The Miami Heat’s star players cast off their struggles and staged a furious finish to beat the Chicago Bulls 83-80 on Thursday and advance to the NBA Finals.
The soaring comeback from a 77-65 deficit in the final three minutes propelled the Heat to the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, a repeat of the 2006 championship series which Miami won 4-2.
Led by their “Big Three” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami went on a closing 18-3 run to stun the Bulls and complete a 4-1 triumph in the best-of-seven series for the Eastern Conference title.
James, who missed nine shots in a row before catching fire at the end, led the Heat with 28 points as Miami swept the final four games after dropping the opener in Chicago.
Wade, who committed nine turnovers, contributed 21 points, including a key four-point play, while Bosh scored 20, supplying some cushion with the final two free-throw points.
League MVP Derrick Rose topped Chicago with 25 points, but his desperate three-point heave as time expired was blocked by James.
“Defense. Staying together,” James told a court-side reporter about how the Heat overtook the Bulls. “Just buckled down defensively and executed.”
The Bulls contributed to their own demise by unraveling in the closing minutes. They turned the ball over, failed to get off decent shots and allowed Miami a four-point play when Rose fouled Wade as he sank a three-pointer.
After James, Wade and Bosh joined forces in Miami by deciding to sign as free agents with the Heat, they became a love-or-hate team in the NBA, even as they went through growing pains in learning how to play together.
They showed they had come of age by charging past the young Bulls, who had beaten them in all three regular season meetings and who had never lost more than two in a row this season.
“It’s disappointing,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We came up short at the end. We have to learn from it. They have the ability to make tough shots and they’re hard to guard.”
The game was a tight defensive struggle similar to the previous four contests with Chicago leading by four after the first quarter, by seven at the half and by five heading into the fourth.
The Bulls, getting a boost from bench players Kurt Thomas and Ronnie Brewer, charged to 12-point lead and looked like they were sending the series back to Miami for a Game 6.
Then the tide turned.
Wade scored two baskets and James sank a three-pointer to end his nine-shot drought and the lead was cut to 77-72.
Wade, who was MVP of Miami’s last title run in 2006, canned a three-pointer and was fouled by Rose. The free throw completed a four-point play that made it 79-76.
James drained another three to tie it at 79-79. His step-back jumper amazingly put Miami in the lead with a minute left.
Rose was fouled on a drive to the hoop and missed one of his two free throws to make the score 81-80, before Bosh sank two for the final margin.
The big-game finish by James and Wade, who had proclaimed they were joining forces to win championships, drew grudging respect from the Bulls.
“Give credit where credit is due,” Chicago’s Joakim Noah said. “They’re Hollywood as hell, but they’re still a hell of a team.”
Miami have home court advantage in the finals and will host Game 1 on Tuesday.