Robinson, PG; Marco Belinelli, SG; Jimmy Butler, SF; Carlos Boozer, PF; Joakim Noah, C
Miami: Mario Chalmers, PG; Dwyane Wade, SG; LeBron James, SF; Udonis Haslem, PF; Chris Bosh, C
Bulls Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Kirk Hinrich (calf), questionable; Luol Deng (illness), doubtful; Derrick Rose (knee), out
Heat Injury Report
Bulls Will Win If...
Thibodeau can find productive relief for his starting five.
Jimmy Butler has logged three 40-minute games already in the series, with a pair of 48-minute efforts on his resume. Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson have each seen 40-plus minutes of work twice, and Joakim Noah has labored through his own 40-plus-minute night.
Thibodeau opened his rotation (slightly) in Game 4, giving Richard Hamilton his first work of the series and 16 minutes to rookie Marquis Teague. The results weren't exactly Earth-shattering, as the reserves amassed a combined minus-24 rating, but this was still an attempted solution that needs to be revisited on Wednesday.
The Bulls looked like a team playing without legs in Game 4. Chicago missed 15 of its 17 three-point attempts, with Hamilton accounting for both of the converted triples.
There's going to be some give-and-take here.
Hamilton's defense will leave fans wanting for even a winded Belinelli to man the wing, but the veteran can score points in bunches and knows how to value a possession. Teague may struggle with his decision-making at times, but he'll bring a jolt of athleticism that could bring the easy buckets that have avoided Chicago in this series. (The Bulls have a total of 20 fast-break points in the series.)
If his new-look reserve crop can at least tread water, then the Bulls starters can enjoy some desperately needed breaks from the action.
Heat Will Win If...
They take care of the basketball and pay attention to details.
Miami may be enjoying a commanding 3-1 series lead, but it hasn't avoided a flurry of empty possessions. Over the past three games, the Heat have averaged 15 turnovers.
Now, their commitment to getting back on defense has helped negate the impact of their, at times, reckless play. The Bulls have just 34 points to show for the 45 turnovers they've forced since Game 2.
Still when a team's struggling to score as mightily as the Bulls are, the last thing their opponent wants to do is kick-start those scorers with free paths to the basket. A steady diet of half-court opportunities for Nate Robinson may well be the key ingredient to a closeout win for Miami.
The Heat have shown what they're capable of when they're dialed in. They can silence an opposing offense as well as any team in the league, then turn those stops into buckets in the blink of an eye.
But there's still work to be done in this series; Chicago won't eliminate itself.
The Bulls have been held under 80 points twice in the last three games. No matter how strong their defense looked, that's simply not going to get it done against the defending champs.
They're not a fast-paced team, but have a collection of athletes capable of running the floor with the blazing Heat.
If they have anything left in the tank, that is.
Miami looks like it can smell blood. It knows that a series-clinching win on Wednesday night would give Wade the best chance to recover his knee injury before the conference finals get started.
Expect to see some fight from Chicago, a closely contested 24 minutes even.
But then get ready for a blistering Heat wave, a season-ending chill blowing through the Windy City and a subdued celebration in South Beach.
Heat 96, Bulls 81
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