CLEVELAND — The circumstances were all in place for the Bulls to succumb in an environment that was set for a blowout loss—and with the way they’d been playing, they didn’t need perfect circumstances for such an outcome.
They came in losing six of eight, it was the third game in four nights and the opponent on the other side was allegedly charged up for their new head coach’s debut.
But the other side of the bi-polar Bulls emerged to play spoiler for Tyronn Lue’s first game, flipping the switch to reverse the trend for a 96-83 victory at Quicken Loans Arena Saturday night.
The Cavs certainly looked out of sorts and just as fragile as the Bulls have been for the past several weeks, but the Bulls displayed a bit more fervor than they had recently, not allowing the Cavaliers to jump out early and keeping the crowd subdued.
“With a team like that and a leader like that in LeBron, you’re on alert, I’ll say that,” Derrick Rose said. “Coming into the game, you know the stadium is gonna be rocking and they’re gonna be real hype for the game.”
Pau Gasol re-emerged to score 25 and 10 rebounds, as the Bulls reversed a couple damning trends over the last couple weeks, such as turning the ball over too much and not controlling their defensive glass.
They outrebounded the Cavaliers 53-48, holding their playoff tormentors to 37 percent shooting and committing just eight turnovers, a contrast to their embarrassing showing in Boston.
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“They responded. We talked a lot about that,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We talked about coming out and playing with a lot of energy early and we had to match it. I thought we did that.”
It doesn’t show up in the box score, but Taj Gibson was single-handedly battling the Cavs bigs inside, keeping Kevin Love and Timofey Mozgov off the glass. His 3-point play opportunity with 1:49 left gave the Bulls an 11-point lead, effectively ending whatever threat the Cavs intended to pull off.
He scored 15 and eight rebounds, outperforming Love’s 14 and five rebound performance. After getting poked in the eye late in Boston, he had to play with goggles and Rose joked he might have to continue playing with the goggles if he keeps producing like this.
“I couldn’t see out of my eye, it was completely black,” Gibson said. “I didn’t know if I was gonna play today. It was scary. It was still a little blurry.”
The Bulls were thought to need heroic performances from Jimmy Butler and Rose, but they had relatively off-nights despite being effective, with 20 and 12, respectively.
But then again, some things were out of their control. The Cavs uncharacteristically started out 1 for 10 from the free-throw line. When they hit their second free throw late in the third quarter, the Quicken Loans Arena crowd cheered wildly—out of sarcasm, and finished nine of 22 from the stripe.
By that point, they were nearing panic mode as the Bulls led by 10 despite not shooting the ball well, but received necessary contributions from Nikola Mirotic, who at that point in the evening outscored LeBron James 14-10.
It’s funny how we always get up to play the big teams,” Gibson said. “It’s just funny how we muster up and play great. We have to learn from it. Niko played great. These are games that help guys overcome hurdles from the past.”
Mirotic hit a triple to start the fourth quarter, giving the Bulls their biggest lead of night at 77-60.
Gasol, just as he did in Game 1 of their playoff series last May, kept the bigs at bay with his mid-range shooting, hitting 11 of 15 shots and even finished on a fast break feed from Gibson, the Bulls’ only basket in that category.
Neither will take this game film and frame it, but entering the arena there was a different feel, and the Bulls will caution against any long-term views by going up 2-0 in the season series.
“We’ve been 2-0 many times against the past,” Gibson said. “It’s about when it’s time to knuckle up and it’s playoff time. I’d rather be up 2-0 against the Cavs in the playoffs.”
Butler and James were the only two on the floor two and a half hours before the charged up contest, as Butler was in full lather going through his array of shots with assistant coach Jim Boylen.
Butler scored 13 in the first half, while James couldn’t get much of anything going outside the perimeter. It was to the point Butler was giving James the outside shot and James couldn’t hit it, going 0 for 5 beyond the three-point line. James neared a triple-double with 23, 13 rebounds and nine assists but took 27 shots and hit only 11.
As drama-filled as the Cavaliers’ present is, as well as their future, it’s only matched by the Bulls’ unpredictability—and the playoffs are still four months away.