Winning a game against a LeBron James led team has proven to be an easier task than most for the Chicago Bulls in the last couple regular seasons.
And winning without James has proven to be a herculean task for the Cleveland Cavaliers since his return in 2014.
So putting those two events together seemed to produce an inevitable result at Quicken Loans Arena, with James out due to illness, as the Bulls pulled away from the Cavaliers 117-99 Saturday night.
The win marks a season-high fourth straight for the Bulls, pulling them over .500 for the first time in nearly two months and they lead the season series 3-0 over the NBA Champions.
Of course, if James were healthy perhaps the Cavaliers would look more cohesive but without him, only Kyrie Irving was in double figures amongst the starters for most of the night. Irving was unguardable with 34 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
After the lead rose to 20, Irving went to work to get the Cavaliers back in it by scoring eight in the quarter and cutting the lead in half with 2:30 left. But without James, the Bulls were able to hold off the Cavaliers with baskets from Cristiano Felicio and Nikola Mirotic, who had his second straight big game with 14 points and 10 boards.
A third-quarter flurry from the Bulls gave them some breathing room after a back-and-forth 24 minutes. The Cavs threatened to blow the game open with a 65-59 lead to start the third but the Bulls quickly turned the tables, getting stops and leaking out for fast breaks.
"We made an adjustment at halftime, I give our guys credit for making the adjustment, slowing them down a little bit," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "When we get that thing off the rim, we're pretty good. When we get it up and space the floor properly and with pace, good things generally happens."
Dwyane Wade corralled weak-side rebounds and popped it ahead to Butler and Bobby Portis for layups.
Butler then hit two triples in succession to give the Bulls a 76-67 lead, as he was on his way to his first triple-double of the season with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
"That first half he started 0-5 before he made one basket," Hoiberg said. "But he grabs seven rebounds, made winning plays. That's what it's about. We talk about moving the ball, making the right play, trusting your teammate. Jimmy's obviously a huge part of that."
With no James to chase around, Butler still played like he was saving his offensive energy for later, although he was guarding Irving at times. But the easier load didn't lead to Butler trying to do too much.
He wasn't holding the ball, just waiting on the defense to commit. They kept the Cavaliers moving from side to side and the trust was evident throughout the evening.Wade was one rebound short—one Felicio rebound attempt with seconds remaining, from getting a triple-double with 20 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds in 34 minutes, as he looked fresh from the days he had off before the break after he injured his wrist on the west coast trip.
"I'm cool with the break," Wade joked. "The way you look at it, it's a 25-game sprint. Let's go out here and have some fun. We have guys that come in, bringing new energy. We just gotta come out and play basketball."
Shooting nearly 50 percent, totaling 34 assists on 46 field goals and hitting a season-high 15 triples, it's almost like Hoiberg's dream has come to life—a year and a half into this experiment.
The 3-point shooting has been a welcome addition since the trade of Doug McDermott, their best 3-point shooter.
"I think guys are shooting their shots," Wade said. "Denzel (Valentine) has been a great jolt the last couple games. We've been talking about where guys can get their shots and guys are taking them. That's what we want. That's what coach wants. If you miss two, take the next one."
Valentine followed up his sterling showing Friday night with another competent and confident performance, hitting three triples to score 11 and at least competing on the defensive end.
"It says a lot about Denzel, the type of kid he is. He doesn't play with any fear," Hoiberg said. "A lot of guys would get nerves when your number is called and you know you gotta go in three. He's taken advantage of this opportunity and hopefully he continues to play well."
Cameron Payne made his debut as a Bull and hit two triples in the first half, both passes off the ball as he hasn't had enough time to grasp the offense, only going through a morning walkthrough with the coaching staff after the team arrived in Cleveland.
"Just overall unselfishness has been really good," Hoiberg said. "Had a low turnover game (seven), which really helps."
What else really helps on a night like Saturday? No LeBron James.