The deafening roars that kept washing over the United Center like waves early in Thursday night's game didn't sound merely like ovations.
With their hint of desperation and hope, they sounded like exhalations too.
Fully aware that a 3-0 hole would push them into needing-to-make-history territory, the Bulls gulped and took a deep breath but ultimately validated the fans' jitters, not joy.
A dramatic second-half collapse only reinforced what the first two blowouts in this Eastern Conference semifinal series had suggested: The Pistons are the far superior team.
Detroit's 81-74 victory gave the Pistons a stranglehold and placed the Bulls in the precarious position of trying to become the first team in NBA history to win a best-of-seven series with such a deficit.
The Pistons' coronation could come as early as Sunday's Game 4 here.
"It's all about pride," forward P.J Brown said. "We have to say, 'Hey, we're not going to end the season like this.' We know it's a tall hurdle to get over. But we have to give our best."
Trailing by as many as 19 points in the third quarter, the Pistons methodically attacked and advanced down the stretch with little resistance.
"From my seat, when they want to do something out there, they do it," coach Scott Skiles said. "When they want to penetrate, they penetrate. When they want to shoot threes, they shoot threes. Even when we're guarding them, they've been able to make shots."
And when the Pistons want to play defense, they play defense.
Playing zone for all but four or five second-half possessions, the Pistons flustered the Bulls into 4-of-25 shooting in the fourth quarter.
The Bulls scored just 13 points in the final quarter and went scoreless from the 3-minute-17-second mark of the fourth until Luol Deng made a superfluous three-point play with 3.1 seconds remaining.
Ten of the Bulls' 14 turnovers came in the second half. The Pistons committed just one after the break.
The Bulls scored fewer second-half points, with 30, than the Pistons did in tallying 32 in the third quarter alone.
"We didn't execute," Brown said. "That zone slowed us down, and we didn't really seem to figure it out. The movement of the ball and our bodies really slowed down."
Chauncey Billups' three-pointer with 6:57 remaining snapped a 66-66 tie and the Bulls never led again.
Ben Gordon, who failed to score in the fourth quarter, followed with a turnover. After Brown made one of two free throws, Rasheed Wallace followed with another three.
After another turnover, this one by Kirk Hinrich, Billups drained another jumper for a 74-67 advantage.
Andres Nocioni put the demoralizing final touch on the defeat when he missed two free throws with 84 seconds left and the Bulls down 76-71.
Deng scored 21 points to lead the Bulls, who shot 33.7 percent and have failed to crack 35 percent all series.
"I thought we pretty much handled the zone in the first half," Skiles said. "Once we got behind, we struggled to find the handle and fumbled balls. We missed some easy shots at the basket even. We got out of rhythm and couldn't get it back."
Tayshaun Prince's 23 points (19 in the second half) and 11 rebounds paced the Pistons. Billups added 21 points and seven assists.
The ending didn't seem possible when the Bulls ripped off an 18-2 spurt capped by Deng's three-point play with 16.3 seconds remaining in the first half that seemed symbolic of their extra effort early.
Deng's baseline drive and first shot was thwarted and blocked by Jason Maxiell. But Deng fought for the loose ball, scored and got fouled by Carlos Delfino.
The Bulls led 44-28 at the break. That lead disappeared in a hurry.
The Pistons ripped off a 15-2 third-quarter run as the Bulls missed 6 of 7 shots and committed three turnovers. Prince scored eight in the spurt and Billups added five, but it was the Pistons' defense that smothered.
Gordon, in particular, struggled, committing two turnovers and shooting an air ball out of the corner.
"That zone seemed to bother us," Gordon said. "We couldn't penetrate as easily as we did before. We have a zone offense that we run. But it wasn't working."
When Wallace beat the third-quarter buzzer with a three-pointer, the Bulls' lead had shrunk to 61-60, setting up the dismal fourth quarter.
Wallace's baseline jumper over Deng with 10:11 to play gave the Pistons their first lead since 6-4.
It wasn't their last.
"It's a difficult loss," Gordon said. "This was the biggest game of everybody's life, so it's tough. You try to stay positive. We have another game here."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times