Heat withstand best shot from Bulls

This was Chicago’s chance. This was Chicago’s time to shine.

With home-court advantage in their pockets after splitting with the Heat during two bruising games in Miami, the undermanned, underdog Bulls had given themselves an opportunity — one that few likely expected — to actually put the defending champs’ backs against the walls.

And, hell, if Chicago didn’t look like it might do it for a while there.

But then, in the third quarter, things began to fall apart. Miami took a close game that should have been a runaway loss and ran away with it themselves, in the fourth, eventually winning 104-94. And with it, they erased any slim chance Chicago had of stunning the world.

A win on Friday at the United Center would have put the Bulls up 2-1 heading into Monday’s Game 4, back in the house that Jordan built. That’s hardly an insurmountable lead, to be sure, especially against a team that has LeBron James on the floor for 44 minutes a night. But it would have been enough to force Miami to play with a sense of urgency that is rarely required against their Eastern Conference underlings.

Additionally, a little momentum goes a long way in the NBA playoffs, and a 2-1 edge would have had the Bulls believing — even if the rest of us weren’t quite convinced — that they could pull this off. Had the home crowd then willed 2-1 to 3-1, mighty Miami may have found itself suddenly questioning its own ability to beat a pesky gnat of a team that it should have smashed more easily.

Having to win three of four is tough, even for Miami. Having to win three of three is tougher. That’s why only eight teams in the history of the game have come back from down 3-1 to win. (Though Heat fans will be quick to remind you that they were responsible for one of those times.) A Game 3 win for Chicago would have made Game 4 a must-win for the Heat. Therefore, Game 3 was a must-win for the Bulls.

Don’t believe what any talk coming out of the Bulls locker room after tonight’s loss about this still being anyone’s series. They’re done. D-O-N-E.

This was their chance — their only chance — and they blew it, even with the Heat doing everything they could to give the game and series away. Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls tossed a tailor-made opportunity in the trash, and this is how it happened:

An early seven-point lead sparked by a rare offensive outburst from Carlos Boozer took just two minutes to completely evaporate, but no one was expecting a Game 2-like blowout with the Bulls on top. If Chicago was going to do this, it was going to come via sleight of hand, not a smash-and-grab. Both teams shot exceptionally well in the first quarter the Bulls hung around — something they vitally needed after Game 2’s rout — and the score was tied after one.

”We knew that being at home the Bulls were going to be a little more aggressive,” Heat center Chris Bosh said afterward. ”Probably a little bit more passionate and a little bit more intense. Those were storms we were going to have to weather.”

Bosh talked more about having to win ugly . . .

Chicago built another seven-point lead in the second quarter on the heels of an emotional Nazr Mohammed ejection — which Thibodeau, perhaps accurately, called a LeBron flop — sparking plenty of reaction on Twitter.

The Thibodeau postgame take . . .

But again, the advantage wouldn’t hold, and nine points from Shane Battier during a 22-13 run to close the quarter gave Miami a 52-50 edge at the break. Despite the Heat’s lead, it felt like they were trying to lose, and at the half, LeBron and Dwyane Wade had made only three field goals between them (and Wade had taken just one shot, period).

The third quarter saw the Heat try, once again, to unravel — doing their best to give the Bulls one last shot. Chicago couldn’t miss from the floor, and by the end of the period, the Heat players were even barking at each other, much to the delight of first-rate troll Joakim Noah.

With 2:41 left in the third, Chicago led 68-64. To that point, they had shot 51 percent from the floor and hit 50 percent of their 3s. They were outrebounding the Heat, and still, for the most part, limiting LeBron and D-Wade. Everything was coming up Millhouse for Chicago, and they still couldn’t pull away. And that’s how you knew it wouldn’t last.

And sure enough, it all went to hell over the final 14:41. Down the stretch, the Bulls shot 9 of 26. They hit just one of their 10 3-point attempts and got pounded on the glass, 17-12. LeBron discovered his 3-point stroke — so much for not having a clutch gene — and Nate Robinson never found his. After 33 minutes not capitalizing when everything was going right, everything went wrong for Chicago, and now the series is as good as over.

The Bulls now have no room for error, and that’s not a good place to be against the Heat. LeBron can smell blood in the water, and if Chicago goes back to Miami down 3-1, they might as well not even make the trip. The first three quarters of Game 3 represented the best effort the Bulls’ ragtag group could possibly muster, and it still wasn’t enough, even with Miami doing their best to be complicit in the upset. There’s no way the Bulls win a Game 7 on Miami’s home court, so they’ve got to sweep from here. Good luck with that.

But let it never be said that they didn’t have their chances.