Bulls hold off Cavs 98-94, improve to 43-31

A win is a win is a win.

Did someone say, "A win is a win is a win?"

Oh, right, that was me. I thought I heard it somewhere. Because Saturday in Cleveland, which isn't generally the way you want to start a sentence, the Bulls got a win that wasn't nearly as inviting as it was important.

The Bulls 98-94 win over the Cavaliers after barely hanging on to an 18-point halftime lead probably clinched a playoff spot for the Bulls with the Cavaliers in a Miami Heat-like collapse that dropped them into seventh and the play-in tournament. The Bulls at 43-31 moved two games ahead of Cleveland and clinched the first tiebreaker with a 3-1 season edge. So with eight games left in the season for the Bulls, it almost would require the slumping Cavs to win out since the Bulls have five home games left.

Toronto moved into sixth in the Eastern Conference, a game behind the Bulls. But the Bulls last week also won the tiebreaker game from the Raptors, at least during this spiraling recent stretch of 10 losses in 13 games and eight of nine losses on the road showing some promise in the crucial positioning games.

Which is a lot of what the playoffs are. So maybe they'll be more prepared than they have been lately.

"I thought we played desperate tonight," said Nikola Vucevic, who had 16 points and a team-high nine rebounds. "We understood how important the game was. It showed and when we do that we're a good defensive team, all over the place, turning the other team over. We were able to run and get easy ones. We just have to continue to do it and be able to do it consistently."

Tap to watch full game highlights from Chicago's 98-94 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers, lately taking on the identity of their 70s fore-bearers the Cadavers, pulled back into that feared one-possession game with about four minutes remaining. But the Bulls looked like the better team this time, and they showed it when needed with a 10-1 run split up among Vucevic, Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Ayo Dosunmu scores that enabled the Bulls to withstand a somewhat foolish finish.

LaVine led the Bulls with 25 points and some impressive defense defending former Bull Lauri Markkanen, who had 14 points. Apparently never having seen Markkanen play for the Bulls, the Cavs apparently kept thinking that the seven-foot Markkanen had an advantage over the 6-5 LaVine in the post. Silly Cavs. LaVine continually fronted and pushed away Markkanen, the Cavs slowing into a first half indolence with 35 points and almost six percent three-point shooting. LaVine's defense was very good.

The Bulls weren't quite that good all the time, but they were a lot better, playing somewhat faster, more active and with 15 first half assists on 21 field goals.

DeRozan had 20 points for the game. Caruso in his Jason Kidd-like near triple double had 10 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals, playing a dominant role as the fifth high scorer.

"I think it showed from the opening tip," said Caruso. "I thought we were the better team for the majority of the game. And I don't think it came down to shots going in. The execution and tenacity we played with, the way we scrambled and helped each other, things we've been talking about for a couple of weeks we needed to do. If we show up and play the way we need to play, we'll win a lot of games and be where we need to be; we've just got to show up and do it. We've been preaching we know how good of a team we can be when we lock in and play the way we're supposed to play.

Alex Caruso had 10 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, and two steals against the Cavs on Saturday.

"It allowed me to play the game I'm best at," Caruso added of moving off the ball with Dosunmu back starting at point guard. "I think I impacted the game really well tonight. I only (made) three shots; tried to get the show going, tried to get everybody involved as far as moving the ball and making reads. I used my energy to affect the game, which I think is my best skill set."

It also is yet another conundrum that faces this Bulls team and another of those chicken and egg riddles, or in my case the computer and confusion.

This was a must game as much as five vs six can be. So Bulls coach Billy Donovan went to his default, which is going small. He basically started four guards with Vucevic (DeRozan was the "power" forward), though you can get away with that sort of thing when Markkanen is the "power" on the other side. But the Bulls also were better defensively moving around with an alacrity, an edge and a purpose. Donovan dismissed the Cavaliers' one of 18 three-point first half shooting as more aberration than anything the Bulls did. But they did some.

"I think in the NBA anytime a team goes one for 18, certainly it was not our defense," said Donovan. "I thought we worked like crazy on our defense; we really worked hard."

Tap to listen to postgame reaction from Bulls head coach Billy Donovan following Chicago's victory in Cleveland.

It was more reminiscent of the way the Bulls played earlier in the season with the smaller lineups that included Lonzo Ball. The Bulls were out rebounded 46-37 and 15-6 on the offensive boards. But it is the formula even if he doesn't discuss it much that Donovan seems to favor to offset the team's overall size disparity.

Play faster and aggressive, cause turnovers and disruption that lead to fast breaks or difficult shots, and push the ball.

The Bulls did it a bit better in the first half to account for that lead, 28-16 after one quarter and 53-35 at halftime. But the Cavaliers, who have been one of the early season surprise stories and still are 41-33, have lost 12 of 18 with two of the wins in overtime. Without the injured Jarrett Allen, former rookie sensation Evan Mobley has regressed and was benched much of the second half. It's left All-Star Darius Garland with 28 points to mostly dribble around and take forced shots for a Cavs team that not only looks play-in bound, but seems questionable to even make it out of that mini-tournament.

While this time the Bulls were playing more like a team, which perhaps was Vucevic's post game message. You know, hey, remember me?

"Not necessarily finding me to shoot the ball more, but using me as an outlet, a playmaker out there," said Vucevic. "I'm able to make the game easier for everybody. In the beginning (of the game) we were able to move the ball and get open looks and had more guys scoring and get going. It makes it much easier when we play that way when everybody is involved and the ball is moving. When we make the defense move it's hard to guard we have so much talent out there.

"When defenses load up on certain players to move it to the other side and use me as an outlet," counseled Vucevic. "With me being outside a lot I'm going to be free out there. When you play that way it's contagious. Not just on offense. I think it helps with our defensive approach. It makes life easier for everyone. We have to get everybody involved. It can't just be Zach, me and DeMar. It has to be everybody, shoot the ball, touch the ball so they feel involved. We can't expect them to go in at the end of the game and expect them to take shots when they haven't taken shots for two, three quarters. It's something we talk about, but it's also something that's been difficult to figure out because we've had so many injuries and guys in and out of lineups; it makes it so much harder for other teams to defend us when the ball moves side to side."

The Bulls took control of this game from the start, and this time the surprise seemed to be that the Cavs actually got in the game at any point.

"I thought we were really good moving the ball," said Donovan. "When they did make a run and cut it to three we steadied ourselves and found a way to make some plays; come on the road and found a way to win was great. I thought we put our bodies in plays. There was real good physical confrontation. I thought we battled as well as we could on the glass. I thought there were a lot of good things that came out of it from a competitive standpoint."

Even if it looked like Mike Fratello's Cavaliers with Chris Mills, Tyrone Hill, Danny Ferry and Terrell Brandon.

The Cavaliers' 35 first half points were a Bulls opponent low for the season, and even the NCAA tournament apparently was embarrassed for them. And this with DeRozan in first half foul trouble. LaVine to the rescue again with 15 first half points and Vucevic with 10.

The Cavaliers did get a bit going after halftime in apparently realizing they were one of 18 on threes and diving to the basket some more might help despite the analytical admonition. The Cavs did edge within 75-63 after three quarters. Though in trying to close it out, the Bulls went a bit more isolation and suddenly it was 85-82 Bulls with just under five minutes left.

Oh no, not again?

Zach LaVine led the Bulls with 25 points on 8-of-17 shooting in the big victory over Cleveland.

Not this time with Markkanen fouling Vucevic on a post up, DeRozan with a reverse slam dunk, LaVine with a reverse and some clever passing that found Dosunmu on the weak side for a runner and a 95-83 Bulls lead with just over a minute left. This time you didn't expect the other guys to steal one the way the Bulls were playing. Though Donovan wasn't that far from questioning whether we ever did go to the moon.

There were at least a half dozen clock malfunctions in the last few minutes that Donovan noticed happened only after the Cavaliers scored.

"I didn't know what was going on with the clock," Donovan said with a laugh. "They said it was broken and then I heard it wasn't broken. It was crazy. The clock kept stopping every time we inbounded the ball so they could set their defense; it just kept happening to us. It was unbelievable. I don't know what happened. It just seemed like every time they scored there was a problem with the clock."

It wasn't certain, but the talk was the officials were from Roswell, N.M.

Though the Bulls still made it a curious last minute fouling a three-point shooter and a pair of turnovers against pressure. They didn't step out of bounds with the ball, fortunately, as they had a few times earlier in the game. So not perfection, but much better.

"We hadn't played well during this (recent) stretch," Donovan acknowledged. "We played against some good teams. There weren't really many games I thought, ‘Hey we really deserved to win and came up short.' Tonight I thought we played well enough to win."

And now with eight games left the talk, though not publicly from Bulls players, will be about potential playoff matchups. The top four teams in the East are separated by a half game with the Bulls in fifth where they are three games behind fourth. But while Boston had been there, it's now looking more like Miami fourth the way they seem to have stopped competing since Jimmy Butler's imbroglio with Erik Spoelstra. Heck, you wouldn't trade Ernie Broglio for that.

"It might be tough to get back to fourth (and first round home court advantage), but I think we have the talent to play with anybody," said Vucevic. "Are we willing to do the right things night in and night out? That's the main thing for us. When we do those things we're a good team and when we don't we're not."