MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade missed a dunk in the first quarter. He didn't score in the second half. He was slow at times, sluggish at others, barely a factor for long stretches of the game.
That is, until it mattered most.
The Big Three is one win away from playing for the NBA's biggest prize, and all three had a huge hand in putting the Miami Heat on that doorstep.
LeBron James scored 35 points, Chris Bosh added 22 and Wade perked up to block as many shots -- two -- as Chicago made in overtime, as the Heat topped the Bulls 101-93 in a scintillating Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday night to take a 3-1 lead in the series.
"You could tell that neither team wanted to lose," Wade said. "Both teams were clawing. If you're a fan of the game, this was a great basketball game. ... This was will."
Miami will go for the clincher Thursday in Chicago, where the Heat can wrap up their first finals trip since 2006.
"It's one game away," James said. "We're not taking anything for granted."
Derrick Rose scored 23 points for the Bulls, who got 20 apiece from Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer. Chicago has lost three straight games for the first time this season, and afterward, the league's reigning MVP pointed the finger of blame at himself.
"It's not over," said Rose, who shot 8 of 27 and turned the ball over seven times.
Still, some doubt may be creeping in. Chicago had its chances, and knew it, but was unable to take advantage of a largely off night by Wade. Rose was guarded in the game's biggest minutes by James, and the MVP past had the upper hand against the MVP present.
"It's extremely hard," Rose acknowledged, "when a 6-8 guy can easily defend you."
The Heat were down by 11 early, led for only 4 1/2 minutes in the third and fourth quarters, and had Wade stuck on eight points from late in the second quarter until past the midpoint of overtime.
Somehow, it wasn't a problem. A sleep-deprived Mike Miller -- whose wife delivered a baby last week -- scored 12 points and made plenty of key defensive plays to help Miami outscore Chicago by a whopping 36 points with him on the floor. Udonis Haslem missed all five of his shots, and he was still a plus-25 in his 33 minutes off the bench.
And the stars, well, were stars.
"We know offensively, at times, we have rough stretches," James said. "But we give ourselves chances to win every game because we defend."
James was 11 for 26 from the field and 13 for 13 -- his best playoff showing ever -- from the foul line. Bosh was aggressive again, making 10 of his 11 free throws. Miami made its last 24 straight from the stripe, and the defence was again the biggest key of all.
"Defence is the reason that we're here," Bosh said. "Defence is the reason that we win every game. And defence is the reason why we have a chance of winning Game 5."
From the Miami perspective, this game will be remembered for how the Heat rallied around Wade -- then watched him save his best for last.
"We reminded him in one of the final huddles, this is his time," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
The 2006 NBA finals MVP was in the arena late Monday night, trying to work on some things in one of his customary playoff after-dark sessions.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. This seemed like it would be the latter.
Whatever answer he sought, he didn't find for much of Game 4. Wade made just 5 of 16 shots from the field, lacking his usual lift at the rim. He made a pair of free throws with 1:50 left in the first half for his seventh and eighth points, and didn't score again until overtime.
Better late than never.
"Hey, they're a great team," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "They compete. They play hard. They play great defence ... and they made plays at the end."
Chicago turned the ball over on consecutive possessions late in overtime, Wade turned the second of those into a layup with 1:01 left for a 95-89 lead, and the Heat soon knew they were one win away from the title round.
The fourth quarter was pure theatre, both teams clearly knowing -- clearly relishing -- the stakes.
Miami scored the first seven points for a 70-69 lead. Chicago took the lead back on a pair of free throws by Rose with 6:34 left, and Miami answered with a four-point possession -- two free throws by Bosh after a flagrant foul against Boozer, followed by Miller making a jumper over Rose for a 78-77 edge.
Back and forth from there, with the lead, the momentum, control of the series, all seeming to turn every time the ball crossed midcourt.
"We thought we had chances to win and unfortunately we came up short," Boozer said. "All we can do now is focus on the next one at home and do what we can to win that game and then move forward from there."
Rose had a chance with 28 seconds left in regulation, his jumper from the left side hitting the rim and eventually being corralled by Miller. The Heat called time with 23 seconds left, 18 seconds on the shot clock, everyone in the building probably thinking the play would be set up for James.
It was. And it never got a chance for liftoff.
Referee Bennett Salvatore called James for an offensive foul with 8 seconds left, saying Ronnie Brewer beat him to the spot as the two-time MVP tried to back down the right side of the lane. So instead of winning the game late in regulation, James had to send it to overtime with defence. He guarded Rose on the final possession, forcing the Chicago guard into a taking a jumper that fell way short, and off to an extra 5 minutes they went.
"All I can do now is put it behind me and go forward," Rose said.
A day after being fined $50,000 for directing an anti-gay slur at a fan in Game 3, Bulls centre Joakim Noah had six points and 14 rebounds in 45 minutes. And there seemed to be very little, if any, unusual rancour from Miami fans toward Noah.
Chicago's lead was 46-44 at halftime, after some wild emotional swings -- a 19-4 run by the Bulls, followed by a 29-9 spurt for the Heat, then capped by an 18-7 rebuttal by the Bulls to close the second quarter.
The Heat never led in the third quarter, but Chicago never pulled away.
The Bulls were up by eight and had possession with 3 minutes left, before Miami scored eight of the game's next 10 points to make a precarious deficit a bit more manageable and set up the unbelievable final quarter.
"Look, this series is an absolute bloodbath," Spoelstra said. "It's about as competitive and physical as it can be."
And down 3-1, Rose conceded nothing.
"They are beatable," Rose said.
NOTES: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski sat with Heat owner Micky Arison near midcourt. ... The teams combined for 21 turnovers in Game 3. They had 22 by the midpoint of the third quarter on Tuesday night. ... Bulls reserve C Omer Asik, who tweaked an ankle in Game 3, logged two minutes on Tuesday, limping noticeably.