CHICAGO -- It might not be fully evident in the next game. It probably won't come to fruition in this series. But the Chicago Bulls' first-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers has already provided an NBA education for Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah for which there can be no substitute.
Don't look now, but the little team most likely to be swept is giving the team most likely to win it all fits.
The Bulls' 108-106 victory over the Cavs in Game 3 Thursday, coupled with their effort in a Game 2 loss, has been a revelation as the Eastern Conference's lowest seed has now shown the ability to hang with, hold off and even dominate a team most thought would leave them in a cloud of resin dust.
"It's great for our confidence as a young team to beat a team like this, a team that has the best record in the NBA, a team that everybody says is going to win the championship," said Bulls center Joakim Noah, who finished with 10 points and 15 rebounds despite foul trouble that limited him to 5 1/2 minutes in the fourth quarter.
"To be in a situation like this, to play in an environment like this, for us is huge, and we feel we can compete with them. That's a great feeling to me."
Empowered by the expected firepower of Rose, who had 15 first-quarter points, and the improved shooting of Kirk Hinrich, who came into the game a combined 6-of-18 for 13 points in Games 1 and 2 and broke through in Game 3 with 27 points on 9-of-12 shooting, the Bulls looked as if they might actually turn the thing into a rout.
"We started the game too lax, I don't know why," said LeBron James, who was 4-of-10 in the first quarter for 10 points while his team shot 38 percent to the Bulls' 54 percent at the outset.
Leading by 11 at the end of the first quarter, 14 midway through the second and 21 midway through the third, the Bulls continued to do what they did best in Cleveland, committing just three first-half turnovers while dominating on the boards [25-18] and in second-chance points [10-2].
But perhaps most impressive was their ability to withstand the Cavs' best punch -- a 13-0 third-quarter run that reduced a 21-point Bulls lead to eight -- without relinquishing momentum.
Of course, it would not be that easy with James on the court. But even a 39-point, 10-rebound, eight-assist game by James, including 13 points via a quicker, small Cavs lineup in the fourth quarter, looked mortal compared to his Game 2 finish. And five turnovers, 7-of-13 foul shooting and a key charge by James taken by Luol Deng with just over a minute left in regulation, allowed the Bulls just enough breathing room to never relinquish the lead.
There were so many moments for the Bulls, like Deng dribbling behind his back, past James, and laying in a soft scoop while sandwiched by Anthony Parker and Anderson Varejao with 2:28 left in the third to keep the Cavs at bay and the United Center crowd in a frenzy.
There was Rose's one-handed shot put from 10 feet in heavy traffic to put the Bulls up by six with 5:58 remaining and the lead see-sawing, and another 10-foot floater to keep the lead at six a minute later.
"Derrick Rose played huge for us like he always does," Noah said of Rose's 31-point effort. "I'm glad he's on our team. They probably need to get the ball out of his hands."
James admitted as much, putting himself on Rose late in the game, but it wasn't enough.
"It surprised me a bit," Rose said of James' extra attention, "but it was fun out there."
Not so fun that he was able to bask in chants of "MVP, MVP" from the partisan crowd, however.
"Don't listen to them, just don't listen," Rose said. "I almost passed out. Maybe one year, but not this year. I just want to win games right now."
Thursday's victory bought them a return trip to Cleveland, which should only further the maturing process that began last year against the Boston Celtics, and a confidence that grows despite the odds.
"From the beginning of the series, I thought we could play with them," Noah said.
And that trip back to Cleveland?
"I can't wait," he said.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.