CHICAGO—No matter how hard this city tries to smother LeBron James in Michael Jordan's shadow, the Cavaliers forward continues to emerge as a king in the darkness.
The Cavaliers' 94–73 Game 6 victory over the Bulls on Thursday marked the latest round of James's payback during a career spent chasing an impossible ghost. Jordan's retired jersey and six championship banners hang in the rafters, Jordan's picture graces the concrete near the Bulls' locker room, Jordan's old newspaper headlines paper the walls in the United Center's press room, Jordan's replica jerseys sell like crazy in the arena's stores, Jordan's highlights run endlessly on the jumbotron, Jordan's statue stands guard outside the building, Jordan's shoes envelop Jimmy Butler's feet, and Jordan's number even sits on James's chest and back. This overwhelming nostalgia and hero worship, some of it shared by James himself, didn't distract this generation's No. 23 from eliminating Jordan's old team from the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons.
James wore a black hat and black jacket after Game 6, looking equal parts fashionista and executioner. After nearly posting a triple double (15 points, nine rebounds, 11 assists) despite another poor shooting night, James passed off the credit to reserve guard Matthew Dellavedova (19 points, including three three-pointers) and forward Tristan Thompson (13 points and 17 rebounds) for their big efforts. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau didn't want to dig in too deeply to the role efforts, instead singling out James for ending Chicago's season. "It's really [about] what LeBron is doing to you," Thibodeau said. "You look at [James's] line, 7 for 23, but he controlled it. ... LeBron was unbelievable. He beat us with the pass."
The rumor mill suggests that Thibodeau's Chicago tenure will end after five seasons this summer. If true, Thibodeau will exit exactly as he entered: trying and failing to find an answer for James. His 2010 hiring came on the heels of a postseason loss to James's Cavaliers, the high point of his tenure ended with a 2011 Eastern Conference loss to James's Heat, and what was possibly his final game a loss to James's Cavaliers. Without hyperbole, James was the beginning, the middle, and the likely end for these Bulls. "LeBron is going to make you pay," Thibodeau added.
Take that neat narrative arc and raise it a perfect mirror image. James can't match Jordan's perfect Finals record and he likely won't supplant Jordan in the "Greatest of All Time" discussion, but he has fully reversed the terror between these two franchises. James is now 4-0 in playoff series against the Bulls, matching Jordan's 4-0 series mark against the Cavaliers. His 16-5 (.762) record against Chicago slightly trumps Jordan's 14-6 (.700) record against Cleveland. James's career postseason averages versus the Bulls (26.8 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 7.9 APG) compare favorably to Jordan's numbers versus the Cavaliers (37 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 6.2 APG).
[daily_cut.NBA]James even turned in a pretty solid answer to The Shot. Jordan's famous game-winner ended Cleveland's season in 1989, and James's Game 4 buzzer beater marked the beginning of the end for the Bulls. Before James's winner, Chicago could taste a 3-1 series lead. After James's winner, the Bulls never won again, falling behind big in Game 5 and getting blown out at home in Game 6. Jordan downed the Cavaliers and let it all out with those savage fist pumps after pump-faking Craig Ehlo. James bested the Bulls and then drained them for two more games, swatting their shots, picking apart their defensive rotations with his passes, and even busting out a few Jordanesque turnaround jumpers.
Here, in the Windy City, James is Goliath: His Game 6 failures—offensive fouls and a rare airball—drew louder cheers from the United Center than most of Chicago's highlight plays. As the lead mounted, many in the building departed before the buzzer, deciding that they had seen enough and that they had seen this before. In victory, James left as a perfect villain for Bulls fans: He looked practically bored during stretches of an ugly closeout win, and he spent more time than usual during this series critiquing the quality of his own play, bemoaning his turnovers, shot selection, and the quality of his jumper. "We have no room for error, and I've had some error," James said flatly afterward, adding that this run to the Eastern Conference finals was "a little tougher" than his past four trips with the Heat due to a multitude of injuries. "I try to clean it up in other ways."
The only thing worse than falling to such a familiar foe is feeling like he didn't really have to work for it.
Given a chance to send this series back to Cleveland for Game 7, the Bulls instead folded up with relative ease. Cleveland ran off a 20-2 run in the second quarter shortly after Nikola Mirotic clotheslined Iman Shumpert, repeating a common theme throughout the series: when emotions looked ready to boil over, James's relatively inexperienced supporting cast held it together. "I think that was the wrong guy to clothesline in his hometown," Cavaliers coach David Blatt said of Shumpert, a Chicago native who put together another strong night (13 points, seven rebounds, five assists).
The return of Pau Gasol, who missed two games with a hamstring injury helped the Bulls off to a nice start, but the long droughts returned in the second and third quarters. Dellavedova, an undrafted second-year guard from Australia, extinguished any possibility of a Bulls comeback with 11 fourth-quarter points. The unexpected explosion proved to be more than enough for Cleveland to weather the loss of Kyrie Irving, who departed with a minor knee injury in the second quarter. "To come out and do what he did was admirable," Blatt said of Dellavedova. "Matty can play, besides having great character. He understands his role, sees the opportunities, and is fearless."
James, it goes without saying, created so many of those opportunities, and he makes it so much easier for his teammates to be fearless. Thompson referred to him as a "great father," and the whole room seemed to nod after watching how James grabbed hold of this series and how his teammates followed him. "We never felt like, 'OK, [the Bulls are] just better than we are,'" Blatt said. "We were confident despite the losses." In case you're counting, Blatt went from tucking his tail between his legs after his near-fiasco in Game 4 to this post-Game 6 swollen chest in five days flat.
The Bulls were on the opposite end of that pendulum swing, going from hopeful to hopeless during the same span. They leave having given gracious goodbyes and with only party favors to soothe the pain: Butler goes home with the Most Improved Player trophy, Joakim Noah goes home with the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, and Derrick Rose goes home with comforting thoughts of a career rekindled. "It could have been anyone," Rose said, when asked for his feelings about losing to James. "It's just frustrating to be out of the playoffs, period."
But it wasn't anyone. It was James, again.