CHICAGO — He is the best player on the court and in the world, the man who incites more crowd noise than the leader of the free world, the gatekeeper to the Eastern Conference. You’ve read all week about his back, and the injections, and his age, and the minutes, some 43,000 and change.
He has teammates, sure, freaking fantastic ones, at that. Yet going into the 2015–16 season, and especially on Tuesday, they seemed an afterthought. This was the Bulls versus LeBron James, Chicago versus Cleveland and then Miami and now Cleveland again, because whichever team James deigns to play for is these Bulls’ bête noire. James owns the Eastern Conference, and no matter that the Bulls have their own MVP, no matter that they signed Pau Gasol and grew Jimmy Butler into an All-Star and plucked Nikola Mirotic out of Europe—they still haven’t gotten past the King. Not when it matters, at least.
But on Tuesday night in their season opener, they got a win, 97–95, on 19 points from Mirotic, 18 from Derrick Rose and 17 from Butler. James, for his part, scored 25 points with 10 rebounds and five assists. Still, the game seemed like it was Chicago’s almost from the start, and despite a fourth-quarter Cleveland comeback, sloppy late-game play doomed the Cavaliers. Being held to 40.4% shooting didn’t help, but in the end, the night came down to James.
With three seconds remaining in the game, the Cavaliers went to their star, down two points. Gasol blocked James’s layup, Cleveland was left to an inbound pass, and Butler summarily swatted it down the court. Game. It wasn’t pretty, and neither team was playing at full strength, but it was a statement by Chicago: Don’t give the East to Cleveland just yet.
The Bulls shot 42.5% on the night—36.8% from three-point range—and though their offense wasn’t quite the vision new coach Fred Hoiberg must have had in mind, neither was it the slower-tempo brand of Tom Thibodeau. “It’s just a matter of getting to the right spacing,” Gasol, who was held to two points on the night, said. “Obviously we have more freedom now to play the game, and it’s more of a flow game, a transition offense. Every game might be a little different, but we have plenty of weapons and talent to score in a variety of ways.”
And just as the offense is a work in progress, so too is Hoiberg’s professed desire to keep his stars to a minutes limit, something Bulls brass demand and to which Thibodeau was incapable of sticking. Though Hoiberg managed to keep two of his starters, Snell and Mirotic, under 30 minutes, Butler finished the night with nearly 37, most of them on James. After the game, the coach conceded that limiting the player who was effectively guarding the Cavs’ star would have been a mistake. “In a game like this, you have longer timeouts, and Jimmy, I think, would have done something that wouldn’t have felt good to me had I taken him out at the end of the game,” Hoiberg said.
After all, it’s October, and players are fresh. One night against James won’t change that, and no matter that April basketball is far more important than anything that happens in the fall for either of these teams—a win against the Cavaliers matters big in Chicago, for its record as much as for its confidence. Despite a core that’s remained remarkably constant in recent years, these Bulls are a team in transition. Rose is getting healthy. Hoiberg is getting comfortable. Mirotic and Butler are still developing.
This matters, too, because of history. The last game the Bulls played was against the Cavaliers, a 94–73 blowout loss, and calling their history against James checkered is a compliment. Since drafting Rose first overall in ’08, the Bulls have enjoyed a measure of regular-season success against the Cavaliers star, going 17–15, including Tuesday. But in the playoffs, not so much. Since 2010, James has faced Chicago in four postseason series, two with the Heat and two with the Cavaliers. He’s won each, for a combined playoff record of 16–5 against the Bulls.
So yes, this win matters, even if Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert are still hurt and Rose is still seeing double. It matters even as rosters will shift and knees will bump and muscles will pull. For now, it’s Bulls, 1, LeBron, 0, and that might mean nothing when these two teams inevitably meet in the playoffs. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.
In the third quarter of Tuesday’s game, as the Bulls enjoyed a 10-point lead and Rose shot free throws, the United Center was hushed, as it should be. But from the nosebleeds, one voice bellowed. “You suck, LeBron James.” Taunting James trumped respecting the silence. Later, in the fourth quarter, after a J.R. Smith technical foul, the same voice. “You suck, LeBron, you suck!”
Apropos of nothing. Or apropos of everything.