CLEVELAND—This wasn't the start the depleted Cavaliers had hoped for, but it also wasn't a beginning that should inspire panic or fear ... yet.
The Bulls waltzed out of Quicken Loans Arena with a 99-92 victory in Game 1 on Monday, drawing first blood in their fourth series against LeBron James. Many, many things went well for Chicago in a game it never trailed, none more important than its scorching shooting. Looking crisp after three days off and motivated by the matchup with their chief Central Division rivals, the Bulls raced out to a 13-2 lead in the first quarter, ran off 21 points on just 10 trips during a torrid third-quarter push, and got key baskets from multiple sources down the stretch. They never really tightened when the Cavaliers made their pushes in the third and fourth quarters, and they didn't hesitate to milk what was working: Mike Dunleavy jumpers, Pau Gasol jumpers, Derrick Rose jumpers and Jimmy Butler jumpers.
Yes, it was raining jumpers. The downpour began shortly after tipoff and never really let up: Dunleavy (14 points, 7 rebounds) hit all five of his first-half attempts to get things going; Gasol (21 points, 10 rebounds) tortured the home crowd by making seven of his nine mid-range shots in the second half; Rose (25 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists) turned to his jumper as Chicago put together a 15-0 run and again to answer a James basket in the fourth quarter; and Butler (20 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists) scored nine fourth-quarter points, including a dagger off the glass from 14 feet with less than a minute to play.
All told, Chicago shot a whopping 28 of 53 (52.8%) from outside the paint in Game 1. For comparison's sake, and to underscore the type of rhythm the Bulls were enjoying, they hit just 37.5% of those attempts over the course of the regular season.
Some of this success was opportunistic and some of it was by design. Without All-Star power forward Kevin Love (out for the season with a shoulder injury) and starting two guard J.R. Smith (suspended for Games 1 and 2), Cleveland trotted out a starting lineup (Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, James, Mike Miller, Timofey Mozgov) that hadn't logged a single minute together during the regular season. There wasn't any mercy from the Bulls, no waiting around to see how the new group would gel, no wondering whether the Cavaliers would exhibit rust after more than a week off since their first-round series against the Celtics.
That lineup, and other smaller lineups that Cavaliers coach David Blatt went to later in the game, struggled with its rotations and command. At full strength, Cleveland isn't exactly a defensive juggernaut, and the undermanned Cavaliers appeared overly willing to sacrifice clean looks in hopes of keeping close to even against a bigger opponent on the glass. Gasol, in particular, had all day to shoot from his preferred spots and little in the way of contesting efforts to worry about.
"A free throw jump shot is like a layup to him," Rose said of Gasol. Blatt noted that the Cavaliers did eventually take a more aggressive approach defensively against Gasol, as he took only one shot in the fourth quarter. "We did adjust to that, just a little late," Blatt said.
Blatt and James promised more adjustments coming before Wednesday's Game 2, with the coach suggesting he is "thinking about everything" when it comes to his starting lineup. Really, this was a "back to the drawing board" type of night for Cleveland in terms of how to fill Love's minutes. The trio of available veteran replacements (Miller, Shawn Marion and James Jones) combined for just 3 points and 7 rebounds in more than 30 minutes of action, with Cleveland getting outscored by 20 points during Miller's 16 minutes.
Smith's return in Game 3 should reduce the scope of this problem considerably, as Blatt will be able to narrow his reliance on his elder statesmen. Until then, Blatt might be best off de-emphasizing those three bad options and going even smaller by turning over more minutes to backup guard Matthew Dellavedova with Irving, Shumpert, James and a big. Cleveland's small lineups, with James and Tristan Thompson as the four and five, had no problem finding points by attacking the heart of Chicago's defense, especially in the second half, and Bulls center Joakim Noah (scoreless in 28 minutes) was wholly ineffective at the offensive end.
Given those conditions, the Cavaliers would seem to be better off loading up on producers at the expense of size, thereby daring the Bulls to make them pay for it inside.
Pressure is a permanent fixture around James in the playoffs, and this loss was no exception. There is a real risk that Love's unfortunate injury, Smith's mindless suspension, and a forgettable Game 1 could snowball, feeding a Bulls team that so desperately wants to score its first knockout against James. Just don't rush to shove the Cavaliers off the cliff just yet. A list of reasons for hope includes: Chicago's shooting is bound to come back to earth; It's virtually impossible for Blatt to get less from his Love replacements than he did in Game 1; and Smith promises to inject shooting, shot-creation and intensity when he's back on the court.
That's really only the beginning, though. James filled the stat sheet (19 points on 22 shots, 15 rebounds, 9 assists), but this was hardly a signature night for him on the offensive end. He had limited impact in the early going, he appeared to be a little too willing to let Shumpert attempt to exploit a cross-matchup with Noah, and he never truly got rolling. James' night included six turnovers, including a particularly bad one with a little more than two minutes to play in regulation, and he got to the line just twice. Those numbers are very, very unlikely to repeat themselves, even with Butler shadowing him attentively. "I have to be better," James concluded. "I wasn't that good tonight."
Irving's success was Cleveland's brightest spot. His twisting, reverse lay-ups never get old from an entertainment value standpoint. The fact that he often moved freely through Chicago's defense despite the missing parts around him and Cleveland's poor outside shooting night (7 for 26 as a team) counts as a promising sign going forward. The Bulls led the league in protecting the basket area this season, but you wouldn't have guessed it by the Cavaliers' 46 points in the paint and the volume of high-percentage looks they achieved in the fourth quarter. Although James and Irving might not have been the dominant forces of Game 1, their faucets weren't turned off. If James, in particular, plays with more purpose off the dribble, the points will follow, and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was bracing for more as the series unfolds. "We know we're going to have to play a lot better than we did today," he said.
Without question, going to Chicago down 0-2 would qualify as serious trouble for Cleveland. The parts around James are largely untested, and he's being asked to do everything—and to guard everyone—even more than usual without Love and Smith. "No margin for error" has been Cleveland's rallying cry since Love went down, and that phrase is even more applicable now that it's facing an 0-1 hole. "Game 1 is always a feel out game," James said, a panic-snuffing statement that mirrored his style of play on Monday and laid out his approach to the rest of the series.
This isn't the 2014 Finals, where the Spurs were operating on a level outside of his grasp. James knows this opponent, he knows his own ability, and he knows Game 1 wasn't a case of a reeling team falling short after delivering its best shot. Not even close.