Among the multitude of highlights in the long-running clash between LeBron James and the Chicago Bulls, the big moments in this playoff series may stand alone.
Two former MVPs, two buzzer-beaters, two wins apiece.
With this Eastern Conference semifinal now a best-of-three, those dramatics only figure to increase Tuesday night when the series shifts back to Cleveland for a critical Game 5 after James gave the Cavaliers a thrilling win in Chicago.
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Derrick Rose handed the Bulls a 2-1 advantage with a last-second 3-pointer in a 99-96 win in Game 3 before James answered Sunday by knocking down a long jumper from the corner to lift Cleveland to an 86-84 victory.
That final play was initially designed with James throwing the inbound pass from beneath Cleveland’s basket – a plan the four-time MVP instantly rejected.
"I told Coach (David Blatt) there was no way I’m taking the ball out unless I could shoot it over the backboard and go in," James said. "So I told him, ‘Have somebody else take the ball out.’ The play that was drawn up, I scratched it. I just told Coach, ‘Just give me the ball. We’re either going to go into overtime or I’m going to win it for us.’"
James also carried Cleveland to victory in Game 2, scoring 22 first-half points en route to a 19-point halftime lead and eventual 106-91 victory.
Rose and Jimmy Butler claimed that leading role from James in Chicago’s two victories. They combined to score 45 in Game 1 and 50 points – 23 in the fourth quarter – in Game 3.
Rose has particularly impressed with an average of 30.5 points over the last two games, but with Pau Gasol sidelined by a strained hamstring, the 84 points Sunday matched the Bulls’ third-lowest total this season.
"Pau, the way that he scores, just his presence on the floor, the way that he shoots the ball, rebounds the ball, is huge," Rose told the team’s official website. "But I think the guys who stepped in did their jobs and they played well. We lost the game, for sure, but I love our mentality."
Gasol is a game-time decision, and the Bulls will again look to Nikola Mirotic and Taj Gibson should the All-Star forward be unable to play. They combined for 21 points and 17 rebounds in Game 3, but stumbled to only nine points and 11 boards Sunday.
Outside of Rose and Butler, no Bulls player scored in double figures in Game 4.
Kyrie Irving is also dealing with injuries that have limited him to 11.5 points per game over the last two. Unlike Chicago, however, the Cavaliers got support from their reserves Sunday, namely J.R. Smith, who hit three 3-pointers and scored 11 in the fourth.
A similar performance may again be necessary moving forward given Irving’s status. An MRI taken Monday revealed that in addition to a sprained right foot suffered during Cleveland’s first round series with Boston, Irving also has tendinitis in his left knee.
"It’s just about finding ways to be more effective, especially being out there," Irving said. "I still can shoot. You still have to respect me out there. It’s not like they can just leave me or anything like that. But I just try to use myself as a decoy and make plays as best I can."
James skipped Tuesday’s morning shootaround after hurting his ankle when he stepped on one of Rose’s feet on a drive to the basket Sunday. He says he’s getting treatment for the injury but will play.
Joakim Noah, whose trash talk in Game 3 was deemed "disrespectful" by James, grabbed 15 rebounds Sunday and will try to help the Bulls snap a losing postseason trend in Cleveland, where they’ve dropped four of five playoff games.
"We’re right where we want to be," Noah said. "We’re really excited for Game 5."