Updated: January 30, 2012, 1:25 AM ET

1. When Two Stars Ruled All But The Final Minute

Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- Viewed as a landscape, LeBron James and Derrick Rose staged a wonderful and fulfilling duel Sunday afternoon. On the first non-football Sunday of the year it was exactly the performance fans -- be they for the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls or somewhere in between -- always wish to see.

James had a dunk on which he literally leapt over the head of misfortunate Bulls guard John Lucas III, hit a 3-pointer while falling into the stands and blocked a shot so viciously that it looked like it had hit a trampoline. Rose hit some majestic 10-foot floaters, made layups from preposterous angles and ran the floor like a rabbit all day.

All that plus this game, billed as the best regular-season matchup thus far in a rematch of the Eastern Conference finals, went down to the final minute without being decided.

This is a fan's dream. This is when people watching the game text, call or tweet their friends to make sure they are watching too so they can all talk about it later. This is when you call people in from the kitchen and the garage and turn up the volume. It's when it matters more.

That reality is the root of classic late-game tension, the foundation of clutch. James and Rose know it well, of course, but players and coaches aren't the only ones who feel it. The officials feel it, too. All that sometimes leads to what happened in that last minute Sunday in the Heat's 97-93 victory.

The 47 minutes of execution and highlight-making play came undone, another twist in the NBA season. These moments are when great clutch plays happen and also when choking, as it is called, happens too.

If you were forecasting it based on the previous few hours, you would have predicted clutch play to win out. And there was a hint of it. But mostly there were those chokes, and the biggest offenders were the MVPs, James and Rose.

"I think that's a problem with our league sometimes, people just evaluate the last minute of games and forget that this is a complete 48-minute game," James said. "But we understand it. We understand what makes the headlines."

That's true, it does make the headlines because that is when it matters the most. Sunday, pro golfer Kyle Stanley needed a double bogey on the 72nd and last hole to get his first PGA Tour win. He made triple bogey and lost. Last week, Billy Cundiff missed a field goal, a modest 32-yarder, that cost the Baltimore Ravens a chance at the Super Bowl. It was in the game's 60th and last minute.

The examples are endless, those are just two from the last week. All three Heat-Bulls regular-season games and the close-out game in the conference finals in May came down to the last minute. They'll be here again.

Sunday, after playing a great fourth quarter when he scored nine of his 35 points and played strong defense, things went upside down for LeBron in the last 55 seconds. Same for Rose, who had led not one but two stirring comebacks earlier in the quarter, as he suddenly went unclutch. And it was bitter to swallow and hard to watch.

"It was me," Rose said. "On all the plays at the end."

Actually it was more than just him. The unraveling was happening everywhere. Just digest it:

  • 55 seconds left: With the Heat up four points with the ball and a virtual lock on the game, James waved off a pick that was going to be set by Mario Chalmers and essentially killed the play. The result was him dribbling out the shot clock and forcing up a terrible and off balance long jumper that missed.

    In about the last positive thing he would do on a day when he had 34 points, six rebounds and six assists, Rose grabbed the rebound and raced to the other end for a three-point play that changed the dynamics of the game. When he made the free throw to cut it to a one-point lead he improved to 29-for-29 on free throws this season in the fourth quarter.

  • 29 seconds left: James, not having learned from the previous possession, again dribbled out the shot clock without allowing a play to be set up. He drove and forced a bad shot in the paint with the Bulls' defenders all over him. Carlos Boozer got the rebound and off Rose was again, getting fouled and stunningly about to give the Bulls the lead. Or so everyone assumed.

  • 22 seconds left: Rose missed the first shot. He had been 12-of-12 for the game, as previously mentioned, perfect on the season in the fourth quarter. Then he missed again, draining the life out of the Bulls' bench and sending everyone watching into a tizzy as the word "choke" started flying through the digital world.

    "I missed both of those [expletives]," Rose said. "Me missing those free throws? Both? Come on, man."

  • 17 seconds left: James got the rebound on Rose's miss, his fourth in the fourth quarter and his 11th for the day. It was a good first 47 minutes after all. He dribbled around for four seconds as the Bulls, so taken aback by Rose's misses that they forgot they had to foul James or the game was over. Finally, Joakim Noah reached James and slapped him for his disqualifying sixth foul. This was a very costly mistake, though the Bulls hadn't realized it yet.

    James calmly tossed the ball to an official and huddled with his teammates to talk strategy, seemingly unworried that he was now being called on to hit clutch free throws with the Heat up just one. No matter, it seemed, because James was 10-of-13 on the day at the line and 4-of-4 in the fourth quarter. Just four days earlier he'd made six clutch free throws to win a game in Detroit, saving the day for the Heat.

    Nope, nope.

    Now James had every reason to be thinking about it, thinking he'd let his teammates down, just like that game in Los Angeles against the Clippers a few weeks ago. That was another national TV game, when missed free throws thwarted his team's chances and left all the talk about him in the clutch. Again.

    The storyline of the game was going to be how he played great after riding his bike the 4.5 miles from his house to the arena because the Miami Marathon had closed numerous streets in the area. That would've been in the headlines if he'd just made those free throws. But he didn't and it was in the last minute of a high-profile, close game.

    "D-Rose had an unbelievable game, but you guys will all talk about his missed free throws," James said. "I tried to do things to help our team win, but you'll talk about my missed free throws. It's the world we live in."

    Yes, that is true. As dismissive as James is about the sentiment he also must accept it. But it was far from the end of the choking … from everywhere.

  • 16 seconds left: The rebound from James' second miss bounced toward Taj Gibson and he was there to get it. Standing farthest from the play and closest to the Bulls' bench was official James Williams, the youngest official on the crew in his second season in the league. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau had told Williams he wanted a timeout if there was a miss and the Bulls got the rebound.

    When Gibson appeared to grab the ball Williams blew his whistle and pointed to the Bulls' bench to indicate they had used their last timeout. But Gibson didn't have the ball cleanly, Dwyane Wade had stripped it. Not all the players and other officials heard the whistle and play moved at half speed for a few odd moments. In the end the ball was in Chris Bosh's hands but should've belonged to the Bulls because Wade had stepped out of bounds when grabbing the ball.

    After a huddle, Williams realized he'd jumped the gun and potentially changed the outcome of the game by blowing the whistle too soon. It was, in an official's view, a choke. They were mounting.

    To resolve it this quagmire, there was a jump ball at center court, which certainly upset the Bulls. Bosh, the tallest player on the floor, was ready to jump. But James denied him, wanting a chance at redemption.

    "Chris looked at me and said, 'I've got the tip.' And I said, 'No you don't'", James said. "I had to do something after missing two free throws."

    James' opponent at the circle was Gibson. The best coaching decision would've been to have Noah for such a job. But, oh that darn foul out. Oops. James won the tip easily.

  • 13.6 seconds left: James outjumped Gibson so handily that he was essentially able to pass the ball to Chalmers, who was safely by himself in the backcourt. Dwyane Wade immediately ran over to him, wanting the ball and his own chance to be clutch.

    But Chalmers, undeterred by all the other choking going on around him, decided to keep it himself. And a few seconds later, it was Chalmers' turn on the line under pressure.

    He made the first, a reason to celebrate across the basketball world. But then missed the second -- of course he did -- giving the Bulls a chance to win the game. After the events of the last few minutes, that was a minor miracle. They still had that last timeout left and Boozer, who got the rebound on the latest missed pressure free throw, wanted to use it.

    He looked to Williams and called for it. But this time Williams didn't move a muscle, not after what had just happened. So Boozer, it appeared, tried to get it by raising his arms to form the classic "T." In the process, he fumbled the ball without anyone touching him. And it was free again. Finally, Rose tracked it down and got a timeout even as he committed a traveling violation. At this point, though, that wasn't getting called.

  • 9 seconds left: Deep breath, after all that the game was still far from over. All those missteps had canceled each other out and America was back on the edge of its seat. And Thibodeau had drawn up a lovely play to help get five more minutes of play with overtime for everyone.

    Rip Hamilton inbounded the ball to Boozer at the elbow. But Boozer is not a great passer. The better choice here would've been Noah, but he was already in his warmups.

    That fact stung again when Boozer did not see, or for some reason rejected, Hamilton as he stepped inbounds and made a clean and clear back cut to the basket. He was wide open for a layup, but Boozer just held the ball. Would Noah have made the proper pass? The world will never know.

    Instead the ball went to Rose, which isn't a bad choice and probably the safest option considering everything else that had been happening. Still frustrated from the missed free throws, Rose wanted to tie the game just as James wanted to win that jump ball. So he grabbed Boozer's pass and went toward the basket. His path, however, was blocked.

    Rose lowered his head and knocked Udonis Haslem to the ground for what looked like a charge. But at this point, the officials understandably wanted it to be settled without the whistle. Stymied, Rose spun 360 degrees and lost his momentum and timing.

    Rose is a willing passer in times like these. A few days earlier he passed the ball to Brian Scalabrine in nearly the same situation for a game-winning attempt. This time it was the more accomplished Hamilton, who had run to the corner after zipping past the basket, who was wide open. Had Rose made the same pass, Hamilton had a wide open 3-pointer to win the game. But this was Rose under a bit of duress, uncomfortable with this mess of a finish, and instead he tried a floater.

    It missed. Game over, mercifully and dramatically. A great game that ended with a series of failures. Not a defining game at all, but one that will be remembered more for that ending than anything else.

    "I know I can live with it," Rose said. "But it doesn't feel good."


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