The highlights have a way of getting stuck in your head and playing on an endless loop whenever the thought of a Bulls-Cavs series comes up. If you've been emotionally invested in Tom Thibodeau and Derrick Rose's Bulls since their inception, it's an unavoidable reality on the precipice of a playoff matchup four years in the making.
There's an afternoon game in Miami in 2012 when LeBron James swung around the baseline, saw only John Lucas III standing between himself and the hoop, and literally jumped over him to hammer home a two-handed alley-oop. There was a game two years earlier, back when LeBron was ringless and had been diagnosed with a deficiency of the clutch chromosome, when he took James Johnson off the dribble and sent him to heaven with a one-handed tomahawk dunk.
There was a 37-12-11 playoff game when LeBron buried six three-pointers and only needed 17 shots total to do it. There was the omnipresent defeatism of him switching onto Derrick Rose in crunch-time back in 2011, when everyone in the building knew no one else on the Bulls would be able to get their own offense going.
This is the Bulls' history with LeBron James, one of the two best players of the era and the guy who has stomped out their playoff hopes three times before. Along the way, there's been open-floor shoves, gritty form tackles and a few life-affirming victories in which the Bulls really did seem to personify each of the tired cliches Tom Thibodeau enforces daily.
Now the Bulls are ready for their next shot. It might as well be their best shot and their last shot with Thibodeau, too. It's been a long time coming.
Sports don't hit home unless you know the context, and with this series the context is heavy enough to bludgeon you. A Cleveland sports team hasn't won a championship in 51 years. LeBron came home, wrote a letter, signed a contract and then traded Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love as soon as the ink was dry.
Much like his foray in Miami, there were early struggles. Cleveland was 19-20, Love seemed lost and LeBron looked old. He took a two week vacation to Miami, saw his team trade for a starting center and a pair of wings and suddenly the Cavs turned into the juggernaut everyone had expected. In the first round of the playoffs, they lost Love for the season and J.R. Smith for the first two games of this series.
The Bulls' path was even more trying. Rose essentially missed three consecutive postseasons during his prime following that five-game loss to Miami in 2011, and the year he's finally "back" included another torn knee ligament. That team from 2011 is long gone. Kyle Korver was traded for a salary cap exception that was never used and promptly turned into an All-Star. The subsequent gamble on Richard Hamilton backfired, Luol Deng was traded and Omer Asik signed elsewhere in free agency.
In their wake, Joakim Noah peaked during Rose's absence and cratered as soon as he got back. The good and the bad of Pau Gasol was added to the mix. Jimmy Butler went from a 24-year-old who couldn't shoot to a 25-year-old who averaged 20 points per game in a contract year.
It all leads us to tonight, to Game 1 of this series in Cleveland. We've seen the Bulls take the opening playoff game from a LeBron team twice in the playoffs before. With Love out for good and Smith coming back once this series heads to Chicago on Friday, it's paramount the Bulls find a way to steal a game in Cleveland. If you've followed this team all year, it seems like they're capable of doing it.
This season's Bulls have a defining quality, and no one can say for sure if it's a positive or a negative one quite yet. We've seen the Bulls get thumped at home by Orlando, Utah, Miami and Charlotte. We've also seen them go into Oracle and become the last team to beat the Warriors in their own building. We've seen them dominate in the Cavs in February without Butler as Rose torched Kyrie Irving, the role players hit threes and the big men controlled the glass.
These Bulls have a way of playing up or down to the competition. It's a frustrating character trait when they lose to bad teams but perhaps it will pay off the other way in a series they're as hyped for as this one. The Bulls respect LeBron, but they don't like him. How could they after everything he's put them through?
In James and Irving, Cleveland still has the two best offensive players in this series. The Bulls have more depth at every position. The Cavaliers now have to figure out how to win without Love while the Bulls are as healthy as they've been all year, even if a couple key cogs are still beat up. Such is life when it comes to this team since Thibodeau took over.
The supporting cast for each side may just determine things. James' teams always seem to find a way to get unlikely contributions from role players; if the Bulls are going to win this series, the 3-10 of their roster needs to be better than Cleveland's.
Can anyone box out Tristan Thompson? Will Tony Snell catch fire and pour in three-pointers or will he miss badly and get benched? Will Mozgov's size advantage completely neutralize Noah, or will Joakim's quickness win the battle? Is Mike Dunleavy going to uppercut someone? Will J.R. Smith win the Cavs more games than he loses them upon his return?
At the center of it all is James, Irving, Rose and Butler. Butler has blossomed to become the Bulls' best player this season and is as good of a matchup for LeBron as there is in the Eastern Conference. Don't forget: LeBron has to guard Butler now, too (unless they "hide" him on Noah). Rose vs. Irving should be incredible: Kyrie is a diabolical scorer but a poor defender; Rose is woefully inconsistent but has a way of getting up for matchups against All-Stars. Going into this series, most people believe Irving is a better player than Rose, as they should. How do you think Rose feels about that?
The games are going to be tense, physical and anxious. It's going to be fun and terrible at the same time.
The Bulls can win. Cleveland won't defend like Milwaukee did. There are options within Thibodeau's roster, he just needs to pull the right strings. It will all probably come down to a handful of possessions, and we know how much variance there can be in that.
I just know I'm ready for it. After everything this franchise has been through with Rose and with Thibodeau, this series feels like it could be an end or a beginning at the same time. There's that much riding on it. Finally, it isn't a hypothetical anymore. The Bulls have an opportunity, and that's really all you can ask for.