MIAMI — The Miami Heat finished off the undermanned Chicago Bulls in five games despite blowing an early 18-point lead Wednesday.
Dwyane Wade played through a knee injury and scored six of his 18 points down the stretch as the Heat held on for a 94-91 win to reach their third straight Eastern Conference final.
LeBron James paced Miami with 23 points, eight assists and seven rebounds as the defending champions took the final four games of the series after losing the opener at American Airlines Arena.
Chicago, short on bodies but not in effort, squandered an eight-point lead entering the fourth quarter and had two chances in the final seconds to tie it, but Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler both missed 3-pointers.
Robinson scored 21, Butler had 19 and Carlos Boozer finished with game-highs of 26 points and 14 rebounds for the Bulls, who played the entire series without Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich.
The previous three meetings were decided by an average of 23.3 points, and Miami was poised for a smooth closeout victory with a 22-4 start to Game 5.
Chicago had other plans.
“There was no quit in them,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said of his bunch. “They came out and hit us hard. You knew we were going to have to withstand the early surge. I knew we’d fight back.”
The Bulls chipped away at the huge deficit, led by six at the break and stayed in front the entire third quarter, which ended with them holding a 77-69 lead.
Shane Battier hit two 3-pointers in Miami’s 13-4 run to open the fourth, with Norris Cole sinking a left-wing jumper for an 82-81 Heat lead.
Wade, who left the game momentarily in the second half to have his knee examined, showed no signs of the injury shortly thereafter. He drained consecutive jumpers to keep the Heat in front, then timed his jump perfectly from the baseline to throw down a putback slam off a miss, putting Miami ahead by a 93-86 margin with 3:02 remaining.
“He finds a way to make big time plays,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said of Wade. “It’s great to see him respond like that.”
Boozer scored off the offensive glass and Robinson got a contested 3-pointer to fall around James’ 1-for-2 effort at the stripe, pulling Chicago within 94-91.
Boozer drew iron on an attempt at the elbow with just over a minute to go, then had a loose ball knocked off his leg by Wade at the other end.
Wade committed a foul going after a James miss with 27.4 seconds on the clock, giving the Bulls one last chance to get even. Boozer controlled the offensive rebound on Robinson’s miss, and Butler’s tentative attempt missed everything but the backboard as the buzzer sounded on Chicago’s season.
Miami made its first seven shots and jumped out to a seemingly comfortable 22-4 lead 6:35 into the game. James added a monster alley-oop to momentarily halt a 6-0 Bulls run, then hit an 18-footer just before the buzzer for a 30-21 Heat advantage.
Chicago shook off the early cobwebs and scored 17 of the first 23 points in the second quarter to take its first lead. Butler hit two from long range during the seven-plus minute string, including one that gave the Bulls a 38-36 lead they didn’t relinquish until Cole’s basket early in the fourth.
Robinson ended his 11-point quarter with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that extended the Bulls’ cushion to 53-47 at the break.
Chicago exceeded its Game 4 point total midway through the third when Boozer scored inside for a 67-60 lead, which ballooned to as many as 11 in the frame.
Grizzlies reach West Finals
OKLAHOMA CITY — There will be a new Western Conference champion after the Memphis Grizzlies eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder in another close battle Wednesday night.
The Grizzlies used their stout defense and double-doubles from Zach Randolph and Mike Conley to take Game 5, 88-84, and advance to the franchise’s first conference final.
Randolph poured in 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds but missed two late free throws with the Grizzlies holding a two-point lead.
Kevin Durant had a chance to tie the game with time winding down and missed an open 16-footer before Tony Allen sealed the outcome at the foul line.
Conley finished with 13 points, 11 assists and seven boards for the fifth- seeded Grizzlies, who won the final four games of the series after losing the opener.
Durant, relied on more heavily after All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury last round, felt the burden in the ouster as he connected on just 5-of-21 from the field for 21 points.
“We just tried to keep fresh bodies on (Durant)…and make him work,” Memphis head coach Lionel Hollins said. “He was missing shots he normally makes.”
Oklahoma City, the West’s top seed, averaged a mere 89.6 points in the series — 16.1 points less than its regular season average.