Make no mistake, the Cleveland Cavaliers would have liked to come away with a win on opening night.
But in a matchup of division rivals seemingly destined for another collision course in the postseason, LeBron James and the reigning Eastern Conference champs will leave Chicago comfortable with their performance despite a 97-95 loss to the Bulls.
The shorthanded Cavaliers even had a chance to spoil the Bulls' home opener for a second straight season. But two stellar efforts from the Bulls in the final 10 seconds, a Pau Gasol block on James and then Jimmy Butler batting away the inbounds pass to run out the clock, ended a frantic rally just shy.
"There were a lot of positives for us," Cavaliers coach David Blatt said after the game. "We were one shot from winning the game. We're not yet where we're going to be. Not to be someone that knows what happens ahead of time, but that's what happens."
Though appropriate for all teams playing in their first "real" contests, Tuesday night acted as 48 minutes of allowing the Cavaliers to shake off the rust and acclimate further following a hard-luck preseason that included time missed from five of their top six contributors. Neither members of the expected starting backcourt of Kyrie Irving (knee) and Iman Shumpert (wrist) have begun practicing, and neither have a timetable for their return. Newcomer Mo Williams and J.R. Smith started in their places; Williams scored 19 points and Smith added eight points and five rebounds.
LeBron James dazzled in front of the 21,957 in attendance with 25 points and 10 rebounds, but did so after missing the last two weeks of practice following an anti-inflammatory injection to help his ailing back. His departure from the team's final four preseason games coincided with the return of Kevin Love, who had missed the last six and a half months following surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder suffered in the playoffs. Love, in his first game action with James since Game 4 of the first round against the Celtics, scored 18 points.
There was also Tristan Thompson, who ended a holdout less than a week ago by agreeing to a five-year, $82 million deal. There was little doubt he'd play, but missing time in training camp and all seven preseason games meant a rocky start was inevitable; a two-point, 12-rebound, four-foul performance validated that.
"When you haven't played and practiced with your full unit," Blatt said after the game, "you're going to be off with some of your shots."
Blatt also remained upbeat about the Game 1 loss, a far different assessment of his team than last year's shocking loss at home to the Knicks on opening night. His players agreed, with the Cleveland locker room far from panicked or concerned following the game. The good included 26 assists on 36 made field goals, an impressive figure considering Irving's and Shumpert's absences. They also committed just 10 turnovers and outscored the Bulls in every quarter after an abysmal opening stanza. Those numbers, despite poor shooting, left James feeling good, all things considered.
"We missed, I would say, 6 chippies, 8 chippies around the rim where we could have got to 30 assists. So I am surprised at that. I thought that offensively we would be a little bit more rusty, out of place," James admitted, "and for us to have 26 assists and 10 turnovers in a game, especially versus the Bulls, that’s something you can say we’re better than we all expected.
"Tonight was the first test," he added. "We gave ourselves a chance to win on the road and that’s all you can want."
But the slow start simply proved too much to overcome. The second unit struggled mightily when James exited early in the first quarter, shooting 1-for-8 and allowing the Bulls a 13-0 run that pushed the lead to as many as nine. But there was unexpected improvement there, too, and it came in the third quarter as the Bulls appeared to be pulling away.
Derrick Rose, who scored 18 points and handed out five assists, lit up Williams and the Cavs to begin the third quarter, scoring or assisting on 15 of the Bulls' first 17 points of the stanza that gave them a 13-point lead at the 8:27 mark of the period. With 4:21 remaining and the Cavaliers down 10, Blatt lifted James. A group that included reserves Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson and Anderson Varejao proceeded to go on a 13-6 run to close the period, giving the Cavaliers life heading into the final quarter.
"It started with our second unit doing a great job defensively and really moving the ball in their minutes," Blatt said of the second-half comeback. "And obviously it got us back in the game. We went to the bench and they did a great job fighting back for us."
Cleveland briefly took the lead on a floater from James with 5:32 to play, its first since midway through the first quarter. But Fred Hoiberg, making his NBA head coaching debut, and the Bulls responded with a 10-3 run, led by Nikola Mirotic and capped off with a Rose bank shot to give the hosts a 93-85 lead inside 3 minutes to play.
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Kevin Love scored eight straight points for Cleveland before Gasol and the Bulls clamped down, securing their first victory of the year and the first mental edge in a battle between two rivals sure to last the entire year.
For the Cavaliers, though, the loss was given context. Missing their backcourt, Love and James together for the first time since May, shooting 32 percent in the first half and still having the ball with a chance to win on the last possession was reason enough for them to take positives leaving Chicago, understanding that the prohibitive favorites in the East are playing for much more than a regular season game in late October.
The Cavaliers' "first test," as James described it, was done shorthanded. Blatt and his group will be more prepared in terms of depth and firepower, as those tests begin increasing in difficulty and importance.
"When you have weapons like we do you’ve got to just stick with it. Kevin hit some big shots. LeBron made some big plays," Jefferson said. "And we had a chance to win it on the road after not playing well, and that’s a compliment to everyone in this room."