The Bulls claimed not to be satisfied with just stealing a series opening win, pledging to take seriously an opportunity to put the Cleveland Cavaliers in a big hole before heading to Chicago for the weekend.
But they couldn't manufacture the desperation that came with knowing their season would likely be over with a loss, as was the likelihood of another Cavaliers loss. So LeBron James atoned for his self-described “bad game” and turned in a vintage performance on the way to a series-tying 106-91 win at Quicken Loans Arena Wednesday.
Just as one could tell the Bulls had bad intentions stepping into the ring Monday night, the Cavaliers had the same thoughts, illustrated by their leader powering them to a 13-2 lead in the first few minutes.
“I knew we were in trouble, as soon as they jumped out, I just had a bad feeling,” said Bulls reserve Taj Gibson. “I just hoped we wouldn’t lose too much of a lead. Every quarter we kept chopping it down, chopping it down but wearing out our energy.”
If one wasn’t sure about James’ energy, his devastating drive and dunk over Jimmy Butler in the second quarter put everyone on notice, finishing with 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists, although it took 29 shots to get there, if there’s a silver lining for Bulls fans.
“You win one game, it doesn’t mean you win the series,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “You feel too good about yourselves, you’re gonna get knocked on your butt. And that’s what happened.”
Just as the Bulls led wire-to-wire in Game 1, they trailed all game Wednesday, shooting 33 percent in the first quarter while allowing the Cavs to shoot 65 percent.
“The story of the game was the first quarter,” Thibodeau said. “They smashed us. And we gotta respond a lot better.”
The Bulls’ slight glimmer of hope came in the third, a 14-0 run, with Derrick Rose scoring or assisting on every Bulls basket when Iman Shumpert left for the locker room with a left groin injury and the Cavs comfortably ahead by 25.
Shumpert has come to emerge as a vital cog in the Cavs’ machine, hitting four triples for the second straight game and scoring 15 in 29 minutes. As for Rose, the Bulls point guard couldn’t get to the free-throw line for the third straight game, the first time in his career such an occurrence has happened.
Thibodeau was clearly less than pleased about Rose not getting to the line while his counterpart Kyrie Irving has gone 21 times in two games, but doesn’t want to hear from the league office about a fine for criticizing the officials, so his long wry stare was followed by a sarcastic statement when it was brought to his attention afterwards.
“I guess he’s gotta go harder, I don’t know,” Thibodeau said. “It looks like there’s a lot of contact to me, I don’t know. Obviously others don’t see it that way.”
And even though Irving dropped in a quiet 21, James set the tone early, forcing the Bulls’ defense to put so much attention on him it freed up his teammates for 12 triples, including 9-15 in the first half after the Bulls held them to 27 percent shooting from that range in Game 1.
James had to check himself out of the game in the first five minutes because he expended so much energy trying to get his teammates going. Had that trend continued, the Bulls could’ve been in a good spot, going down the stretch against a tired Cavs leader.
“We gotta come out with a lot more energy,” Gibson said. “We came out a little lax. It’s hard to get the same looks when you have guys into you. They were just running at us every time. We just gotta make adjustments.”
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But unfortunately for the Bulls, James’ teammates followed his lead. Tristan Thompson, who started at power forward in place of Mike Miller, was a nightmare of activity on the offensive glass.
Thompson ran around, threw down and jumped over Pau Gasol, for six offensive rebounds, negating the Bulls’ relative effectiveness with their initial defense after a blistering Cavaliers start.
James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova combined for six three-pointers, while Kendrick Perkins added agitation and irritation to Gasol, who had a miserable night.
The Bulls’ bigs activity left a lot to be desired, as Gasol, Joakim Noah and even Gibson (5-5 shooting) couldn’t do much on the glass.
More than anything, the Bulls appeared a step slow and plenty satisfied, with no counter for the Cavs’ desperation. Rose and Butler battled frustration and ineffectiveness all game, without getting much help from the other weapons. Butler scored 18 while Rose added 14 but took 20 shots with 10 assists and seven rebounds.
If Game 1 was a clear shot across the bow to the Cavaliers, they returned it in kind in a game they needed to win—and likely, giving the Bulls a whipping that will instill a little doubt before the scene shifts.
Round 2 to Cleveland.