CLEVELAND – LeBron James pulled his right arm tightly to his chest, unable to do anything but grimace as the final seconds expired on Cleveland’s series-clinching win.
The Bulls were finally out of the way. But for the Cavaliers, moving on in the NBA playoffs wasn’t pain free. James, playing despite an injured right elbow that went numb and forced him to shoot a free throw left-handed in the closing seconds, just missed a triple-double as the Cavs advanced to a playoff date with Boston by beating Chicago 96-94 in Game 5 on Tuesday night in perhaps Vinny Del Negro’s final game as Bulls coach.
James scored 19 points – 16 in the second half – and added 10 rebounds and nine assists as the Cavs finally saddled the stubborn Bulls to win the series 4-1. After making one free throw, James then hoisted and missed the second with his left with 7.8 seconds left and the Cavs only ahead by four.
James doesn’t know when he injured the elbow, which he said bothered him the entire second half. He revealed after the game that he underwent an MRI and X-rays two days ago.
“It bothers me because I don’t know what it is,” James said. “Hopefully it doesn’t continue to bother me. But I’m not concerned. Cleveland fans have nothing to worry about. They have no reason to panic. I don’t think it’s that serious.”
Antawn Jamison scored 25 points and Shaquille O’Neal 14 for Cleveland, which will face Boston, reuniting teams that don’t like each other and who played a testy seven-game series in 2008.
Game 1 is Saturday.
“A lot of people are saying they’re too old, but we know they’re going to come out and give us their best shot,” said Jamison, who was not with the Cavs the last time Cleveland met Boston in the post-season. “It’s going to be a hard-fought series. It should be fun.”
Derrick Rose scored 31 points and Luol Deng 26 for Chicago, which had several shots roll in and out in the final minutes.
Given little chance against the league’s top team during the regular season, the Bulls gave the top-seeded Cavaliers all they could handle.
Delonte West had 16 points and O’Neal racked up fouls during the second half against Chicago’s big men.
The Cavs were intent on closing out the series at home but they couldn’t shake the Bulls, who were trying to send the series back to Chicago for Game 6.
When Jamison buried a three-pointer with 3:30 left, Cleveland was up 93-84, and for the first time all night Cavaliers fans finally started thinking about a matchup with the Celtics, who eliminated Miami earlier.
The Bulls, though, had other plans.
Deng hit a jumper and two free throws before Rose, who made Cleveland defenders look silly all series, made four straight from the line to pull the Bulls within 93-92 with 1:32 remaining. Two free throws by James then gave Cleveland a three-point lead with 1:11 left.
Rose then tried a short shot in the lane that went halfway down before spinning out.
Cleveland’s Mo Williams, who shot a dismal 2-for-13, then missed a baseline runner but the ball went out of bounds off Chicago’s Joakim Noah. The Bulls did get the ball back on a steal, but Rose forced up an awkward left-handed layup over Anderson Varejao that was short.
James grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He made his first attempt to make it 96-92, but with his elbow causing him pain, he tried his second shot left-handed and it was way off the mark.
“I knew we were up four,” James said. “I would have shot it right-handed if I had to make it. I’ve never had problem with my elbow before.”
Down four, the Bulls got a layin by Deng just before the buzzer.
James, who wore a sleeve on his right arm for the second straight game, refused to address his injury before the game.
“I don’t know what is up with it, but I’m ready to play,” he said.
So were the Bulls, who fought until the end to prolong their season – and for Del Negro.
Chicago, which had to win down the stretch to earn the No. 8 seed, entered the playoffs amid controversy surrounding its coach. Del Negro reportedly got into a physical confrontation with vice-president of basketball operations John Paxson last month, an incident the team downplayed but could have long-term effects.
“I don’t even think about that stuff,” Del Negro said when asked if he thought he had coached his final game. “I enjoy the experience, I enjoy the competitiveness. It’s about the players to me. I’m proud of the guys, I’m proud of the way they stuck together. They played hard and played through adversity.
“I can’t worry about that. I don’t worry about it. I know how hard my staff has worked and what we’ve done here the last two years. How anyone wants to judge that will judge it and we’ll move on. I’ve been too fortunate in my career and my life to worry about those things. Those decisions will be made now moving forward.”
Rose said he would hate to see his coach fired.
“We both came in as rookies. It would be devastating,” Rose said. “But it’s not up to me, it’s up to the front office. They’re the ones that drafted me, so I guess I’m behind them.”
Rose said it would be hard to imagine the Bulls firing their coach after making the playoffs.
“It would be unusual, especially since it’s our second time (in the playoffs),” Rose said. “But the league changes constantly. I guess that’s how it is in the NBA. It’s tough to coach up here.”
Cleveland’s plan in the fourth quarter was to force the ball inside to O’Neal and let the Big Diesel power his way to the basket.
O’Neal drew two fouls in a five-second span on Chicago’s Brad Miller, who was doing all he could to keep the 325-pounder out of the lane. Del Negro and the Bulls assistants protested the second foul and Miller had to be grabbed by his teammates before he got called for a technical.
One minute later, O’Neal got Noah to reach in and commit his fourth foul. The Cavs immediately went into O’Neal again, and this time he spun on Noah and dunked on the Bulls’ outspoken centre, sending the nervous, sellout crowd into a momentary frenzy.
NOTES: O’Neal pulled a pro wrestling move in the third quarter, dropping all 325 pounds on top of Noah while scrambling for a loose ball. … Rose was guarding James when Cleveland’s star pulled up and drained his buzzer-beating 40-foot jumper in Game 4. James flicked his wrist like it was a 15-footer. “He’s one of the only ones who can do that,” Rose said. “I can’t. I can’t even shoot a 3. I still haven’t hit a shot like that yet.” … James was excited that Varejao finished third in voting for NBA Sixth Man of the Year. “He’s a big key to our team and it’s great when a guy gets noticed and credit for what he does,” James said.