MIAMI – In one locker room, Chicago’s Derrick Rose almost wept. The NBA’s reigning MVP had tears in his eyes.
In the other, fancier home locker room, Miami’s LeBron James smiled and joked about making the 40-minute bike ride home on a rainy night in South Florida. It turns out James rode his bicycle to AmericanAirlines Arena before the game.
“I do it all the time,” James said.
Life in the NBA can be cruel and funny sometimes. The Heat’s 97-93 victory over the Bulls on Sunday was a prime example; Rose and James, two of the NBA’s biggest stars, played the leading roles — and flubbed their lines in the big show.
It was just about a year ago that the Heat was the laughingstock of the NBA.
They’d just lost a close game to the Bulls and coach Erik Spoelstra, in a misguided effort to show how much his team cared, blurted out that players were crying in the locker room. It was one of those times the off-the-court story was better than the on-the-court story.
The same could be true now. Sunday’s late-game drama included two missed free throws by Rose, two missed free throws by James, one missed free throw by Miami’s Mario Chalmers, an inadvertent whistle that led to a pivotal jump ball, and a possession in which Chicago got four offensive rebounds before converting a bucket. And that was all in the final four minutes.
It was surreal to watch both Rose (34 points) and James (35 points) miss crucial free throws down the stretch. But the league’s last two MVPs had very different fortunes after they both almost choked the game away. That’s why one guy was almost crying and the other was smiling.
“You were expecting (Rose) to go up there and at least make one of them,” James said of those missed free throws. “The ball was on our side this time.”
We’ll see what happens from here.
Chicago (17-5) still has the best record in the East over the Heat (15-5). And the Bulls weren’t at full strength; they played without forward Luol Deng (wrist), a crucial absence.
So in the grand scheme of things this game will mean nothing. These teams, the top two in the East by all accounts, will play three more times during the regular season before they probably, if the basketball gods are willing, have a second consecutive matchup in the Eastern Conference finals.
But don’t tell that to the watery-eyed Rose.
“He takes losses very hard,” Bulls center Joakim Noah said.
Rose uncharacteristically missed a pair of free throws with 22.7 seconds left and the Bulls trailing, 94-93. Understand something: Rose was 26-for-26 on fourth-quarter free throws heading into the game. He was also on a second-half tear, having scored 21 points, many by getting to the rim after carving up Miami’s defense in typical Rose fashion.
Rose was on an even bigger free throw roll. He was a perfect 12-for-12 when he stepped to the line with the game in the balance and inexplicably bricked both shots.
“Give me one of those,” Rose lamented. “I missed both of those (expletive). Come on.”
James pulled a similar choke job on the line, missing a pair of free throws with 17.6 seconds left and the Heat clinging to that same 94-93 lead. He later called himself out on Twitter, saying in in part, “C’mon #6 make your d*mn free-throws!!”
But James was able to make up for his blunder soon after his second errant free throw caromed off the rim. His second missed free throw resulted in a Bosh rebound. But an inadvertent whistle made it a jump ball.
In that situation any player on the court can jump, and James, who defended everyone from Rose to center Omer Asik during the course of the game, insisted he handle the job. He did, and he won the jump against Taj Gibson.
“I had to get it after missing two free throws,” he said. “I had to do something after missing two free throws.”
In a way Sunday’s game was just one of 66. Heat guard Dwyane Wade (15 points on 4-for-16 shooting) struggled mightily. But his Big Three teammates James (11 rebounds, five assists and one block to go along with those 35 points) and Chris Bosh (24 points, 12 rebounds) thrived. In that respect, this game was similar to last year’s Eastern Conference finals.
And in the end. James was smiling and Rose was dejected. That, too, makes it similar to last year’s conference finals, which saw the Heat win in five games after dropping Game 1.
Maybe Sunday’s game was simply snapshot of the past and not an indication of the future. That’s what Chicago hopes. The Bulls haven’t been able to beat Miami in a while.
Chicago defeated the Heat all three times in the regular season last year and then took Game 1 of the playoffs only to lose the final four games and a chance to go to the NBA Finals. The Bulls even blew a 12-point lead in the final three minutes of Game 5. And now this.
Basketball can be cruel and funny sometimes. If you don’t believe that, imagine looking at it through Rose’s watery eyes as James got ready to ride his bike home.
Chris Perkins is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com, covering the NBA and the Miami Heat. His columns regularly appear every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter.