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LeBron, Cavs fine with results of 'first test' against Bulls

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LeBron, Cavs fine with results of 'first test' against Bulls

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.

[MORE: Bulls hold on for opening-night win against rival Cavaliers]

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.

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"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."

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

Bulls are unlocking something with Zach LaVine: 'He was terrific'

MINNEAPOLIS—The applause was thunderous on the welcome back for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, two Timberwolves draft picks sent away when the chance to acquire Jimmy Butler came along.

But some of the air was taken out the Target Center due to the absence of Jimmy Butler, who’ll miss the next several weeks after deciding to have surgery on his right meniscus following an injury Friday night.

So while there was no rematch of the thrilling contest the two teams had in Chicago, some things were very much the same.

Lauri Markkanen’s struggles continued.

LaVine showed more flashes of his complete game and Dunn had a couple moments of his own.

And on the other side, Tom Thibodeau kept his starters in the game with victory secured and his team up 20 points in the Timberwolves’ 122-104 win over the Bulls Saturday night.

The Timberwolves broke the game open in the fourth quarter with some key shot-making from veteran Jamal Crawford, as he was one point short of the Timberwolves having four 20-point scorers on the night.

Jeff Teague, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combined for 70 points in their first game of many without Butler.

LaVine was a main reason the Bulls stayed afloat in the first 36 minutes, finishing with 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in his first game back in front of the Minneapolis crowd he spent his first few years playing for.

Going head-up with his former teammate Wiggins for a stretch, the two seemed to relish their practice matchups. Wiggins was doing a lot of pure scoring while LaVine seemed to enjoy probing the defense and making plays for teammates, taking more of a ballhandling role as opposed to floating around the perimeter for 3-point attempts.

“He’s doing a much better job not settling for tough shots,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s attacking the basket much better than he was. You can just see him getting his legs, getting more comfortable. It was good to see him as a playmaker, he was terrific.”

Perhaps the Bulls are unlocking something with LaVine, getting him the ball in different places and on the move, where he made some nifty passes in traffic, exercising patience and maturity.

“I liked it. Hopefully we get a little bit more of it,” LaVine said. “But it’s working. Should’ve stuck to it.”

They didn’t, as the Bulls didn’t look as organized as they have previously. Dunn looked extremely motivated and aggressive but it seemed to work against him at times as Teague took advantage of Dunn being too quick for his own good. So hyped up, Dunn blew a breakaway dunk in the first half, but luckily Nwaba was right behind him for a putback.

That type of energy was expected for Dunn and LaVine, maybe even moreso for Dunn considering his underwhelming rookie year where he didn’t get much chance to play as a top-five pick.

Dunn finished with 10 points on four of 12 shooting while Cameron Payne scored 11  in 19 minutes, but the decision making from both point guards left plenty to be desired—which is to be expected given the lack of veterans on the floor.

Their starting unit again struggled as Justin Holiday and Robin Lopez again sat as the evaluation of the younger players continued.

Cristiano Felicio had a better outing than his foul-plagued game against Philadelphia, scoring 11 points but had his hands full on the other end. David Nwaba impressed for the second straight game as a starter, getting in the open floor to force the action, scoring 14 with nine rebounds in 34 minutes.

“The second quarter, I thought, was one of our better quarters of the year,” Hoiberg said. “As bad as we played in the first quarter, I thought we were down 20. We just didn’t sustain it. Against a great team like that, it’s gonna cost you.”

Nwaba, along with Bobby Portis, was a big reason why the Timberwolves couldn’t run away from the Bulls until well into the fourth quarter, even after taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter and sending Hoiberg scrambling for early timeouts.

“You can expect it because you haven’t played with that group before,” LaVine said. “We’re gonna get that chemistry down. We (only) had a couple practices with that lineup.”

Whether it’s the lineup change or just the rookie blues, the year has clearly caught up with Markkanen, who only made one field goal in 32 minutes.

“Gotta get some extra shots up. I see myself thinking too much,” Markkanen said. “That’s how it is. Of course it’s frustrating to not make shots but it is what it is. Gotta work through it.”

Markkanen has gone one-for-eight in each game coming from the All-Star break and missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.

“He’s shooting the heck out of the ball in practice,” Hoiberg said. “He’s struggling right now with his confidence, no question about it. As a shooter, you gotta keep looking to be aggressive, take the open ones. It takes one game to get that confidence back.”

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”