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Saturday, April 17, 2010
James and Co. hardly sweating Bulls

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

The thing about one-sided matchups like the first-round Cleveland Cavaliers-Chicago Bulls playoff series is that they can deceive. For it was when the Bulls looked their best Saturday that their chances looked the worst.

Cleveland ended up winning 96-83, but the score was immaterial. The Cavs maintained a lead that hovered around 16 in the second quarter, then built it to 22 in the third before becoming bored long enough for a seven-minute scoring draught to allow the Bulls to climb to within single digits in the fourth.

LeBron James
LeBron James had a relatively quiet game with 24 points, six rebounds, five assists and four blocks.

The Bulls will tell themselves that if they can just shore up their poor shooting, improve their offensive rebounding and maybe jack up their intensity, they can be right back in this series.

But they will be wrong.

Even as a Brad Miller jumper cut the lead to seven with five and a half minutes remaining in regulation, there was never the sense that the Cavs were not in control. And indeed, the Bulls never got closer. A combination of missed shots and turnovers along with Antawn Jamison's flexing his muscles on the boards and a gut-slashing drive by LeBron James past Derrick Rose dismissed any notion of a "shock the world" scenario brewing.

James did not have to dance as he has in annoying the Bulls in the past. He didn't have to talk. ABC analyst Mark Jackson did accuse James and his teammates of "clowning" the Bulls at one point early in the third, when a couple of them went careening out of bounds like a circus act and came back all smiles when the effort hardly seemed necessary.

This was around the same time when Shaquille O'Neal officially reduced Bulls' spiritual leader, Joakim Noah, into a rag doll.

The practically sleak Shaq, down at least 15 pounds in his first game since thumb surgery in late February, spun around a flailing Noah for a dunk. The oldest active player in the NBA followed up a short time later by swatting the ball out of Noah's hands, off Noah's knee and out of bounds to force the turnover.

"That's the patented move ... the 'Diesel Truck with No Brakes,'" said O'Neal, who lured Noah into foul trouble. "You see when I get into that move, people get out of the way because they know I'm [going] and don't have any brakes."

Shaq finished with 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting and five rebounds in 25 minutes, but his presence was far bigger as he made an already good team that much scarier, not merely for the Bulls but for anyone else who dares challenge the Cavs on their way to the Finals.

Behind James and what has become a seemingly pedestrian -- for him -- 24 points, six rebounds, five assists and four blocks, the Cavs took apart an overmatched Bulls team with their patented pick-and-roll game coupled with the Bulls' nonexistent help defense.

Cleveland overcame a 46 percent shooting night (including 6-of-23 from 3-point range) by outrebounding the Bulls 50-38 (13-7 on the offensive boards). For their part, the Bulls also couldn't find the broadside of Quicken Loans Arena at 42.5 shooting (40 percent in the first half and 1-of-7 from 3-point range for the game).

Rose led all scorers with 28 points along with 10 assists and seven turnovers and did not allow the Game 1 defeat to dampen his enthusiasm.

"It's going to be a fun series," he said. "This is something I live for. I think about it every day, every minute of the day, playing against the best team in the NBA, one of the best players in the NBA. I can say I'm blessed to even be here, and it's a dream come true. I'm loving that we're playing against him."

Just the same, James added considerable insult to the pain already inflicted with his patented, predatory and precision blocks that he has turned into just another normal, magnificent element in his arsenal.

"We weren't looking to blow out anybody, we were looking to win," James told ABC.

All the more reason to believe the Bulls, even if Noah (10 points, eight rebounds) ratchets up his and his teammates' enthusiasm from the start, are in for three more long nights.

"We can't get down on this game," Noah urged. "We have to stay confident. We missed a lot of shots today. We just have to keep fighting."

At some point, it will no doubt be theorized that the Bulls may have been distracted by the turmoil that has plagued the organization and came to a head last week with the disclosure of an altercation between senior vice president John Paxson and head coach Vinny Del Negro.

And if they were to miraculously win the series, it would no doubt be theorized that this was a rallying point for a young team.

Most likely, like everything else it seems, the truth is somewhere in between.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.