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Intensity was the difference for victorious Bulls

Guard Jimmy Butler had 20 points, eight rebounds and five steals and turned in a great defensive effort against LeBron James. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

Is there anything as rare as an NBA playoff series in which we really don’t know who’s going to win?

That’s what we’ve got here, the makings of a real no-holds-barred classic.

The air was thick with intensity on Friday night at the United Center.

With overtime looming large, Derrick Rose loomed larger. He drained a rainbow three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Bulls a 99-96 stunner over Cleveland and LeBron James.

‘‘There was so much emotion going on,’’ forward Taj Gibson said. ‘‘We’ve been in that position before. Magically, LeBron would hit a tough shot and it would crush us. This just shows the growth of our team. It was real emotional.’’

This was a heavyweight matchup between James, aka the King and his Court, and the no-nonsense Bulls, whose jaws were so clenched they almost made coach Tom Thibodeau smile.

And the Bulls, led by Rose, who had 30 points, and do-it-all Jimmy Butler, who had 20, defied the odds and dethroned the King. For one night.

Momentum won’t mean much in Game 4 on Sunday.

‘‘Not with this group,’’ Mike Dunleavy said. ‘‘We haven’t gotten any momentum all year. It’s a new game Sunday. We have to go out there with the same intensity and see if we can pull it off again.’’

The problem the Bulls have is as old as the schoolyard. In a game of playground choose-’em-up, it’s always an uphill battle to beat the team with the best player, and that certainly is James.

‘‘He’s the Michael Jordan of our generation,’’ Gibson said. ‘‘He’s extremely talented, extremely physical. He’s just tough, man. We’ve been seeing LeBron over and over. Every year we’re getting better and better.’’

This was effort.

This was Gibson, uttering primal screams after making energetic putbacks.

This was Nikola Mirotic and Dunleavy creating offense with long-range shooting and surprise slashes to the basket that brought roars from the crowd.

This was Butler, the newly crowned Most Improved Player, throwing all of his tenacity into guarding King James, who had to work for his 27 points on 8-for-25 shooting. And if he had 14 assists and eight rebounds, he also had seven turnovers.

‘‘Jimmy’s playing his tail off,’’ Dunleavy said.

Butler also delivered clutch shooting, taking shot after difficult shot as the game wound down.

‘‘Jimmy has grown so much as a player,’’ Gibson said.

While Butler scored his 20 points on 7-for-17 shooting, Rose was working through some early offensive issues to score his 30 points on 10-for-26 shooting.

Even though they are up 2 games to 1, the Bulls know they will need more efforts like the one they delivered in Game 3 to prevail.

‘‘Every game is about effort and heart,’’ Gibson said. ‘‘You come out with a chip on your shoulder. It’s all about who wants it more. It’s two talented teams going after it. We have to put this one behind us.’’

It’s what’s ahead that will determine the outcome.