Refueling the Flame
The history books aren’t kind to the Cavaliers in this series, with Cleveland sporting a .261 winning percentage through five postseason meetings. The good news is that the last time Chicago sent the Cavaliers packing for the summer, LeBron James was only ten years old.
But that doesn’t change the fact that if Cleveland tops the Bulls in their first round series, it’ll be the first time in six tries.
Of course, a guy named “Michael” was the main culprit back then. And during his run, over the past eight playoff games against the Bulls, the Cavaliers have won exactly zero. They’ve won only two games in 12 tries at the United Center and only four out of 11 at home.
When the two clubs first met in the 1988 Playoffs, Michael Jordan gave a preview of things to come – dropping 50 points on Cleveland in a Game 1 victory in Chicago. In Game 2, he scored 55. The Cavaliers returned to the Coliseum and won two straight behind the potent backcourt combination of Mark Price and Ron Harper.
But Air Jordan scored 39 points in the deciding fifth game – setting a postseason record with a 45.2 ppg average – as the Cavaliers got their first taste of frustration.
But the frustration Cavaliers fans felt after their first meeting with Michael would pale to the heartbreak he’d bring to Richfield the following season.
The Cavs went 6-0 against Chicago during the regular season, but the Bulls and Cavaliers split the first four games of their opening round playoff series. In Game 5 at the Coliseum, it looked like Cleveland would weather Air Jordan’s assault when Craig Ehlo hit a layup with three seconds remaining. On the ensuing in-bounds, M.J. notched his 44th point on something that became known as “The Shot.”
For the Bulls, a legend was born. For the Cavaliers, it was another offseason of questions.
But the World Champs did what they’d done in the previous two meetings – taking the Cavaliers best shot before delivering one of their own, sending Cleveland fishing with a 99-94 Game 6 heartbreaker at the Coliseum.
By the 1993 postseason, the Bulls had already won back-to-back titles and, after a tough five-game series against New Jersey, the Cavaliers were swept out of the Conference Semifinals in four games. The Bulls would go on to win their third straight title. The Cavaliers would go on to fire Hall of Famer, Lenny Wilkens.
In 1994, the Cavaliers’ final season at the Coliseum, it was a first round matchup with the Bulls – sans Jordan, who had retired over the previous summer. But even without Air Jordan, the Bulls knocked off the Cavaliers in three straight in the last postseason meeting between the two clubs.
The Present – In 2003, with Michael Jordan retired for the third time, there was a new No. 23 around – only this time he wore the Wine and Gold.
In 27 regular season games, LeBron has certainly done his best to avenge his idol’s damage against Cleveland – averaging 29.2 ppg against Chicago and leading the Cavaliers to a 16-11 record against the Bulls.
But over the past two seasons, while the Wine and Gold has been dominant against the league, their Conference and specifically the Central Division, they haven’t quite mastered the Baby Bulls – splitting this year’s season series, 2-2, and going 6-6 against Chicago since 2007-08.
In the two clubs’ second meeting, sparks began to fly between LeBron and Joakim Noah, with the latter barking at James while he was shooting free throws with Cleveland up 19. James left the stripe to confront Noah and was whistled for a technical foul. The Cavaliers would go on to win, 101-87.
In late March, the Cavaliers might have thought they put Chicago away for good, handing the shorthanded Bulls – playing without Luol Deng, Derrick Rose and Noah – their 10th straight loss, 92-85.
But when the Bulls got healthy, they began to make their playoff push. And with the Cavaliers trying to rest some of their starters – including LeBron and Delonte West – Chicago was able to even the season series with the 109-108 win, despite Mo Williams’ 35-point effort.
The Future – After losing five straight playoff series to the Bulls in the late-80s and early-90s and considering the bad blood that’s developed between these two Central Division rivals in recent years, Saturday should tip off one of the most entertaining first round matchups in recent Cavaliers history.
Shaquille O’Neal has been medically cleared to play and fans will get their first look at he, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Antawn Jamison on the floor together. In two games against Chicago this season, the Diesel is averaging 11.0 points and 8.5 boards.
LeBron averaged 25.7 ppg against the Bulls this season; Mo Williams, 19.8.
The Second Season begins this weekend across the league – and the two Midwestern rivals tip off the action on Saturday afternoon. The roles might be reversed from those epic battles back in the day, but the sparks will still fly when the Bulls roll into town.