The Miami Heat did not want to get on a Chicago-bound plane today, a trip that would have been as much an annoyance as it would have raised a specter of doubt.
So they jumped to an 18-point first-quarter lead Wednesday night in Game 5 of the conference semifinals and appeared ready to roll. But the Chicago Bulls did not go down easily and the Heat were forced to rally and then hold on for a 94-91 victory.
The win sent them to the conference finals for the third consecutive year. They will face the winner of the New York-Indiana series.
The Bulls had two chances to send the game into overtime in the waning seconds but Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler both misfired on 3-point attempts and the AmericanAirlines Arena crowd let out a sigh of relief.
“You play the Chicago Bulls you wouldn’t expect the finish to be any less than that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We knew right from the very beginning of this series we were going to have to earn everything we got.”
The Heat are now halfway to their goal of repeating as champions after sweeping Milwaukee in the first round and eliminating the injury-riddled Bulls in five games. The conference finals will start Monday or Wednesday in Miami.
The competition is expected to get much more difficult with the Pacers dominating their series with the Knicks. Indiana leads 3-1 and could end the series tonight in New York.
Despite Chicago being short-handed, “it was a tough series,” Miami’s LeBron James said. “Tonight we gave everything we had. I got no energy left. We got an opportunity to regroup and wait to see who our next opponent is.”
James said this was one of the toughest close-out games of his career. Miami is 9-2 in games in which it could end a series since James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami.
James led the Heat with 23 points, but it was Wade and the bench who made sure this series was not extended.
Wade, who was not a sure bet to play until he tested his troublesome right knee before the game, finished with 18 points, including three big baskets in the fourth quarter. Udonis Haslem had his best game of the postseason, scoring 10 points, including eight of the Heat’s first 12 points of the game.
The Heat’s bench, which was a huge advantage against the undermanned Bulls, took over in the fourth quarter after Chicago stretched its lead to 11 with 1:50 remaining in the third quarter.
Shane Battier had missed his first three shots and was 6-of-25 from the floor (all 3-point attempts) in the series when he made a pair of threes early in the fourth quarter.
Those were sandwiched around a Chris Andersen slam on a lob from Norris Cole.
“We always talk about being a deep team,” said Bosh, who had 12 points and seven rebounds. “We have guys that on any given night will finish no matter how big or small the game.”
The second 3-pointer by Battier cut Miami’s deficit to 79-77.
With the momentum clearly back in Miami’s favor, Cole made a jumper with 6:48 remaining that regained the lead for the Heat, 82-81. Moments later, he weaved through the lane for a left-handed dunk over Joakim Noah. Cole had five points, all in the fourth quarter.
“To get a basket down the stretch in the fourth quarter of a playoff game is big,” Cole said. “For it to be a dunk is icing on the cake.”
Wade then took over with six of Miami next 10 points.
“It was very challenging to be up like we were and be down like we were in the second half,” James said. “Mentally we had to not get too high and not get too low.”
The Bulls on Wednesday night had an astounding stretch in which they outscored Miami 71-42 to go from 18 points down in the first quarter to an 11-point lead late in the third quarter.