Five years ago today, magic happened at the United Center.
It was 96-96 in Game 3 of a 2015 second-round playoff series tied 1-1 between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bulls had the ball sideline out of bounds with three seconds left. Derrick Rose dashed from the top of the key toward the corner before cutting back and catching an entry pass. He took two hard dribbles, elevated and banked in a game-winning buzzer-beater.
"He's a former MVP. These guys are just so talented and special, they just have a way of making spectacular plays," said Mike Dunleavy, who assisted on the play, to B/R.
"That was just a crazy shot, and it was not the play that was drawn up. The guy just made something happen, and that's something that Derrick did so often."
'The Play Was Broken'
As improbable as the shot was, the play could have easily gone in another direction. As Rose made his split to the corner, he decided to break the play and come back to the ball. The Bulls were without Pau Gasol (hamstring), their usual inbounds outlet. With no more timeouts, Dunleavy knew he needed to enter the ball as soon as he had an option. Rose darted back to the wing and became the only option.
"At that point, the play was broken and it was just an 'oh s--t' moment," Dunleavy said. "This wasn't going to end well."
Rose got space after an improvised screen from Taj Gibson forced a switch. Then he let it fly.
"I was just running into the basket to get a better look at the prayer going up in the air, and miraculously, it was answered," Dunleavy recalled.
The moment was so perfect, there was almost a sense of disbelief. Even from the back halls of the arena, one staffer could hear the fans erupt and feel the building shake. The Bulls were ahead in a series against a James-led team. This was the moment they had waited years for. Even then-Cavs center Kendrick Perkins wasn't too upset about the way the game ended given the circumstances.
"The majority of the time you feel mad, you feel some type of way," Perkins told B/R. "But there's something about D-Rose that he's like a favorite to the players, even on opposing teams. Everybody is always rooting for D-Rose."
Something about the way Rose was able to rehab from his injuries and get back to the level of play where he could make this shot struck a chord with the opponent. Of course, the Cavs wanted to win, but the level of respect Rose has from his peers is unique.
"We wanted to beat them and we did beat them—don't get it twisted. But, like, if Joakim Noah hit the game-winner, we would have been really pissed," Perkins, who said he has nothing but respect for Noah, joked.
Rose's deadpan reaction became a viral moment of that game, but the Bulls players were too busy feeling relief to give him a hard time for his "celebration" while uncertainty and fear was starting to sink in for the Cavs.
"He reminds me of Tim Duncan—he doesn't talk that much, but he's got that killer instinct," Perkins said. "You're like, 'He's quiet, but man, he's trying to kill me, he's trying to break ankles, he's trying to dunk on me, he's trying to get to the rack.' It's scary."
After disposing of the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1 with a 54-point win in Game 6, the Bulls were whole again. Rose had missed a total of 196 games over three seasons because of knee injuries alone, and though he was still on the mend, he was delivering at a high level.
He was the lifeblood of the team, organization and city, and he was the component that took the Bulls from early playoff exit to legit contender.
"It was business, but we knew they were a threat," Perkins said. "They were well-built. In my opinion, they were a team that was built to come out of the East. D-Rose was in his bag at that time, playing at an extremely high level, so we didn't take them lightly. They made us work hard during that series."
Not only had Rose returned, but 2014-15 Most Improved Player Jimmy Butler also emerged as the two-way co-star the Bulls had been seeking. Butler gave the Bulls an even better isolation scoring threat to take some pressure off Rose and the size and defensive savvy to give LeBron James some trouble.
Gasol was in his first season on the Bulls and provided another offensive outlet. Nikola Mirotic had come over from Spain and provided incredible depth and versatility in the frontcourt. Dunleavy gave the Bulls an elite shooting presence with the length to maintain their suffocating defensive scheme.
Noah, albeit less than 100 percent healthy, was coming off his best season, where he finished fourth in the MVP voting. He brought a competitive energy to these matchups and always found a way to get under James' skin.
"He made the tension, it was all because of Noah," Perkins said. "That's his energy level. He talks noise, he talked about the city of Cleveland, so he brought all that animosity to the series, which I don't know why he did that because if I'm him, I'm gonna leave the bear asleep, I'm not gonna poke the bear. Much respect to Joakim, he's had a great career, still trying to fight his way in."
Three times in the previous five years, Chicago's season ended at the hands of The King, but down in the series, there was room for uncertainty. Kevin Love had dislocated his shoulder in the first round and was out for the remainder of the playoffs. Kyrie Irving suffered a strained foot early in Game 3 and was not playing at 100 percent.
The Bulls had been waiting for years to have another shot at James.
Now up 2-1 in the series, this was their chance.
Until Game 4 happened.
Game 3 was the inverse of Game 4, in that it was the Cavs who were in control most of the game but allowed the Bulls back in late. The Cavs and Bulls traded cold streaks in a physical Game 4. James had taken control of the game in the fourth quarter with the help of a trifecta of triples from JR Smith, and the Bulls were playing catch-up. After a Butler three, an offensive foul on James and a Rose layup, the Bulls had tied the game.
With 8.4 seconds and no timeouts remaining, James drove the length of the court and tried to draw a foul but had his shot blocked out of bounds.
Cleveland head coach David Blatt had tried to call a timeout after Rose tied the game, which would have been a technical foul since the Cavs were out. Though that missed call enraged fans, it's not something the players were concerned about.
"In the NBA, you don't really do that," Dunleavy said. "You know when to expect a call like that or not. You're just gonna tell the guy you don't have any timeouts. They're not going to T him up or anything."
More concerning was that the refs took the James shot that was blocked out of bounds to replay. This gave Blatt a chance to draw up a play on the final possession. Of course, that didn't end up mattering for James.
"No lie, any time you have LeBron, it's not even like you're worried about anything," Perkins revealed. "Especially after he had come off of winning two championships, no moment was too big for him."
Just give him the ball and everybody get out of the way.
The Breaking Point
Although it didn't feel like it at the time, it was the beginning of the end—a dagger in the game, the series and the Rose-Tom Thibodeau era of Bulls basketball.
"When he made that shot for us to lose and go to 2-2, it was disappointing because having a 3-1 lead is even better," Dunleavy said. "But coming back to Cleveland, we felt confident, we still felt confident we could win the series, we could get another game in Cleveland. It wasn't like the wind was out of our sails there just because he hit that shot to tie."
But the Cavs ground out a Game 5 win and finished things up easily in Game 6. They went on to make four straight Finals, while that 48-hour period represented a different swing for the Bulls. Shortly after the series ended, Thibodeau was fired, and an era of Bulls basketball that had taken so long to manifest, one that had an incredible moment of glory, quickly unraveled.
The Bulls tried to keep things together under new coach Fred Hoiberg the next season. But Rose broke his orbital bone on the first day of training camp, and the team got off to a slow start and never figured things out. Following the season, the Bulls traded Rose to the Knicks, and Noah left for New York as well.
"Looking back on it, it's like, 'Man, that was it.' It just fluttered after that," Dunleavy said. "After walking out of that series, I certainly wouldn't have thought that was it for the Bulls. It just goes to show, it's such a fragile thing. You have to take advantage of the opportunities when they're there, and that was one of our better chances."
Four years prior, Rose was the youngest MVP in league history and took his team to the Eastern Conference Finals. As the hype grew, the injuries mounted and the patience waned, the potential this organization and city had been waiting to see was finally realized in the form of that one shot.
For a moment, the Bulls were back. And almost as soon as it happened, it was over.
All stats are from Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.
Follow Will on Twitter, @wontgottlieb.