CLEVELAND—There was still roughly an hour before tip, and Quicken Loans Arena's comically large Jumbotron was airing an interview of four Cavaliers fans, who had driven three hours down Interstate-90 from Buffalo, N.Y., to catch Game 2. "LeBron will score 40 and we'll win by 20–25 points," one of the fans declared, a rosy prediction that showed no holdover apprehension from Cleveland's Game 1 defeat, perhaps because it was influenced by some pre-game suds.
LeBron James's power is such that he regularly sends even the most optimistic fans home thinking, "I called it." The Cavaliers were hoping for it. The Bulls were bracing for it. Everyone else was expecting it. The Cavaliers' 106–91 victory in Game 2 on Wednesday saw the inevitable James bounce back, a 33-point, five-rebound, five-assist show of force that ended with him simply walking toward Cleveland's bench with a little under five minutes remaining in the game. Cleveland coach David Blatt eventually obliged by calling a timeout. James's work here was done.
[daily_cut.NBA]Help came from many sources, but this was James's win first and foremost. After a touch-and-go offensive effort that produced just two free throw attempts in Game 1, James delivered on his promise to bring a new mentality. He wasted no time: James scored 14 points as he led Cleveland to a 38-point first quarter, going 5 for 7 in the period and getting to the line five times. James came out with such intensity that he needed a breather just a few minutes into the game, but he never relented. He regularly pushed the pace in transition, he collapsed Chicago's defense and found his shooters, and he uncorked high-flying dunks and acrobatic layups when driving lanes emerged.
James didn't quite hit the fan's prediction of 40 points, but his 33 marked his highest total since March 1. Cleveland didn't quite win by 20–25 points, but James was an eye-popping plus-31 in 34 minutes. All roads ran through him, and even though he didn't enjoy his best shooting night, the power of his game-opening push overwhelmed Chicago. In fact, Cleveland never trailed in the game, it led by as many as 25 points, and it maintained a double-digit lead for the final 42:09. This was a first-round knockout if there ever was one. "LeBron did a great job with playing hard right from the beginning, attacking the lanes and changing the pace of the game," Bulls guard Derrick Rose said. "We came out [with] kind of a nonchalant type of attitude. The intensity wasn't there right from the beginning."
All told, James's 29 field-goal attempts were the most in a playoff game since he led Cleveland against Orlando in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals. Put another way, he never shot this often during his entire four-year tenure with the Heat, and he's only taken more attempts in four of his 164 career postseason games. His throwback night was completed by the return of his signature headband, which he abruptly ditched in mid-March after years of wearing one. "It was time for it to make a comeback," he explained afterward.
James said teammate Kyrie Irving prodded him to call his own number even more often than he did in Game 1, when James attempted 22 shots. "The extra shots I'm getting right now would be for Kevin [Love], or a couple more shots I'm getting would be for J.R. [Smith]," James explained. "For me, I had to change my approach tonight knowing how shorthanded we are. Be ultra-aggressive. Kyrie wanted me to be ultra-aggressive. ... I'm not accustomed to taking that many shots. I've never been a high-volume shooter, but I have to respond to what my teammates want me to do."
Irving, in turn, gushed at James's response to what he called his "little wisdom" pregame urging. "When [James] has that killer mind-set, not really caring what's going on except for his teammates, he's the greatest player in the game," Irving said.
Blatt's starting lineup change—moving Tristan Thompson into the power forward spot in place of Mike Miller—couldn't have gone over any better. Cleveland's fast start rendered any fears meaningless about unbalancing the first and second units, as the game was more or less in hand by the time Kendrick Perkins hit the court. The shift allowed James to focus his early energy on attacking repeatedly, and the more traditional position matchups helped keep Rose (14 points on 6 for 20 shooting), Jimmy Butler (18 points on 5 for 14 shooting), and Pau Gasol (11 points on 3 for 8 shooting) in check.
James's supporting cast produced a number of distinguished efforts. Irving (21 points) mirrored James's assertiveness by getting to the line 12 times. Thompson's energy wore on the Bulls frontline as the game played out, and his six offensive rebounds helped prevent any second-half comebacks. Iman Shumpert (15 points and 7 rebounds) was hot early, and he was well on his way to a even bigger scoring night before he sustained a minor groin strain that forced him to the locker room. And then there was James Jones (17 points and five three-pointers), who more than picked up the second unit's scoring slack in Thompson's absence. Jones's 17 points were the most he had scored since November 2013, and there shouldn't be any doubt about the game's result when the 34-year-old role player is outscoring every Bulls player except Butler. "He's playoff-tested, battle-tested, a true professional, a gamer," James said of Jones, who was with him in Miami all four seasons. "I'm more proud of him than anybody tonight."
For Chicago to overcome James and take this series, it must produce a more complete effort. That happened in Game 1 and, in a thorough reversal, absolutely didn't happen in Game 2. Game 1's fast start gave way to Game 2's big early hole. Game 1's hot shooting gave way to Game 2's clanking. Rose, Butler, and Gasol each topped 20 points in Game 1; none topped 20 in Game 2. Game 1's energy and focus advantages disappeared on Wednesday. "We knew their aggression would be better and harder," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. "We didn't respond well to it. We got out-rebounded. We gave them everything. ... This team requires you to make multiple efforts [defensively]. If you don't, you're going to pay. We paid tonight."
The question facing Thibodeau now is the same one that faced Blatt after Game 1: Does a resounding loss require tactical changes, or should he stay the course? As Game 2 unfolded, Thibodeau mostly stuck with his main rotation players, never really turning to the likes of Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell until garbage time. This despite rough shooting nights all around for his starters, evident fatigue from Gasol at times, and a second straight game in which Joakim Noah (four points, seven rebounds) did more harm than good. Thibodeau also relied on traditional, rather than smaller lineups, even as Cleveland spread out for long stretches and handily won the three-point line.
Chicago's true quality of play resides somewhere between its two performances in this series, but it's not clear at all where the Bulls will settle between those two. If James really gets rolling again or if Smith's return helps crank up Cleveland's attack even more, Thibodeau will need to be more responsive in tapping deeper into his bench, or risk dying on his sword. Admittedly, this is a tricky spot because his frontcourt options are imperfect. Noah is his best interior defender but requires virtually no attention on offense. Gasol can be a game-changing scorer and passer but James's eyes widen when he's the defensive centerpiece. Taj Gibson always leaves a mark on the game, but going super-small with him as the center would expose Chicago more than Thibodeau seems willing to bear.
The firepower will have to come from somewhere, especially if Rose is struggling. Following an unsightly shooting night and a second straight game in which he didn't get to the stripe, Rose didn't want to hear about how his shooting numbers plummet when he only has one day's worth of rest. "I can't think about that," he chafed. "That's something you all [the media] made up, or something." That type of tunnel vision is a reasonable approach for Rose, as it surely helps stabilize his confidence, but Thibodeau can't share the denial. Rose can win or lose this series with his shooting, and it will be up to Thibodeau to better protect against the latter. Going to a versatile scoring option like Mirotic, a player who will require true attention from Cleveland's defense, could stimulate Chicago's attack and help limit the self-inflicted damage when Rose doesn't have it going.
Although the series is square as it shifts to the United Center for Game 3 on Friday, James's Game 2 superiority quickly tilted things back in Cleveland's direction. Reminded that the Bulls had split the first two road games to claim home court advantage, Rose replied that the idea "sounds good," but his tone of voice suggested he knew the state of Chicago's union wasn't quite that bright. The Cavaliers still face many questions: Will Smith be ready to contribute immediately after two games in timeout? Will Shumpert be close to 100 percent? Will Jones, or someone else, step up to provide the necessary bench production? But they also have James, who again showed that he can be a game-deciding, be-all, end-all answer.
For James's Buffalo loyalists, the drive home figures to pass quickly, with giddy recollections of James's soaring dunk over Butler or his up-and-under layup past Gasol. The Bulls' flight back to Chicago, on the other hand, figures to be a longer, more subdued affair. Both the fans and the Bulls have been here before.