As the halftime buzzer sounded, LeBron James gathered the loose rebound and spiked it in frustration, letting it bounce to a rolling stop beneath the Bulls’ basket. He dropped his head and made for the home locker room, where Tyronn Lue, also under the microscope Saturday night, would soon make his first halftime speech as head coach. Whatever his message, it’s fair to say the Cavs, still first in the East, left something on the table. A flat second half opened the Lue era with a whimper, and a 96–83 loss to Chicago on Cleveland’s own floor a day after firing David Blatt.
From an observer’s standpoint, expecting business as usual would have been imprudent. But the Cavs failing to show for the majority of 48 minutes against a conference rival—with which it has history, no less—was certainly not what general manager David Griffin dreamed of after axing a coach with 83 wins and a Finals trip in just 1 1/2 seasons. A five-point deficit at the midway point dipped to 14 after the third, and devolved to as many as 17 in the fourth. Cleveland missed 13 of 22 foul shots, a mark egregious enough to provide a minor alibi for its new coach.
And any energy the Cavs had at the outset, bolstered by the home crowd, was quelled by strong defensive execution from Chicago and their own stilted attack. That mixture improbably produced 16 consecutive Cavaliers misses to end the first quarter, in which the hosts managed just 14 points. By the half, they had no points from their bench, headlined by the pricey Tristan Thompson, and James was the only player to reach the foul line (he missed all three attempts).
If Blatt drawing the ax on Friday raised suspicions, Saturday’s game confirmed it: halfway through the season, the Eastern Conference has fallen into wide-open disarray. And in the league’s first nationally broadcast Saturday tilt of the season, the dirty secret began to leak out: it may not matter who wins the East, period.
Playing in the shadow of a Warriors-Spurs skirmish in two days’ time, the Cavaliers and Bulls coughed up an ugly undercard. It underlined the fact that for both sides, the season to date has been a tale of unrealized, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations. Ever since James decamped from Miami, the Cavaliers’ endgame—to add a gold tag to the nape of their jerseys—has never been in question. The Bulls have done their best to talk that sort of championship talk, sorting through a coaching change of their own and dealing with a strange cocktail of egos, injuries and inconsistency.
But mixed results and muddled locker-room storylines on both sides suggest a different truth, illustrating just how far the gap lies between tiers of contending teams. For what it’s worth, Chicago and Cleveland are are a combined 0–4 against defending champion Golden State, falling by a total of 83 points in those games and each with a 30-point drubbing under its belt. The Toronto Raptors, on a seven-game win streak, loom to the side.
If you’ve watched the Bulls enough, you’ll know better than to get too wound up over a victory of this sort. Strong performances from Taj Gibson, who had 15 points and eight rebounds while muscling Cleveland inside, and the maddeningly erratic Nikola Mirotic (17 points, six boards) certainly help. Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler did their jobs, and Derrick Rose made just 5 of 21 shots. But the variance in the Bulls’ streaks, good and bad, makes major conclusions difficult to draw. They’ll prove something when they get past a LeBron-led team in a playoff series.
The pressure in this one lay on Cleveland, James and Lue. As a team, they missed wide. James was an assist short of his first triple double of the season, scoring 26 points with 13 rebounds, but was 0 of 5 from three. Sixteen of those points came in the final period with Chicago nursing a double-digit lead. As triple doubles go, this one meant relatively little. Kevin Love scored 14 with just five rebounds and Kyrie Irving shot 5 of 16 with only three assists. All drew boos from the Cleveland crowd by game’s end.
As for Lue, a forgettable first game was followed by a mildly bizarre press conference in which he stated his team wasn’t in the proper shape, and at midseason, no less, to play at his preferred pace. He revealed James, Irving and Love all asked to rest. And in a second-quarter interview taped for broadcast, Lue echoed GM David Griffin’s calls for accountability.
On camera, the new coach specified he’d taken that message straight to James, with whom he is personally close. “I have to hold you accountable,” he told the man with a lifetime’s worth of team triumphs and failures already pinned to his name. If you buy that new maxim, and if the Cavaliers do too, their newly foggy future looks like one big gut check.