CLEVELANDThe killer instinct required to be the last team standing at the end of the season was on full display Friday night, as the Bulls (30-8) handily dispatched the Cavaliers (13-21), 112-91, at Quicken Loans Arena.
Though the Central Division rival presented a challenge early in the contest, they wilted under the Bulls defensive pressure and offensive efficiency, as five Chicago players scored in double figures on the evening.
With Cavaliers starting point guard Kyrie Irvingthe No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft and Rookie of the Year front-runnerout with a bug he caught during All-Star weekend in Orlando, it appeared the Bulls would win in a rout. Particularly, with a fully-intact starting lineup, as compared to the two teams last matchup near the shores of Lake Erie, which Derrick Rose (19 points, nine assists) missed.
However, Cleveland had other ideas, as fill-in starter Ramon Sessions (16 points, seven assists) more than made up for Irvings absence, while veteran forward Antawn Jamison (22 points) had a flashback to his All-Star past, helping to erase the visitors early lead.
Theres things we can do better and were going to have to do better. I dont think we started the game out the way were capable of. I thought they got going, they got some confidence, so we want start a lot better than we did, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Offensively, of course, I thought we played very unselfishly31 assists, high percentageso Im pleased with that, but our defense, we can do a lot better with that.
Ineffectiveness from the tandem of post duo Carlos Boozer (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Joakim Noahthe latter picked up two quick foulsled Thibodeau to go to reserve big men Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, but even the defensive-minded pair couldnt slow down the home teams offensive pace.
Chicago was bailed out by first-time All-Star Luol Deng (24 points, 4-for- three-point shooting, six rebounds, four assists), who knocked down three shots from behind the arc, shouldering the scoring load as the guests led, 30-28, after the opening period.
Its how the game went. We moved the ball well, guys made some good plays and my shot was falling, so I stayed aggressive, Deng explained. The last game against San Antonio, I didnt come out aggressive. I made it a point to myself tonight that I was going to come out aggressive and we moved the ball well, and knocked down shots and it kind of opened up the game, and guys were making smart plays. Jo was all over the boards, Boozer was making his shots, Rip was moving real well, keeping the defense occupied and I was open, and Derrick was penetrating. We all connected tonight.
I said it about Derrick, I said it about Rip, having everyone makes everyones job easier. You look at the way we played tonight. Its so much easier. You dont have to overdo it. With me, my game, when I try to overdo it, I struggle. Keeping it simple and being smart out there is my game, the games high scorer continued. I said it from the start of the year: I think weve just got to find a way to win. I really dont care, at the end of the night, what my line looks like. Im just lucky and blessed to be on a team that all we care about is winning. At the end of the night, we won, were happy, we get on the bus, we leave. When we lose, thats when you start thinking, What could I have done better? But as long as youre out there playing hard, we get the win, thats what its about.
Thibodeau, who described his ironman small forward as a good winning veteran added: He was very aggressive right from the start. He spaced the floor great. I thought our guys made very unselfish plays, either kicking the ball out from the double team and the post-up or in the pick-and-rolls, making the extra pass, and that got him going.
Rose chimed in: Shooting with confidence. There were some shots that I got on him about and we need him to shoot it. If he doesnt shoot it, our offense becomes stagnant and thats something that we cant look forward to.
The game remained close knit at the outset of the second quarter, as neither team could muster up consistent scoring, though the Cavs continued to plug away behind Jamison and Sessions.
But the Bulls reserves began to wear away at their hosts, as sharpshooter Kyle Korver drilled a trio of triples, while swingman Ronnie Brewer (13 points) made an impact with his energetic defense, twice stealing inbound passes, as well as making an impact as a scorer.
Whatever my role is on this team, when my name is called, Ive got to do it to the best of abilities. Weve got Rip back. Hes an excellent scorer, one of the best in the history of the game at moving without the basketball and he adds another asset to this team, so with him in the lineup and me back to the Bench Mob, I feel comfortable with those guys, moving and getting the ball, being more aggressive. I just try to do my job, night in and night out, Brewer, who Boozer described as like an octopus, told CSNChicago.com.
It makes my job a lot easier when youve got guys like Taj Gibson and Omer inside holding it down, rebounding, blocking shots. It allows me to be more aggressiveJoakim in there, rebounding, blocking shotsIm able to play the passing lanes, be more aggressive, run the floor because were getting defensive stops. All those guys getting a lot of attention, especially Derrick, it makes my job a lot easier.
Praised Rose: Brew changed the game with stealshuge stealsplaying defense, knocking down his shot. He has a lot of confidence in his shot now and we just need him to keep playing like that.
Thibodeau concurred: Ronnie has really played at a high level all year long, whether its been as a starter, bench guy, in all areashis defense, his offense, running the floor, making hustle plays, like he came up with those stealshes uncanny with just reading things, so hes playing very well right now.
Chicago gradually opened up a double-digit winning margin, as Rose was in cruise-control mode, Boozer started to find his groove and the teams defense stifled the once-efficient Cleveland offense. At the intermission, the Bulls held a 56-44 advantage and had sapped whatever energy was left from the audience.
The ball movement was great. The ball didnt stick. Everyone was conscious of making the extra pass, hitting the open man, said Thibodeau. In the second quarter, Kyle got us going. We had good ball movement, inside-out and he got some good looks at the basket, so that gave us a little bit of a cushion. Our second unit, their defense was really good and that sort of turned things around for us.
Added Rip Hamilton: Its hard to guard. If we continue to do that, well be tough to beat because you really cant lock in on anything and I think thats the biggest part.
The thing about it is we care about each other so much, so when a guys got it rolling, we make a conscious effort to get him the ball and that tells you what type of great team we have, he continued. Nobodys selfish or anything like that. You see a guy rolling and you try to keep it going.
Echoed Brewer to CSNChicago.com: We have a lot of unselfish guys on this team. Youve got a guy flying at you and you see a guy open in the corner, you make the extra pass, so it shows that weve got good guys on this team, willing to make the extra plays to win games.
Rose and Boozer asserted themselves even further after the break, enabling the Bulls to widen the gap even more against the largely inexperienced home team, which had little offensive firepower to speak of.
Another positive to the Bulls ongoing onslaught was Hamiltons (10 points) solid outingthe veteran played the entire first quarter and eight minutes of the thirdas the shooting guard was efficient and scored within the flow of the offense.
After the back-to-back, he was feeling fine, said Thibodeau, who admitted that he didnt intend to play Hamilton for the entire first quarter, but couldnt get a substitute into the game due to a lack of stoppage of play.
He felt great in the shootaround and he moves so well without the ball that it helps to create good opportunities for us and just the poise that he plays withhes hard to guard off the screens, he reads things extremely wellso were encouraged by that.
Said Hamilton himself: I felt a lot better today. Moving around and getting to my spot, I was fine the last two nights. That was the biggest thing to me. Today was to make cuts and things like that. tonight I felt good. My rhythms coming back; it was better tonight. My timing was great, so it was good.
Noah, who wasnt in rhythm due to early foul trouble, also began to contribute, hitting a jumper from the elbowfollowed by his trademark finger guns celebration, then converting a transition layup off a feed from Rose. Rose himself dominated the action as a scorer as the period waned on and heading into the final stanza, the Bulls had a 94-71 edge.
I just played aggressive, said Rose. I think, the first half, just getting guys into the game until we got the lead and just picking my spots.
Added Thibodeau: Thats the way he plays. Hes not going to force anything. Hes aggressive. I think he reads situations really well and if playmaking is what he has to do, thats what he does.
The pattern continued in the fourth quarter, as Chicago scored with remarkable ease against the sieve-like Cavaliers defense, then turned around on the other end and smothered the opposing scorers, with the lead ballooning as time ticked away.
The entire period was extended garbage time, allowing rookie wing Jimmy Butler and fan favorite Brian Scalabrinewho scored toward the end of the game, drawing cheers from the crowdto see action in the lopsided affair.