Cavaliers 94, Bulls 73 (Cavs win 4-2)

It was a tie game when Kyrie Irving hobbled off to the locker room. LeBron James was off to a 2-7 start; Derrick Rose was feeling it; a tangible energy was swelling throughout the United Center.

Irving never returned. The Bulls lost by 21. It was a deflating end to a season that saw the Bulls passionately respond to misfortune time and time again. It was almost certainly a stunning end to the Tom Thibodeau era. And it was the loudest way possible to beg a series of uncomfortable questions for a core that has seen its window slowly shrink since 2011.

“In order to be a great team and a championship-caliber team, you have to be a little more consistent than we have been,” Pau Gasol said after the game. “We have to mature and take this opportunity to grow as a team. Digest the pain of losing and being eliminated tonight, take it all in, work this summer and get ready for the next run.”

Who will be at the helm of that next run remains to be seen. The relationship between Thibodeau and Bulls management seemingly reached a public nadir every week during the winter, and reports circulated during these playoffs that Thibodeau would be ousted from Chicago no matter how far his team advanced. Thibs seems to be a natural fit to replace Monty Williams and continue to grow Anthony Davis (!), but he refused to look forward during a somber press conference Wednesday.

“Until they tell me I’m not, I expect to be here. That’s the way I approach it,” Thibodeau said. “When you’re a pro, it’s easy to get sidetracked. If you want find an excuse, you can. If you want to make good, you can. There’s always a lot of adversity. It’s in the way you look at things. Being mentally tough through adversity is huge. You have to look at it as an opportunity to grow.”

Adversity came when Nikola Mirotic was called for a flagrant foul after clotheslining Iman Shumpert midway through the second quarter. Shumpert responded by scoring six consecutive points, including a layup and a 3 over Mirotic, and the Bulls quickly lost composure. Shumpert finished with a vengeful 11 points and six boards in the quarter, while the Bulls fell down 14 at halftime.

Then came what had to be one of the ugliest halves of basketball ever put together by a team facing elimination. The Bulls had six total points in a 12-minute span, allowed eight fourth-quarter points to Matthew Dellavedova and looked absolutely lifeless on both ends of the floor as their season came to a slow-burning, unceremonious finish. Rose and Jimmy Butler were the only two Bulls to finish with double-digit scoring, and they shot a combined 15-38.

And yes, LeBron James did play in this game. Not particularly well. James finished just 7-23 and turned the ball over nine times. But with Irving ailing and The King diminished, the Cavs took a commanding lead and controlled the game’s tempo with Shumpert, Dellavedova, Tristan Thmpson and JR Smith. The Cavaliers continued their excellence on the glass, almost doubling the Bulls’ rebounding total, and the team’s volatile 3-point shooting came on strong at the right time to the tune of a 44.4 percent clip.

Despite one of the most erratic and, at times, concerning playoff series of his career, LeBron James ultimately owns the two plays that swung the Eastern Conference semis: the buzzer-beating jumper in Game 4 and the leaping block on Rose’s potential game-tying layup in Game 5.

“Throughout the playoffs, I have never seen a shadow of doubt or fear on anyone’s face. I have to give LeBron a lot of credit,” David Blatt said. “He is a true leader here.

“The key thing in it all was we never made any excuses. Kevin was hurt, Kyrie was hurt, but we just went about our job on how we could win the game.”

Despite its anticlimactic finish, this series provided us with a cadre of great moments. Rose’s game winner offered a brief flash of redemption after three years of pain and patience. James’ game winner offered redemption after a 9-for-29 stinker. And save for the 2007 Game 5 against the Pistons and the 2012 Game 6 in Boston, LeBron’s 38/12/6/3/3 Game 5 performance may have been his best playoff outing to date.

The Hawks and Wizards will continue to slug it out, while Irving rests and James readies. Despite countless unforseen circumstances, the Cavs are hitting their stride and looking awfully confident right as it matters most.

Steven Goldstein

Rockets 119, Clippers 107 (Series tied 3-3)

It was over. With 4 minutes left in the third quarter, the Clippers lead 87-68, and they were in complete control. They played with a relentless energy, locking down James Harden on defense and relying on Chris Paul and Blake Griffin as a rabid Staples Center crowd cheered them on and heckled Dwight Howard every time he touched the ball.

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were dominating. Paul had 22 points and 11 assists at this point in the third quarter, and he looked more mobile than he had at any point in the series, as he continues to recover from his hamstring injury. Griffin was even more impressive, running in transition, hitting midrange shot after midrange shot, and pulling off stuff that would be hard to do in a game of Horse.

Then, just as the Staples Center crowd started to look ahead to the Western Conference Finals, the Clippers melted down . In an implosion for the ages, Los Angeles got outscored 40 to 15 in the 4th quarter and somehow lost by double digits. The Rockets went on a 33-10 run that included a 24-2 run in which the Clippers didn’t hit a field goal for half of the quarter.

“We were trying to run the clock out and we stopped playing,” a stunned Doc Rivers said postgame. “What could have went wrong went wrong.”

Everything went right for Houston in the 4th, and they got key contributions from some unlikely players. Josh Smith (19 points, 2 assists, 3 rebounds) just went insane, scoring 16 points in the quarter and somehow hitting three three-pointers. Corey Brewer (19 points 2 assists, 10 rebounds) also went off in the 4th, getting out in transition for dunks and forcing several turnovers. He had 15 of his 19 points in the quarter. Jason Terry (7 points, 5 assists, 7 rebounds) had a vintage Jason Terry performance, trolling the crowd after hitting the ultimate dagger three to stretch the lead to 119-104 toward the end of the game. The Rockets just moved the ball beautifully in the 4th quarter, and they got open looks from both three point range (they hit 6 three’s in the quarter) and near the basket.

“That group just went out there and they just scrambled, they fought and they played their tails off on defense,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “They had a great sense about them that they were going to accomplish something.”

That group did not include James Harden. The MVP candidate sat on the bench for the entire quarter except for one two-second stretch at the end of the game. Harden (23 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds) may have lead the Rockets in points, but the numbers lie in this case. Harden was an atrocious 5-20 from the field, and JJ Redick did a great job harassing him along the perimeter and preventing him from getting open looks. Harden never could get in rhythm, and the ball stopped whenever he jab stepped and step backed into contested jumpers.

“I was thinking about putting him back in, but those guys earned the right to finish the game,” Kevin McHale said.

The Rockets also got a huge performance from Dwight Howard (20 points, 1 assist 20 rebounds), who was just a force on the boards. He was feisty all night, shoving Blake Griffin in the first quarter, flagrantly fouling him in the third and picking up a tech. But when he kept his composure he excelled, coming up with big rebounds and skying for alley oops.

For the Clippers their historic collapse means that big games from both Blake Griffin (28 points, 2 assist, 8 rebounds) and Chris Paul (31 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds) went for naught. Matt Barnes (9 points, 1 assist, 10 rebounds) also contributed a solid all around game. JJ Redick (15 points, 2 assists, 3 rebounds) had a good defensive game on Harden but missed several open jumpers that could have stretched the lead even more in the third quarter. While all these players played well, the fact that things were humming along so nicely for the Clippers through the first three quarters just makes what happened in the fourth quarter even more shocking.

“We took our foot off the gas, stopped defending, a lot of things,” said Blake Griffin.

Now the series will shift back to Houston, where Game 7 will be played on Sunday. The Rockets could be only the ninth team ever to make it back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series. Meanwhile the Clippers are looking to make it to the Western Conference Final for the first time ever. Whatever happens on Sunday, yesterday’s epic choke could become a defining moment in Clipper history if they lose in Houston. The stakes couldn’t get higher for the Clippers and the Rockets, but we’ll have to wait until Sunday to see how it all plays out.

Russell Simon