CLEVELAND— Stealing the first road game against a possibly rusty team in a building that has seen wins in 22 of the last 23 contests didn’t seem likely, but in the playoffs, series openers call for such streaks to be broken.
It was improbable but not impossible for the Chicago Bulls, who played like a championship boxer in a heavyweight fight for 48 minutes in their 99-92 Game 1 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, but like everything else with this team, it came with a little tension.
Derrick Rose was nailed by a Tristan Thompson screen with 21.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter and immediately began walking the other way in what appeared to be a right shoulder injury that the Bulls hope is a short-term issue and not a series-changer, which would be cruel considering his 25-point, five-rebound, five-assist evening.
“It was a stinger and it was my first time having one,” Rose said. “It went away in 5-10 minutes. It’s something I’m not worried about.”
Unlike the bout that took place in Las Vegas a couple days ago, this highly-anticipated contest featured haymaker after haymaker from both sides, as the Cavaliers tried to shake themselves out of an eight-day lethargy with superstar efforts and the Bulls were desperately worked themselves into the series.
But like Saturday, when attacking boxer Manny Pacquiao was dazed and confused by his opponent’s brilliant wizardry, LeBron James didn’t look like himself in the fourth quarter, committing crucial turnovers, accounting for six of the Cavaliers’ nine giveaways.
“Three of them was not 'attack' turnovers,” James said. “You don’t jump and pass.”
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Meanwhile, Rose went from attacker to facilitator late, hitting Gasol and Jimmy Butler for crowd-quieting jumpers after the Cavaliers were again threatening to make the Bulls do more than sweat in the fourth.
“We know how good they are,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “There’s gonna be runs in the game. It’s gonna be important to answer the runs.”
Aside from an offensive foul on a drive, Rose played with poise down the stretch, illustrating why he so poignantly said “I’m built for this (bleep)” after that embarrassing gaffe in Game 4 of their first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, where he fell asleep for a game-winning layup.
He went head up with Kyrie Irving, who scored 30, and the two times James dared switch onto Rose, James walked away frustrated as Rose sent him packing with two long jumpers, unbothered by James’ length, the crowd or the pressure.
“When you’re playing in the playoffs and it’s the first game, you’ve got to see what they’re doing on the pick and roll, who they’re double-teaming off of, who they aren’t double-teaming,” Rose said. “You’re reading and I think we made adjustments during the game.”
He found Pau Gasol for open jumpers against a leaky pick-and-roll defense, as Gasol scored 13 of his 21 in the third, many after the Cavaliers emerged from a 16-point deficit to tie the contest at 51 in the second half’s opening minutes, ensuring the Bulls never trailed.
They jumped out to a 10-2 run, rarely looking back.
“We kept running it because it was working,” said Gasol, who added 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocked shots. “High pick and roll was working. With Derrick’s ability and my ability to make plays for others, it was very effective tonight. It’s what we do.”
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Butler was James’ shadow for the evening, resting when James rested and checking himself in when he saw James saunter to the scorer’s table. His 20 points, six assists and five rebounds don’t look as gaudy as James’ 19 points (on 22 shots), 15 rebounds and nine assists, but his defense played a crucial part in stealing a road win.
The role players carried the Bulls early, as the Cavs were unable to track Mike Dunleavy, who hit dagger after dagger on the way to nearly outscoring the Cavaliers by himself in the first quarter as the Bulls took a 16-point lead.
“Mike moving without the ball, opening up the floor he never stops moving,” Thibodeau said. “The threat of his shot gives us space.”
The Cavs players tabbed to replace spacers Kevin Love and J.R. Smith—James Jones, Shawn Marion and Mike Miller—otherwise known as “who?” went silent, hitting one field goal in a combined 30 minutes.
It was an offensive clinic for the Bulls for the better part of three quarters, despite the score not reaching triple digits. They shot 50 percent from the field and 56 percent from 3-point range, turning the ball over just 10 times and totaling 23 assists.
“Sharing the ball is important,” Thibodeau said. “The ball movement, keeping your turnovers down, those are things that are necessary. You can never let your guard down.”
Irving and James accounted for essentially all of the registering every assist except for two and every turnover aside from one.
That made it critical for the Bulls to come away with more than just a pat on the back and brownie points for being competitive. Iman Shumpert scored 22 as the only member of the supporting cast not to be on a milk carton, as the Bulls shutting down everyone else is a big piece of a huge blueprint for an underdog team no longer feeling like one.
Round 1 to Chicago.