Despite Rose's injury, Bulls and Cavs offer glimpse of East heavyweights

Saturday November 1st, 2014

CHICAGO -- On a frigid Chicago Halloween, Derrick Rose’s ghosts reared their heads in full.

At this point, there’s no need to rehash the history. There he was in the first half, the man of old, getting what he wanted in vintage, leaping, slashing fashion. As Rose traded baskets with LeBron James, echoes of MVP matched only by a sellout crowd's audible disdain for his Cavaliers counterpart, all the championship talk surrounding Chicago felt tangible.

Then, with four minutes to go in the first half, he landed awkwardly, again. Rose limped menacingly toward his own bench, and the elephant entered the room. This time, to the relief of the entire arena, a few seconds of deja vu was all (he would remain in the game) but not without shaking the faith of every basketball fan with a conscience. Rose would leave the game for good with 2:38 remaining in the third, although nobody would notice it until later, after he snuck off to the locker room for X-rays and Kirk Hinrich replaced Aaron Brooks in fourth-quarter crunch time.

As Chicago and Cleveland fought to overtime, the Bulls revealed it was an ankle sprain. After the game Rose laughed it off with reporters, but “don’t worry about it” leaves quite an eerie feeling two surgeries later. The end result, round one of a bout we might be watching for the next several years, went to the Cavs, 114-108.

That’s just how pivotal the matter of Rose’s health has become: the first drama-packed meeting between these two teams  was relegated to seeming somewhat inconsequential. And in reality, it’s just that. Forget the fact Chicago was without its star down the stretch, Mike Dunleavy spent much of the game draped (though extremely loosely) on James as Jimmy Butler sat with a thumb injury.

Still, the Cavaliers made a strong statement coming off a frustrating loss to the Knicks, a logical litmus test given the fact the Bulls topped New York so convincingly the day before that. As Cleveland’s personnel continues to mesh, the fact it led Chicago for much of regulation and pulled out a tight endgame can’t hurt its confidence. The thought of a seven-game playoff series between the East’s two undisputed heavyweights beckons.

Acknowledging the fact that it’s incredibly early in the season, Cleveland vs. Chicago is a tilt we’re likely to see beyond the first 82 games. Now that there’s more to judge than the simple on-paper matchup, the seeds of the rivalry offer a few telling signals.

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The surprise of the night may have been that Cleveland won this game on the glass, with Chicago’s addition of Pau Gasol to a stout frontcourt expected to make rebounding a major strength. Twelve offensive boards from an irrepressible Tristan Thompson (who impressively managed just one on the defensive end) plus 16 rebounds from Kevin Love negated that. It appears the Cavs will have little reason to surround James with smaller lineups (Miami’s bread and butter for four seasons), and clearly they’re capable of banging with the Bulls.

When Cleveland eventually fires on all cylinders there may not be a team that can defend it pound-for-pound.  Love battled for 16 points (though he was blocked several times on the inside) while Kyrie Irving fought his own with foul trouble and scored 23 anyway, picking up where he left off this summer leading Team USA to gold. Most importantly, James brought his A-game with 36 points and when he has nights like these, it would hardly matter whether Jimmy Butler or Jimmy Buffett drew his assignment. That said, the sight of Dunleavy attempting to stay in front of LeBron makes the implications of Butler’s now-postponed contract negotiations that much greater.

• SI's predictions for LeBron James' first season back in Cleveland

The most positive sign for Chicago, discounting Rose’s pre-ankle form for now, is the quality of its bench, which was on full display against the Knicks on Wednesday and kept the Bulls squarely in the game. Hinrich turned back the clock starting in place of Butler, with 10 of his 20 points coming in the fourth quarter. The resurgent Aaron Brooks added eight more in the final period, looking like a capable backup for Rose and a shrewd bargain-bin pickup by the Bulls’ braintrust.

Perhaps most critical of all was a hard-nosed effort from Tony Snell, who guarded James admirably the entire fourth quarter and hit a pair of timely threes. The fact that Sixth Man Award candidate Taj Gibson (10 points) can be mentioned last here says something.

Though the Bulls were largely outmanned on the interior, 14 blocked shots still bodes well for their defense, particularly given six of them came from Gasol, partially making up for his offensive struggles from the field. The résumés of the Pau-Joakim Noah-Gibson trio suggest there won’t be too many more games where Chicago gets outrebounded this glaringly. Offensively, their ball movement early in the game was entertaining, if not at a Spurs-ian level of efficiency, but the defending champs provide an offensive model of success that the slick-passing Bulls would certainly love to replicate.

With both teams certain to evolve in the coming months (their next meeting comes January 19 in Cleveland), nitpicking too much further after this one isn’t worth the trouble. But one thing feels certain: Bulls-Cavs goes as James and Rose do.

That’s not snubbing Irving and Love, as both are more than capable of carrying Cleveland for stretches, but if every LeBron commercial that aired this week didn’t make it clear, the pressure falls on the King’s shoulders when it counts. The absent Butler will be Chicago’s best answer, if any, for James. Rose got in a first-half groove that Cleveland struggled mightily to contain, and should he maintain his health into the playoffs he’ll become the first order of business on David Blatt’s gameplan. And of course, the Cavs’ only player able to stop Rose is James, as witnessed in the 2011 playoffs.

As the adage goes, there’s a reason they play 82 games, but after the first go-around, this could be every bit the rivalry everyone was so eager to anticipate. Ice those ankles up good.

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