It was tailor-made for an instant replay, another chance for LeBron James to quiet a crazed Bulls crowd and break hearts, albeit on a night in October rather than one in May.
But Jimmy Butler refused to give James even a sliver of space as Mo Williams tried to inbound the ball underneath the rim with 3.6 seconds left, tipping it away and chasing it downcourt to secure the Bulls’ opening-night 97-95 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers at the United Center.
“To tell you the truth I thought it would be the same play he made over me in the playoffs last year,” Butler said. “Stay on his body and threw the ball over the top, I got a piece of it.”
It came after Pau Gasol blocked a James drive mano a mano, his sixth of the night in a surprising defensive showing.
“I made myself very small in my finish,” James said. “Pau was having a great game, and he made a great play.”
Everybody remembers James’ fadeaway jumper over Butler’s outstretched arms in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series, preventing the Bulls from going up 3-1 in that series and possibly to the NBA Finals, starting the chain of events that led to Fred Hoiberg’s debut as head coach.
He knew the play well enough to prepare his players for what could occur and didn’t see any panic from his team late.
“I thought when LeBron lined up in front of the ball, similar to the play (in last year’s playoffs) when he hit the 3, and they had a good counter to it,” Hoiberg said. “But Jimmy stayed right into his body and just jumped up there and got the deflection, defended it very well.”
Hoiberg’s first official game featured as much drama as some of Tom Thibodeau’s final games on this very floor, as Kevin Love scored eight straight in the last minute to pull the Cavaliers within striking distance after the Bulls seemingly pulled away, making President Barack Obama feel secure enough with 1:38 left and the Bulls leading 95-87.
It took awhile for the Bulls’ offense to get in gear, as they only shot 42 percent overall but got better looks down the stretch with their ball movement leading to opportunities for Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Rose and Butler.
James’ runner with 5:31 left gave the Cavaliers a 83-82 lead after they trailed for all of the second half, but Mirotic had a three-point play which was followed by Butler dunk and Rose layup to give the Bulls a little breathing room.
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Mirotic led the Bulls with 19 points, as he helped the Bulls break out of some early lethargy with 11 in the first, including two of his three triples on the night.
Butler’s thievery completed a night where he didn’t do much offensively for the better part of three quarters but he finished with 17 points on six of 17 shooting in 36 minutes, five rebounds and of course, that key steal that sealed the win.
They withstood James’ night of 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 36 minutes as Butler had to play his shadow, knowing he would give up some spectacular plays from the game’s best player but getting deterred wasn’t an option.
“All I know is try to stop 23 (James) from going off,” Butler said. “End of the day, I think I did a decent job of that at the end of the game.”
Rose, who’s still suffering from double vision in his surgically repaired left eye, played 32 minutes after playing just 10 in one preseason game, scoring 18 points with five assists on six of 22 shooting.
The double vision hits hardest when he’s driving closer to the basket, affecting his depth perception. So the fact he missed so many shots at the rim is more of a good sign than anything else, evidenced by only taking two 3-pointers.
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In the 14 games where Rose took more than 20 shots last season, he took two 3-pointers or fewer just twice and had 10 games of six or more 3-pointers attempted.
“When we catch the ball, we are going downhill,” Rose said. “We’re not catching the ball with teams knowing exactly what we’re doing. It’s a new wrinkle to us. Coach doesn’t call many plays. It’s more a read-type offense.”
It certainly had its choppy moments, but with five players in double figures and playing 10 players, the effort was able to drown out the lack of efficiency.
Pretty it was not, but the Bulls showed they still have the ability to get their hands dirty in this new era.