Though Bulls lead series, they haven’t come close to conquering LeBron James

SHARE Though Bulls lead series, they haven’t come close to conquering LeBron James
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Derrick Rose drives to the basket past LeBron James in Game 3 on Friday at the United Center. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

There just isn’t anybody who plays the game like LeBron James.

There never has been.

All hail Derrick Rose and his bank-shot trey to win Game 3 of this series 99-96. For Bulls fans, that was beyond joyous.

It announced that Rose has arrived. Or rather, re-arrived. He was this good back in his MVP year of 2011, pre-knee damage.

His line of 30 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, nine of 10 free throws — and, for health worriers, almost 39 minutes played — was superstar terrain. Game-winning shot? As they say on the playground, it’s the only shot that matters.

Indeed, the Bulls’ win was so exciting that it’s easy to forget the thrill came about in large part because there was a perfect Cleveland Cavaliers villain to root against and to keep the game on edge: LeBron James.

The man of ‘‘The Decision’’ and the defection to Miami and the two NBA titles, 11 All-Star Games and four league MVP awards is back near his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and he wants to keep winning.

He’s a 6-8, 250-pound point guard/small forward/power forward who controls the game the way a bouncer controls the door to a rowdy bar.

He is not quite the floor genius that was 6-9 Magic Johnson, not the playmaker that was Nate ‘‘Tiny’’ Archibald, not the gunner that was/is Kobe Bryant, not the deadeye shooter that was Steve Nash, not the win-or-die assassin that was Michael Jordan.

But he has some of all those things.

‘‘I don’t know where he’s at,’’ said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, in awe even with the 2-1 Bulls advantage in this series. ‘‘He’s at the one, the two, the three, the four — his game speaks for itself.’’

If the Bulls are going to win this series, they can never forget the unique combo aspect to James.

When he wants to change a game, he can.

He is so strong and fast and has such an incredible feel for the essence of the game that it flows around him the way air flows around a speeding dragster.

Even when he doesn’t get the stat for a play, he’ll make it happen.

The pass before the assist. The drive that drew three defenders and left a teammate open. The altering of a foe’s shot. The near-rebounds. The danger inherent when he simply holds the ball in one of his giant hands, glaring forward.

He did everything for the Cavs, including bringing the ball upcourt, backing Bulls players down in the post, rebounding, slashing down the lane, dishing the ball.

He played more minutes (almost 44) than anyone, and he came up just two rebounds and three turnovers shy of a quadruple double (27 points, 14 assists, eight rebounds, seven turnovers).

Yes, he does it all for the Cavs. Including losing the ball.

But the turnovers come because he is always trying something to gain an advantage.

That’s why he was lustily booed almost every time he handled the ball — because his fire also is an irritant to opponents.

That is something the Bulls’ Joakim Noah fully believes in. Noah and James got technical fouls in the third quarter when they got tangled up after a James dunk.

‘‘It started on the play before when he fouled me,’’ James said afterward, calmly. ‘‘I love Joakim’s emotion and his passion. But the words he used went too far.’’

James didn’t let himself off the hook, though.

Of the ‘‘T,’’ he said, ‘‘I earned it.’’

To win this series and move on to the Western Conference finals, the Bulls had better remember that James will bring that muscular purpose every night.

Even when he looks out of control and on a downward spiral, he’ll soar back.

After the first quarter, he was 1-for-7 from the field, but he had seven assists.

Down the stretch, he hit two long step-back jumpers to bring the game to 91-88 Bulls. He got a rebound. Then he had an assist on J.R. Smith’s three-pointer that tied the game at 91-91.

He made two free throws to give the Cavs the lead, 93-92. Then he made another assist to Smith that tied the game at 96 with 10 seconds left.

Then Rose did his long, bank-shot magic to win the game as time expired.

It’s easy to forget how close James came to singlehandedly breaking the Bulls’ hearts. It was very close indeed.

And he’ll be back Sunday.

All muscled up.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com

Twitter: @ricktelander

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