Dwyane Wade gathered the ball after losing the dribble and bearing down on him was the man who refused to switch off him, LeBron James.
James prepared to block Wade’s layup but a little craftiness beat James’ athleticism on the way to the basket, rolling in for Wade’s 21st and 22nd points with 2:30 left in the fourth.
Wade was the one who made sure to let everyone know this game wasn’t just any old game, and for 37 minutes (season-high) he played like it. Moments later he forced James into a turnover, then another as he sandwiched an offensive rebound and layup between the two possessions.
The layup gave the Bulls an eight-point lead with 2:30 left as the Bulls took first blood in their season series with the NBA champions with a 111-105 win at the United Center Friday — a game that was more anticipated for pregame activities than what was to be expected on the floor.
The Bulls expected to take the Cavaliers’ best shot after two poor performances, and one wouldn’t have been surprised to see a blowout from the champs looking to refocus.
What occurred was an aroused Bulls team, taking advantage of the national stage, a reeling opponent and a frisky leader in Wade, who finished with 24 points, five rebounds and four assists in 37 minutes.
Jimmy Butler shook off a unusual shooting night (eight for 20), partially due to the energy exerted from guarding James most of the night, scoring 26 points with eight boards and six assists.
“Wade, Jimmy and Taj were all beasts,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.
It was pretty early and grimy late, which is the way playoff basketball is to be played. Speaking of grimy, Taj Gibson was a leader early and throughout, scoring 23 points with 11 rebounds and five assists, making his first nine field goals.
“That was something we talked about,” said Hoiberg of Gibson’s early offensive explosion. “I thought Taj’s aggressiveness and our guys’ willingness and ability to find them early in the possession before the defense got set and the floor space.”
The Cavs led by seven on two occasions in the first half, with pinpoint offensive execution led by James, and it didn’t appear like the Bulls had the manpower to keep up for 48 minutes, especially as their bench was again inconsistent.
“I thought we did a good job of staying in the game and withstanding their run,” Hoiberg said. “As fast as they were coming out of the gate, a couple things stood out to me, one was the rebounding.”
They dominated the Cavs inside, exposing their lack of interior defense as the Cavs have sacrificed rim protection in place of more perimeter shooting, scoring 78 points in the paint and outrebounding them 49-33.
Gibson started off going 5-for-5 in the first quarter, taking it straight to Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. Even his imperfections were forgiven early, as a missed dunk was wiped out by a foul called on Love when it appeared Love barely blew on him.
By the time halftime came around, the Bulls were down one and despite the Cavs shooting 56 percent, they couldn’t shake their opponents. It set the stage for the Bulls to jump on a team playing three games in four nights as well as having played the night before, and the Bulls took an eight-point lead in the first six minutes of the third.
They had the Cavs playing uphill the rest of the night.
“That’s a testament to how we work,” Gibson said. “We like to get out and run. Rondo is the catalyst, pushing us, getting the ball out and we’re capable of running. We can finish around the basket with myself and Robin but we have other guys (too).”
At times, Wade guarded James and vice-versa, leading to some competitive theatre and playful banter. It was no less competitive, though, as James’ pinpoint passing and drives to the basket were often a beauty to behold, scoring 27 points with 13 assists and five rebounds in 45 minutes after his walk of shame through the bowels of the United Center wearing Chicago Cubs regalia after losing a World Series bet to Wade.
Rajon Rondo, a man who is no stranger to bouts with James’ teams, put together his most impactful game as a Bull with 15 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in 36 minutes.
Kyrie Irving scored 20 for the Cavaliers but took 21 shots and Love scored 15 with nine boards but was a liability defensively.
James was frustrated with his teammates, often rolling his eyes for forgetting to get back on defense. But the Bulls failed to shut the door when the Cavs were reeling, and a James layup made it 92-89.
The Bulls didn’t fold, though, with Rondo and Wade making the necessary plays along with Butler doing his best to corral James defensively, leading to a bounceback victory and a message that perhaps they can compete on call.