Cavaliers 86, Bulls 84 (series tied, 2-2)

“It’s something you do as a kid when you play outdoors by your garage. You count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. You make the aaaghnt! noise and everything. It’s an unreal feeling and you can’t really explain it.”

Yes, there was once an iteration of LeBron James that dreamt of making the game-winning shot. That dribbled around his backyard frantically and hoisted jumper after jumper with no one to prove wrong and nothing but imaginary defenders to send home.

After two rings, four MVPs and a decade of almost unparalleled dominance, the playoff buzzer-beater doesn’t lose an ounce of surrealism.

But the LeBron James breaking down his stunning 21-footer over Jimmy Butler wasn’t supposed to be up at the podium if things were drawn up as planned. With the game knotted at 84 after a serpentine final two minutes, the Cavs held possession with 1.5 seconds to play. David Blatt called for the best player on the planet to inbound the ball. James—who earlier in this series was thwarting criticisms from media and teammates alike about his passivity—had another idea. The play call was changed, as was the series.

Then again, that LeBron James wasn’t supposed to even be involved in an inbounds play. Blatt noticeably scrambled to call a timeout after Derrick Rose converted a driving layup with 9.4 seconds left. The Cavaliers had none to use. Assistant coach Tyronn Lue grabbed his boss and somehow avoided the technical.

There was also the LeBron James that caught a deflating offensive foul two possessions prior to keep the Bulls alive. The LeBron James that emerged hobbling with a rolled left ankle after Rose drew a momentum-shifting charge in the third quarter. The LeBron James that missed 20 of his first 29 shots and turned the ball over eight times.

There was something obviously redemptive about James making the final shot, especially two nights after a Game 3 that also seemed destined for overtime before Rose seized it at the final whistle. But it was also, in a weird way, to be expected. James had looked too mortal for too long, and the United Center was getting too comfortable with it. He spent damn near all of his 43 minutes of floor time covering for banged up and underperforming teammates. But the final second was his and his only, and nobody—not a blundering Blatt or an ailing Kyrie Irving or any other Cavalier—was going to take that away from him.

“I’ve made big shots before in the postseason. Obviously this was a big one for our team. You don’t want to go down 3-1 to anyone,” James said. “I was able to regain home court with the shot. For me, I just don’t like letting my teammates down.”

They wouldn’t have been able to say much had the shot rimmed out. Tristan Thompson had an explosive second quarter, Timofey Mozgov put up 15 points and nine boards and JR Smith shot 3-of-6 from 3, but the Cavaliers at large were sluggish on both ends of the floor and shot a lowly 38.7 percent from the field. Despite playing 40 minutes, the injured Irving took just 10 shots—and made just two.

Lost in James’ heroics was another inspired playoff performance from Rose, who scored a game-high 31 and single-handedly dragged the Bulls through all four periods. Rose consistently split defenders on slashes through the paint, knocked down two huge 3s and was the team’s only stable source of offense. Joakim Noah was ruthless on the glass but made just 4 of his 12 layups; Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic combined to shoot 3-of-16 in the absence of Pau Gasol; Jimmy Butler was 8-for-21. Somehow, the Bulls led by 11 in the waning seconds of the third quarter.

“We are disappointed we didn’t get the win, but it’s only 2-2. We can win in Cleveland. We’ve done it before. It’s going to be great,” Noah said.

“We lost the game for sure, but I love our mentality. The way the guys are talking in the locker room, we know we had the opportunity to put them away and we couldn’t,” Rose added. “You have to get this game out of your head. The game is already over.”

And the next one can’t come soon enough. After consecutive buzzer-beating game-winners, the series moves to Cleveland Tuesday.

—Steven Goldstein

Clippers 128, Rockets 95 (Los Angeles leads series, 3-1)

For the second straight game, the Clippers pulled off the blowout victory, their depth overwhelmed Houston and the Beard didn’t seem like he needed to be feared.

Blake Griffin (21 points, 8 rebounds, 7-11 from the field, +30) and L.A. used a dominating start to the third quarter to build an insurmountable lead that now puts the team one win away from the Western Conference Finals. Griffin was forced to do so much when Chris Paul (15 points, 12 assists, 1 turnover) was out in the first two games of the series, but with the All-Star point guard back and somewhat healthy, the Clippers power forward has settled into a more comfortable role that he can excel in for a full 48 minutes…or until the rout is on. CP3, who is still on a minutes restriction, had a quiet but effective double-double in 26 minutes. There isn’t anyone (healthy) on Houston’s roster that can check him.

The Rockets implemented Hack-a-Jordan to an extreme degree Sunday night, sending DeAndre Jordan (26 points, 17 rebounds, 14-34 on free throws) to the free throw line an NBA Playoff-record 28 times in the first half alone. He made 10 of the 28, which eclipsed Shaquille O’Neal’s previous attempt record of 27 from 2000.

As much as this took away from the enjoyment of the sport and slowed it down immensely, it honestly kept the Rockets in the game. Their offense was sputtering with James Harden (21 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists) still struggling to establish himself and Dwight Howard (7 points, 6 rebounds, 6 fouls) showing his agitation before the ball was even tossed in the air at tipoff. He kept hitting Jordan’s arm away and making faces. Then, less than four minutes into the game, D12 got a technical for pushing Danny Crawford’s arm away, which could have easily been an ejection in a non-Playoff game.

By the time the second half started and Kevin McHale was running out of players who weren’t in foul trouble and could hack Jordan, it was time for L.A. to take over. Hacking DJ has been Houston’s best defense so far and the third quarter showed why this is often times a necessity for the Rockets to keep up with their current opponent. Capped off by three straight Jordan slam dunks, L.A. went on a 21-4 run during the first six minutes of the second half and finished the third quarter outscoring the Rockets, 43-25. Those 43 points are the most points scored by any team in the postseason this year.

JJ Redick (18 points, 4-7 on 3-pointers) also came alive in the third, pouring in 15 of his 18 points in those 12 minutes. The shooting guard has been a huge difference maker in this series, knocking down shot after shot while remaining a decent defender on the other end. Beyond Redick, this entire Clippers team has played sound team defense in three of four games in the series and seems to be winning all the 50-50 balls.

Matt Barnes (7 points, 8 rebounds) might get on some NBA players’ nerves, but he has easily gotten into the head of Howard and forced him to get emotional at the wrong times. It all came to a head when Howard picked up his sixth foul and his second technical when the blowout was on, ending his night early. If the Rockets want to have any chance of coming back in this series, they will need their center to grow up and start ignoring all the buttons the Clippers are trying to push.

—Jay Wallis