If the Bulls don't advance in the NBA playoffs because of a tough first-round matchup, look no further than Saturday at the United Center as the symbolic first loss in that series.
The Bulls blew a four-point lead in the final minute of overtime, surrendering eight straight points in a brutal 112-108 loss to the Cavaliers. In the process they kicked away a chance to seize the Eastern Conference's second seed.
In simple terms, the finish amounted to the Cavaliers' go-to guy, a fellow by the name of LeBron James, producing and the Bulls' go-to guy, Ben Gordon, doing a pratfall.
In athlete speak, it meant more.
"We showed our mental toughness and got the job done," James said.
The Cavaliers lead the Bulls by 1 games with less than 10 games remaining for both teams. Though Cleveland evened the completed season series, the Bulls do own the tiebreaker because of their better division record if the teams finish with identical marks.
But the Bulls appeared poised to render such fine print superfluous after Gordon drained a 23-foot jumper and Ben Wallace calmly made two free throws with 61 seconds left in overtime after rebounding a James three-point miss.
James, who led all scorers with 39 points, had other ideas.
After settling for jumpers and not making a field goal the final 7:04 of regulation, James became interested with the Cavaliers down 108-104.
He blew right past Kirk Hinrich for a basket and a foul, sinking the free throw with 42.3 seconds remaining.
After a forced Gordon miss early in the shot clock, James drove and easily banked a 9-footer over Luol Deng and Tyrus Thomas for a 109-108 Cavaliers lead with 20.7 seconds to play.
"Anytime he wanted to put it on the deck and go somewhere, we had great difficulty in moving our feet and stopping him," coach Scott Skiles said.
Gordon, pushed to almost halfcourt by the aggressive double team of Anderson Varejao and Larry Hughes, threw a lazy cross-court pass to Thomas that Drew Gooden stole. That represented one of his five turnovers; the Bulls had 19 overall.
"[Guard] Damon Jones suggested we do a blitz on Gordon defensively and that's what we did down the stretch," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "It really worked."
The Bulls then fouled Hughes, who offered hope when he split his free throws with 9.2 seconds left.
But Gordon, who led the Bulls with 37 points, didn't come close on his game-winning three-point attempt from 25 feet with 1.9 seconds remaining. Hughes tacked on two free throws for the final score.
"It felt good," Gordon said of his final attempt. "Those are always tough shots to make."
They appear to becoming increasingly so for Gordon, whose game-winner March 25 at Indiana snapped a string of six potential game-winning misses.
Gordon, who tied the game 100-100 on a technical free throw with 39.7 seconds remaining in regulation after a defensive three-second call on Donyell Marshall, also missed two potential game-winners before overtime.
His wild drive and layup with 30.9 seconds left was rebounded by Wallace, leading to Gordon's 18-foot miss.
Hinrich rebounded that errant shot, but Gordon, affected by Brown switching Hughes onto him, threw the ball away.
That gave the Cavaliers a final chance in regulation. But Sasha Pavlovic, who went 13 points over his average with 21 points, missed at the buzzer.
"I didn't think it was just Ben," Skiles said. "I thought we made some questionable judgments, for sure, with the ball in the last few minutes of regulation and overtime."
The loss ended the Bulls' four-game winning streak and they fell to 2-2 in overtime games.
"This was a playoff-type game," James said. "We knew it. They knew it."
Hinrich said: "This was about as big as it gets for the regular season. It's disappointing."
email@example.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times