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If only Joakim Noah would have made that second free throw ...

Whstarted out looking like good night for Bulls' Joakim Noah quickly unraveled after mercurial center missed free throw. | Getty

What started out looking like a good night for the Bulls' Joakim Noah quickly unraveled after the mercurial center missed a free throw. | Getty Images

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Updated: May 23, 2011 4:03PM

MIAMI — If only Joakim Noah would have made that second free throw ...

For a team that had the best record in the NBA this season — and they earned it — the Bulls and Derrick Rose straddle a fine line, with supporting players who are invaluable one night and liabilities the next. From Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Keith Bogans on down to Kyle Korver and Omer Asik.

When they’re on their game, they play team defense like Charles Barkley never has seen before. But when they’re not, the smallest things can turn into the biggest problems.

Such was the case midway through the first quarter in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat on Sunday night at America Airlines Arena.

After Bogans hit a three-pointer off a feed from Noah to give the Bulls a 7-4 lead, Carlos Boozer of all people thwarted a LeBron James-to-Dwyane Wade fast break by blocking Wade’s driving shot and sending the Bulls breaking the other way. How often does that happen?

But it turned just as quickly. Noah fed Bogans for another three-pointer and this one missed. Joel Anthony dunked at the other end. Noah was fouled on a drive, failing to convert a hoop that would have given him a three-point opportunity.

He made the first free throw, but missed the second. Boozer rebounded, was blocked by Anthony, got the rebound again and missed a tough-but-makeable-at-$15-million-a-year shot in close. Noah came from behind to try and tip stuff the rebound, but was called for an over-the-back foul. It was his second personal, sending him to the bench with 6:26 to play in the quarter.

That’s when Noah’s night took an even worse turn. Taunted by fans behind him, he snapped back at them with a gay slur (he apologized after the game).

Noah was never the same. He was so hyped at the beginning he slapped the opening tip out of bounds. He had two rebounds early and fed Deng for a dunk on a give-and-go for the Bulls’ first basket. But after going to the bench he was a liability. He finished with that one point on 0-of-4 shooting, five rebounds — only one offensive rebound — six assists, two blocked shots, two turnovers and five personal fouls.

If he only would have made that second free throw, how different of a night might it have been for Joakim Noah and the Bulls? The guy is mercurial enough to wonder.

But it just goes to show you how slim the margin-of-error is for a team like the Bulls. Each Bogans three-pointer is critical. (The Bulls are 9-0 when Bogans hits three or more three-pointers, winning by an average of 17 points a game). Each Boozer miss inside makes a difference. Each Korver missed three-pointer is costly. The difference between three-point play opportunities and a two-shot foul is magnified.

Against an opponent that has the opposite quality — with James, Wade and a red-hot Bosh, the Heat can make even big things become minor — the pressure is mounting on the Bulls. The idea that they have to be perfect to beat the Heat, which looked off-base after Game 1, is starting to ring true.

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