Derrick Rose stood at the free throw line with the Bulls down one point to the Miami Heat with 22.7 seconds left in the 4th quarter. He hadn't missed a free throw all game. He could put Chicago ahead for the first time all game if he made both.
But he was short on his first attempt.
Maybe his legs were tired from playing a season-high 44 minutes and he couldn't get enough energy to push through the shot. Maybe his balky big toe picked the wrong time to act up. Or maybe his nerves got to him. But after missing the second free throw, the Bulls' best chance to take the lead was gone in an instant, and they were unable to recover, losing 97-93.
Sadly, the game-closing sequence of Rose's perfection from the charity stripe finally ending, followed by a potential game-tying floater coming up short in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter were perfectly illustrative of the way this Bulls-Heat rivalry has been and will continue to be if Rose has to constantly be perfect.
Adding to Rose's minuscule margin for error Sunday were the obvious team health woes: the Bulls were banged up. With Luol Deng and C.J. Watson both out with injuries, it's very possible that if and when these two teams meet again in the playoffs, the Bulls roster will be deeper and healthier. And even then, that might not be enough.
As great as Miami was at times Sunday, the Heat didn't get superstar-like play from each member of the "Big Three." LeBron James was fantastic, finishing with a game-high 35 points and 11 rebounds, hitting clutch shots from the interior down the stretch. Chris Bosh added 24 and 12. But Dwyane Wade shot just 4-for-16 from the field and was playing on a sprained right ankle that could still be tender. The Heat can afford to have one of its stars have an off-night. The Bulls can't.
While Wade has only recently returned from his ankle sprain, Rose is playing through the pain of an injury that has had people worried about his physical state more than ever - not only does the damaged toe require rest to heal properly, but Rose already puts a ton of minutes on his legs. His competitive nature drives him to play in all situations, even when games might be blowouts in either direction.
That competitive nature has manifested itself in recent emotional displays, too. After a couple of tough losses, you have to be at least a little bit concerned about Rose's mental state. His pointed comments towards Pacers players celebrating after knocking off the Bulls in Chicago last week showed how personally he takes losing; Sunday's reportedly teary-eyed comments could alarm some to think he is shouldering too much blame and feeling he truly does have to do it all himself. How he responds in Washington Monday night could be important to his psyche.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to remedy the fact that the Bulls need Derrick Rose to play practically error-free basketball in order to compete with the Heat in the East. Nowhere was it more evident than in Miami Sunday. And there's no doubt that the road to winning the East will eventually lead through Miami. The question is, will the Bulls ever be able to survive a mistake from Derrick Rose and still beat the Heat?
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