Has to be asked: Can the Bulls beat LeBron James in a series?

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With LeBron James in attack mode from the start of Game 5, the Bulls were up against it. (AP/Tony Dejak)

CLEVELAND — The Bulls are in trouble — huge trouble — after falling 106-101 to the Cavaliers here Tuesday and going down three games to two in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

For one thing, this was the 20th time the Bulls had been tied 2-2 in a best-of-seven playoff series — and the Game 5 winner went on to win 18 of the previous 19 series. Ouch. Similarly, Cleveland had been involved in nine previous such Game 5s, with the winner eventually claiming eight of those series.

Does that paint a gloomy enough picture, kids? Of course it does. But then there’s the other thing. The LeBron James thing. The Bulls-can’t-stop-him thing.

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James had 38 points in Game 5, most of them of the broad-shouldered variety. He was in attack mode throughout the first half, scoring 24 on 10-of-12 shooting — poor Jimmy Butler — and then gave the Cavs just enough of everything in the second half to preserve the lead. James added 12 rebounds and six assists, not to mention the out-of-nowhere block of Derrick Rose’s potential game-tying layup in the final minute.

“LeBron was outstanding in every aspect of the game,” said Cavs coach David Blatt. “You couldn’t pick a thing that he didn’t do at a high level.”

Sometimes, when the best player in the world is suited up for the other guys, it doesn’t matter a whole lot what you do. Example: Six Bulls scored in double figures in Game 5, after only Rose and Jimmy Butler had done so in a troubling Game 4 loss. Six is good, right? Tom Thibodeau will take 19 points from Mike Dunleavy any day. Alas, not enough.

The Bulls bordered on heroic during the latter stages of the fourth quarter, cutting a 17-point deficit down to a single possession. Butler was at his very best, scoring 14 in the period and digging deeper-than-deep at the defensive end to stay in James’ way. Against anyone else, Butler’s effort might have gotten the job done. It had to be demoralizing.

“He’s a warrior,” Dunleavy said of Butler, “and he’ll be ready for Game 6.”

Ready to stop James from crushing the souls of the Bulls and their fans? Hmm, maybe. Or at least to go down trying.

“That’s a tough dude to handle,” Dunleavy said of James.

There’s a question billowing up from all the damage LeBron has done to the Bulls in this series, from his giant Game 2 to the buzzer-beater to win Game 4 and then the masterful Game 5. And that is: Can the Bulls beat him in a playoff series?

It’s not pleasant to think of LeBron as Michael Jordan and Rose, Joakim Noah and the rest of the Bulls as the 1990s New York Knicks, but … maybe it fits?

“Look, the guy’s a great player,” Thibodeau said. “I’ve said this before, you can defend a great player very well and he can still [beat you].”

The Bulls will hope to have Pau Gasol back in the lineup in Game 6, after the seven-foot All-Star missed his second straight contest with a strained left hamstring. No doubt, Gasol’s absence was felt big-time in the Bulls’ last two defeats. The Bulls also will hope to have Rose free and clear of the shoulder issues that appear to be affecting his all-important right hand.

More than anything, though, they’ll hope to survive another 48 minutes against James. There has to be some doubt that they can counter him when he’s got it going full-blast.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg

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