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New-look Bulls reach back to defensive roots to seal victory

With President Obama watching, Chicago denies James, Cavs

POSTED: Oct 28, 2015 1:42 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Cavaliers vs. Bulls

Nikola Mirotic scores 19 points with Derrick Rose adding 18 to top LeBron James' 25 points, as the Bulls edge the Cavaliers 97-95.

Taj Gibson came right out and said it, a couple different ways in fact, and didn't bother with the cool, just-1-of-82 approach so many players and coaches take to Opening Night as a way to release a little pressure.

It mattered to Gibson and his Chicago teammates that they played and beat the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night at United Center, 97-95. The Bulls had been hearing about the clash since the NBA schedule came out in August. They knew it meant a lot to their fans -- including Bulls Fan One, who arrived late, left early, sat and took off his sport coat near the TNT table at midcourt and cheered, clapped and otherwise emoted at the right times and for the right team.

President Barack Obama had praised LeBron James during a break in the action, but it was the Cleveland superstar's misses, not his makes, that POTUS enjoyed from his courtside seat in his adopted hometown.

"It was crazy," Gibson said of the scene before and during the game, kicked to another level by the Commander in Chief's security detail. "You had Secret Service guys popping in and out of every room. You got dogs everywhere. Every time you turned around, there was a guy popping out of a secret room. It was a strange situation, but it was good to see him here."

The President's night of leisure after a day of travel, motorcades and chief-executing sent the buzz in the building to another level for many of the other Chicago fans. But to Bulls wing Jimmy Butler, it nudged the dial more than it cranked it.

"No disrespect to Mr. Obama," Butler said, "but it [already] was like a playoff game. It was cool to see him over there on the sideline, but I think that's the way it's going to be when Cleveland's here. Probably every game."

The league's schedule-meisters knew what they were doing when they booked this one to tip off a season with 1,229 to follow. With so much back story between the teams, so much rivalry and rancor, the promos more or less wrote themselves.

There even was a flashback feeling to the outcome, familiar from the six-game East semifinal series in May. Back then, it was James' buzzer-beater from the left baseline to win Game 4 that turned momentum and propelled his club all the way to the Finals. This time, the Cavaliers sought out James twice in the final seconds for shots that could have tied or won again, but the Bulls thwarted both plays.

On the first, James got the ball with 10 seconds left, drove the right side of the lane and said later he tried to make himself "very small on the finish."

It didn't matter. Pau Gasol reached up, up with his hook-and-ladder left arm, swatted the ball out of bounds and even knocked James to the baseline. Gasol had six blocks in the game but this one was a doozy -- according to Bulls researchers, James attempted 455 field goals from the restricted area last season and had only 26 (5.7 percent) of them blocked.

With 3.6 seconds remaining, but absolutely no element of surprise, Cleveland looked for James again. Mo Williams inbounded from next to the backboard, James zigged around to the front of the lane and Butler zagged to find him. Williams' lob never made it over the Bulls' defender, Butler tipping it up and then batting it into the open court as time ran out.

The Cavaliers found plenty of positives despite the loss, from the way they jumped on Chicago at the start to the way they scratched back from a 13-point deficit later. Kevin Love, playing a game that meant something after essentially a half year's layoff (shoulder surgery), scored eight points in less than a minute near the end. James, who finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists this after dealing with a balky back that cut into his preseason, talked afterward about his bounce and explosion.

The Bulls were ecstatic, meanwhile, to win the game with some key stops. This had been an October devoted to offense, with new head coach Fred Hoiberg's system touted for its quicker and triple-digit point totals. Compared to his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau, this allegedly will be the difference between painting a barn and painting a masterpiece.

But the team's trademark ability to shut down opponents at the other end had taken a beating. The Bulls ranked 27th in points allowed (104.9) in their eight preseason games and 25th in opponents' field-goal percentage. You could see relief in Hoiberg's face that they cleaned up in those areas more than any joy over his first NBA coaching victory.

Sure, Cleveland still doesn't have All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving to run its attack and torment foes inside and out. But Williams scored 19 in his place and Richard Jefferson was solid with 10 as James' designated caddy off the bench.

Let's put it this way: the Bulls were stingy enough to spare POTUS any wisecracks about cuts in their Department of Defense.

"The whole preseason, we were struggling defensively," Gibson said. "We really couldn't stop anybody. We were scoring a lot but we couldn't stop anybody. Then the last three days, coaching staff really was just stressing the fact that we're a veteran group and we have to do better.

"We really got into it early. We understood this isn't the preseason anymore. Talked about it, and everybody did their job. Rebounded the ball extremely well against tough Cleveland bigs."

So for all the eye-on-the-ball strides Chicago made -- from Nikola Mirotic scoring 19 points with nine rebounds for the game's best plus/minus (plus-9) to Derrick Rose's confidence and strength attacking in the lane -- the reactive stuff of bent knees and helping helpers mattered more. Gasol's blocks, Butler's stickiness on James, Tony Snell's ability to contribute, even relative defensive neophytes Doug McDermott and Mirotic drew praise.

"Defense is always gonna be there, the winning aspect of every game," Butler said. "We've got a lot of guys we can switch. Play different coverages. Ball screens. And guys are confident in their 1-on-1 situations.

"We guarded the way we're capable of and we're supposed to. It definitely helped us win the game when we weren't making shots."

The Bulls had hoped, in transitioning from Thibodeau to Hoiberg, that they could embrace all the fun stuff on offense and rely on solid habits on defense. With all the tinkering and lineup variations in the preseason, it wasn't clear how much slippage there had been.

In practices over the weekend, Hoiberg and his staff made it a point to find out.

"We've just got to be able to guard," Butler said. "I think everybody knows what we're capable of as a team. How we can switch. How you've got to be able to double-team and be in the right help position. We work on it all the time, and whenever we do have a lapse, it's very disappointing because we put so much time in on it."

Chicago didn't disappoint defensively this time. Its security detail was as flawless as Bulls Fan One's.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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