The Bulls thought they had enough to knock off the star-studded Miami Heat, and they came close to making it happen.
But after being eliminated Thursday night with a shocking 18-3 run to end the game, the Bulls can only think about how they can change the outcome next season.
Chicago lost the Eastern Conference finals 4-1, but it missed three chances to take the lead in Game 4 during the final minute of the fourth quarter, then lost in overtime. In Game 5, the Bulls squandered a 12-point lead in the final 3:14.
It doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to say the Bulls should have been up 3-2 in the series. In four of the five games, their defense held Miami to 85 points or fewer through the end of four quarters.
Looking at the big picture, maybe a rough ending is the best thing for the Bulls. The bad memory should help motivate the players for more of those Tom Thibodeau summer workouts, then the endless defensive drills next year in training camp.
"It hurts," center Joakim Noah said. "I love my teammates. I'm going to work really hard this offseason and be better next year for the team."
Guard Derrick Rose said, "Too bad we couldn't get to the Finals, but we've still got a shot next year. I won't take back anything from this year. It's been great. I think (the loss) is going to make everybody hungry."
The team figures to remain mostly intact next season. The only free agents in the rotation are guard Keith Bogans and veteran center Kurt Thomas. Both would probably return if asked.
HEAT 83, BULLS 80: The Bulls were practically holding their boarding passes for a return trip to Miami for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. They held a 77-65 lead with 3:14 remaining, but they let it all slip away and suffered a season-ending loss Thursday at the United Center. Miami won the series 4-1 and moves on to face Dallas in the NBA Finals.
The game seemed to be in hand when guard Ronnie Brewer knocked down a 3-pointer and later added a free throw to create the 12-point advantage.
The Heat's comeback began with a couple of baskets by Dwyane Wade, who struggled most of the night. Then LeBron James knocked down a 3-pointer to bring Miami within five. After guard Derrick Rose hit a jumper in the lane to stretch the lead to seven, Rose tapped Wade's elbow on a 3-point attempt. The ball went through the net, and the foul made it a four-point play. Rose missed a driving attempt, setting up James' tying 3-pointer with 1:01 remaining. Then James deflected a Rose pass, made the steal and knocked down a 20-foot jumper to put the Heat ahead with 29.5 seconds left.
Rose quickly drew a foul against James but missed the second free throw that would have tied the score. Miami's Chris Bosh hit a pair of free throws and James blocked Rose's desperation 3-point attempt at the buzzer.
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