The Bulls have made a lot of changes over the past two seasons, but one thing that appears constant is a supernatural ability to play LeBron James well at home on National TV.
Yes, it was another King-vexing performance by the Bulls, as they held off the Cavs 111-115. This was the Cavaliers second game in as many nights, finishing a stretch of 6 game in 10 days. But they also had lost two straight coming into tonight and so you’d figure they’d play desperately...eh, maybe LeBron just wants the learning experiences for this repeat try. More people looking for his subtweets, that’s just good branding.
Credit to the Bulls for a very well-played second half and final stretch, something they hadn’t done well at for much of this season. One season theme that did carry through was fantastic work by the starting lineup with little from the bench: 98 of the Bulls points tonight came from Rondo/Wade/Butler/Gibson/Lopez, with both Taj and Jimmy going over 40 minutes. Bobby Portis received a DNP as Hoiberg avoided playing him at center by just not playing him at all, going even with Niko at center for a bit in the first half (it didn’t turn out great).
And with the Cavaliers going small, and quietly struggling a bit defensively this year, the Bulls formula stayed true: punish teams inside and on the glass. An astonishing 78 points in the paint, with an offensive rebound rate of over 37%. And though not a gaudy FT margin, still an edge in that department as well. That’s how the Bulls win.
It didn’t look like the defense would be part of that winning formula to begin the game though. Both teams had very well-played first halves and extremely hot starts. There were barely even any whistles, maybe because neither team defended close enough to warrant any. The Cavaliers first stint with LeBron had them over 70% shooting, with J.R. Smith hitting a few threes, Tristan Thompson a few garbage buckets, and LeBron getting wherever he wanted.
Might wanna guard LeBron pic.twitter.com/rSkjGVTP6a— Stephen Noh (@hungarianjordan) December 3, 2016
But the Bulls never found themselves too far down, even briefly getting the lead before heading into halftime down 1. They were a mere 2-15 from outside the paint including 0-8 from three, but made up for it with all the havoc they were unleashing inside.
The Bulls were led in the half by Taj, who was a perfect 8/8 for 18 points in the half. He (and it should be said, Niko a bit too) held counterpart Kevin Love to an ugly 1/8 shooting mark in that same half. Rajon Rondo had 8 assists in what was an extremely-high assist mark for both teams: again, not much defense here.
The third quarter saw things slow down quite a bit, with (either the Bulls defense tightening or due to Cavs laziness) the Cleveland offense devolving into lots of isolations. LeBron had 11 points on some tough makes in the quarter but the Cavs only scored 20 overall. The Bulls kept up their inside attack (plus Wade hit the Bulls first 3 of the night) extending to an 11 point lead at one time and finished the quarter up 8.
The Bulls were in a danger zone to start the 4th with Jimmy getting a rest (LeBron played the whole second half) and the lead was cut to 3 at its most perilous. But the Bulls performed down the stretch, led by Rajon Rondo slowing the game down and maximizing possessions. He even hit a three-pointer, to help alongside some clutch baskets from Wade and Jimmy getting to the line. And of course there were a bunch of offensive rebounds. Defensively, the Bulls bent (lots of Kevin Love open threes) but didn’t break, as Nikola Mirotic of all people (he was 1/9 for 2 points in 22 minutes) had back-to-back defensive plays on LeBron and Irving to seal things. Irving had yet another trash game against the Bulls, and this time you can’t even pin it on the defensive wizardry of Kirk Hinrich. Rondo showed good initial effort on more than a few occasions which helped keep Irving looking bad.
Jimmy Butler started slowly but wound up leading the team with 26. Gibson finished with 23, and I’m convinced would be an All-Star if he played against LeBron’s teams every night. Wade took 23 shots to get his 24 points, but looked revved up against his old teammate (did you know they were friends? well ESPN has something for you!) and had several key makes late.
Wade’s already scheduled to sit out tomorrow’s game in Dallas, so it’s nice he got to see a bet paid off and then a game won over his pal James. Just because the Bulls have guys who are friendly with LeBron now, doesn’t mean they can’t beat him in the regular season still.