Long After First Duel, Cavs Face Bulls with Shot to Show How Far They’ve Come

CLEVELAND — There are dates on the NBA calendar with the potential to carry a special significance, but October 20 isn’t one. It’s traditionally been too early to hold a season opener. It’s not an NBA holiday, like, say, Christmas. Nor, of course, does it fall during the postseason, when every night, for every participating team, naturally matters more. 

Yet, for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls, the most recent October 20, which they spent together in Columbus, Ohio, still resonates now, and only in part for what happened on the court in the evening, a 107-98 Cavaliers victory that was mostly memorable for Derrick Rose‘s dynamic performance, one that had the typically tepid Tom Thibodeau gushing and had Joakim Noah declaring him “the fastest guy on the court by far.” It was memorable for what occurred on the court in the morning: an impromptu LeBron James press availability that still stands as among his most introspective of the season, one that has proven eerily prescient, and one that sets the stage for what should be a compelling second round series. 

It was then that James was asked whether this was a “rivalry renewed.” 

James said he didn’t see that.

“We haven’t done anything right now,” James said then. “They’re a team that is much better than us right now. Off chemistry. They’ve been together for a while. Their system, they’ve been in it for a while. So we’ve got a long way to go.” 

Then, when asked about his comfort level with his new coach, David Blatt, James repeated the question, but spoke of the learning process not only with Blatt but with his new teammates. 

“You’ve got to go through something in order to create a bond, and that means for the worse,” James said. “We got to lose ballgames that we think we should have won, we’ve got to get into an argument here and there every now and then just to test each other out. It has to happen, it’s gonna happen, I know it’s gonna happen; a lot of guys don’t see it, but I see it. And that’s the only way we’re going to be able to grow. You don’t define yourself throughout the good times, it’s through the bad times. And that’s for the players and the coaching staff as well.” 

That’s what has happened, almost as if scripted, as the Cavaliers have overcome considerable turmoil over the course of the season. At times, it has almost seemed as if James was intent on testing his teammates in whatever ways the circumstances weren’t, setting brushfiressuch as his “Fit In, Fit Out” tweet about Kevin Love—and tossing the media more matches. It can be argued now that his approach, while unorthodox and at times uncomfortable, worked fairly well, as the Cavaliers streaked through all the shocks and scrutiny, winning 38 of their past 47 games, including their first round sweep of the Celtics. 

But, as James well knows, the Bulls will gladly take the testing from here.    

This series will show whether the Cavaliers have clearly separated from their preseason and early-season selves, when they can show how far they’ve come. This squad on the other side, not the surprising Hawks, was the one Cleveland envisioned as its worthiest foil from the offseason onward, as each was constructing its contending components, as each was adjusting to being anointed as an East favorite, as each was enduring its share of untimely bumps and unfavorable bounces. 

“Yeah, I know we were both paying attention to each other,” Irving said. “And every time we played, it was more of a personal thing.” 

Everyone knew that, somehow, some way, they would play again, not just once in Columbus in the preseason or twice in Chicago and twice in Cleveland in the regular season, but at some time in the postseason. Everyone knew we would be here, yet that inevitability shouldn’t render the confrontation any less intriguing. After all, we didn’t know when it would occurthis is a round earlier than initially expected, thanks largely to Atlanta sweeping all of Januarynor did we know how their rosters and rotations would look when they did. Few suspected, especially after the Cavaliers’ midseason additions, that it would be them, and not the perpetually battered Bulls, who would be worse for wear.  

Cleveland is, of course, with Love sidelined for the season following shoulder surgery, and J.R. Smith suspended two games for elbowing Celtics forward Jae Crowder in the Cavaliers’ first round clincher, while the Bulls are conveniently healthier than they’ve been all season. Chicago will start its preferred lineup in Game 1, something it couldn’t do in any of the four regular season meetings with Cleveland, something it did in only 21 of the 78 games against the rest of the league. 

Still, that can’t serve as an excuse now, not when the Cavaliers hold the home court advantage, and not when they hold the trump cardand perhaps the top two. 

There’s no question that James is the series’ premier player, not like the debate prior to the Heat’s 2011 Eastern Conference Finals against Chicago, after Rose had just received the MVP. James affirmed his superiority in that series, and he hasn’t slipped materially since then, while Rose has since had three knee surgeries and has struggled, even this season, to string three quality quarters together, let alone games or weeks or months. That’s not to say the Bulls are incapable of offering resistance. Jimmy Butler is a determined and skilled defender, and Tom Thibodeau has earned more of James’ admiration than most opposing coaches, dating back to battles before Thibodeau took over in Chicago.

James has faced other head coaches more frequently in the postseason, splitting four series with Doc Rivers, losing two of three to Gregg Popovich, and winning all three against Eddie Jordan and Frank Vogel. But while he’s beaten Thibodeau and the Bulls just twiceby a combined 8-2 counthe lost to the Celtics twice when Thibodeau, as an assistant, was essentially Rivers’ defensive coordinator, dropping eight of the 13 games in the second round in 2008 and 2010. And even after posting a 3-1 record this season, James is 8-9 against Thibodeau’s Bulls in the regular season, and 14-14 if you include Thibodeau’s three seasons with a prominent role on the Celtics. That’s not to say he’s been entirely stifled; some of James’ stat lines have been spectacular. But he’s almost always had to work. 

Back on October 20, James was asked if he believed his current cast would convince Thibodeau to play him any differently.

“Thibs is going to play you how Thibs is going to play everybody,” James said. “It doesn’t change. I’ve been against Thibs’ defenses for a long time. In Boston. And then coming to Chicago. He plays you the same way. Very aggressive. Kind of filters you into the paint. Don’t give you no threes. Wants you to take contested twos. Always keeps a body on you. We have the personnel for it, but it’s how we place the personnel out on the floor to help us succeed. I’ll be able to give some insight on them. It obviously won’t be (in that preseason game) and it might not even be the second game of the season. But long-term, so we can be ready for their defense.”

Long-term, at last, is at hand. 

We’ll see if, without Love, without Smith, and against a roster that is more complete from three through 10, Irving can assert himself as the series’ second-best player. Not the Cavaliers’ second-best. The second-best on either side. That means he needs to thoroughly outplay Rose, something that stunninglyconsidering Irving’s emergence and Rose’s inconsistencydidn’t happen during the four meetings in the regular season, with Rose averaging more points (21.0 to 18.3) in fewer minutes (32.5 to 38.8) while shooting a much higher percentage (44.0 to 34.3). Even in that preseason game in Columbus, Rose (30 points) ran circles around Irving, while Irving (28 points) did almost all of his damage with Rose sitting, making just one shot with Rose guarding him. 

Irving must dominate that matchup. Play to a standstill, and that benefits the deeper Bulls. Fall short of even that, and require constant help with the assignmentsuch as Iman Shumpert or James guarding Rose for long stretchesand that will compromise not only the Cavaliers’ defense but also much of the progress, in terms of belief and trust, that James and Irving have made in their time together as teammates. 

James has repeatedly insisted that he pushes Irving because “he can handle it” and he believes it will bring out the best in the 23-year-old. So far, seemingly so good, at least judging by Irving’s smile Sunday.

“[He and I] set the tone,” Irving said. “There’s a lot to be learned out here, especially in the game of basketball. To get advice from him, and every single day being around him, it’s a good thing. He has to be hard on me. I wouldn’t want it any other way. He demands perfection as much I demand perfection from him. [We] have built that relationship and it continues to grow. Just steady. He knows that I can take it. It’s just about getting better and making each other better.”

Still, for all of their increased understanding since Irving’s no-assist effort in Utahone of those arguments James predicted they neededit would be a strength to call it an even partnership at this stage. Not yet. This isn’t James and Dwyane Wade, who were equally accomplished when they came togetherJames with the MVP awards and Wade with the championship pedigreeand thus they were automatically equally qualified to hold each other, and everyone else, accountable. To have what Wade called “moments,” acute eruptions of frustration that quickly subsided, since they knew how much they needed and valued the other. 

Irving is still somewhat in the proving stage, proving his poise and his mettle, and doing so in more of a contentious but, ultimately, only mildly competitive series against the overmatched Celtics.

That wasn’t the playoffs, not really. That was the prelims.

This is where you prove your worth to someone like James, by coming through against the likes of Rose, Thibodeau, Butler, Noah and the Bulls. 

Irving laughed Sunday when asked if he ever critiqued James’ mistakes.

“Well, of course,” Irving said. “It’s not just going to be one-sided. Not just badgering me every time I make a mistake. It’s a relationship that, like I said, continues to grow. We just expect and demand perfection from one another. So if he messes up, I mess up, we take responsibility and we move on.”

They have grown plenty. The Cavaliers have grown plenty.

But they won’t move on, well past Columbus and into the Eastern Conference finals, unless he’s great, and James is great, and that is enough for their supporting cast, the one without Love for the duration and Smith for the start, to be good enough. The Bulls may no longer be much better, not like they were in October. But a little better, at this point in the calendar, counts exactly the same. 

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.

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