Bulls take down Cavs in Cleveland 96-83

There’s a famous book about an alleged patient who had multiple personalities, sometimes self assured, assertive and successful and then the next day listless to the point of being fatigued, anxious and distracted.

It’s called “Sybil,” and not “the Chicago Bulls of 2015-16.”

Because those Bulls in the inaugural national ABC-TV Saturday series, with six losses in eight games and coming off a desultory defeat in Boston, and now facing a Cleveland Cavaliers team in its first game with its new coach basically dominated the East’s best team the entire game in a 96-83 victory. The Bulls first took the lead 10 minutes into the game and never gave it up, leading by as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter as a Cleveland crowd went from stunned disbelief to booing and heckling in a most cavalier manner.

“It’s a mindset with our guys,” offered if not explained Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Take away Golden State and we are 8-0 against the other (top) two through six in the league. I told our guys and we say this all the time, this is one you can build off of and if you go out and play with that intensity you are going to give yourselves a chance night in and night out.

“Our guys obviously have gotten up to play in these games,” agreed Hoiberg. “It’s a great sign when you can come in to a place like this, buzzing, extremely loud from the beginning and we went out and were aggressive and didn’t hang our heads and continued to fight and battle and got that lead at the end of the first quarter and never looked back.”

It’s only looking ahead now with Miami in the United Center Monday and then seven games and 12 days on the road in both conferences. But not before savoring this one, the second win without a loss over the favored Cavaliers this season, the Bulls holding LeBron James relatively in check as Pau Gasol had 25 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, Jimmy Butler 20 points, Nikola Mirotic a bounce back 17 points off the bench with three of five pointers and Taj Gibson blinking through an eye injury and wearing protective goggles but still getting 15 points and eight rebounds with crucial scores down the stretch when the Cavaliers breathed their last.

“It felt like we were playing a couple of weeks ago when we had like a (six) game winning streak,” said Gibson. “We were getting after guys. We played with that swagger like we are capable of playing with. It’s funny how we always get up to play the good teams, how we always must and play tough and play great; just got to learn.”

The Bulls moved to 25-18, though still five and a half games behind the 30-12 Cavs.

It is a baffling and bewildering Bulls team. And though no one wanted to make much of beating the Cavaliers again—Gibson noted they’ve beaten James teams often in the regular season and not on the playoffs—it was a significant victory to both apply the brakes to a losing run and accelerate on the road against the team that basically everyone has ceded the East title and a return trip to the Finals.

Assistant and James pal Tyronn Lue surprisingly replaced Cavaliers coach on the Cavs’ off day Friday while the Bulls were playing in Boston. The Bulls flew into Cleveland in the early morning Saturday in what everyone expected to be a crazed arena atmosphere with James committed to deliver an opening day win to his new coach. I recall Michael Jordan in the first game for young Doug Collins in 1986 in New York. Before the game, Jordan told an anxious Collins he wouldn’t let him lose his first game and went out and scored 50 to beat the Knicks.

James filled up the columns with 26 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. But he shot 11 for 27, missing all five threes as the Cavaliers were four of 24 on threes and nine of 22 on free throws. I’m not quite writing James off yet at 31, but he hasn’t played this season with his usual overwhelming dominance. He doesn’t seem quite as explosive to the basket and a little heavier. Though if Stephen Curry is better for now, then just barely.

But around James the Cavs looked ordinary with Kyrie Irving still trying to return from injury with 11 points in 31 minutes. Derrick Rose had 12 points and shot five of 21. But Rose had perhaps a half dozen layups roll tantalizingly off the rim and did connect with Gasol and Gibson for two crucial fourth quarter scores that held off the Cavaliers’ last gasp.

“Missed a lot of layups, but I can’t do anything about that. I loved the way I was aggressive, getting into the lane, finding people,” said Rose, who still is shooting about 46 percent in January, among the highest for point guards. “It’s great to get a win, but at the same time we can’t be happy with this one win. We’ve got to continue to go and play hard and together. We competed, got back (on defense), talked, communicated and it made a lot of people’s jobs easier; we had some big performances. I loved the way the bench came in and played (22-8). It’s just that when guys go to the lane we just have to hit them harder.

“It feels good to get a win against a great team, especially with the emotional side if you add to it a new coach and them coming out and being hyped,” noted Rose. “This my first time really experiencing (something like) this with a great (Bulls) team. No knock against my teammates in the past, but we didn’t have the talent we have on this team; we were just happy to win games. Coming in tonight and every game we play in we are the target; guys are coming out hyped to beat us and we’ve just got to make sure we come out and compete with the edge and give the effort to win that game. I wish I could put a finger on (the inconsistency and dual personalities). It’s something I’ve been thinking about a long time. I really can’t put a finger on it.”

No one seems able to, so the Bulls will probably continue to baffle and frustrate, driving fans between the antipodes of cashing in the players for future draft picks or extending them to build a dynasty.

The reality is certainly somewhere in between, though it seems obvious by now there’s likely no way of knowing where for months to come.

“The talent of our team and the will of our team allows us to beat some of the best, the top teams in the league, and sometimes our lack of a sense of urgency and mental preparation for some games makes us lose to team we shouldn’t,” said Gasol, whose performance on national TV that included beating everyone down court for a dunk should enhance his All-Star chances. “Especially at home. It’s something we need to change right away starting the next game against Miami. Home court has to be our fortress; we need to come out with the same intensity every single night.

“Things will work better or worse offensively, but at least our urgency to play games and our competitiveness has to be stable, has to be consistent, has to be the same,” said Gasol. “That will be our challenge and our goal and we hope to make it happen.”

It wasn’t the perfect game for the Bulls Saturday, though committing just eight turnovers was a departure from recent troubles. That was perhaps due to both teams playing more a deliberate style to the point Lue afterward said his players, including James, needed to improve their conditioning. Though it’s a bit late for another training camp.

The Cavs did come charging at the Bulls, the hard hats in the NBA for mostly having to dig out of so many deep holes. This time it was 14-8 Cleveland when they then went on to miss their last 16 shots of the first quarter. Bulls were working hard on defense, though not that hard. The Bulls pace wasn’t any hastier, though enough to take a 21-14 lead with some nice movement and passing from Gasol with Mirotic the beneficiary.

It wasn’t exactly a breakthrough for the slumping Mirotic as he’s had good games. But it was a relief as he admitted he’d gotten to talking to himself after averaging about five points the last five games. And it finally worked after a Saturday morning conversation.

“I talked to myself today,” Mirotic said. “Even what happened with my shots if I miss scoring I need to compete, I need to be strong mentally, play simple, grab some rebounds, defend and if I score shots, I score shots. I think that was the way I played today. I made those shots. I was playing with more confidence and I was feeling great with the physicality in my body.

“I have not been shooting well, not feeling good on the court, but today was different,” Mirotic said. “Lots of people say here you have to have a short memory and I have to learn that what happened in the past is the past, that I need to be focused on what happens today and tomorrow. I really prepared for this game and things went well on the court.”

Mirotic’s shooting and teamwork with Gasol provided the pivotal points late in the third quarter and into the fourth when the Bulls went on a 13-5 run for that 77-60 lead early in the fourth quarter that proved too much for the Cavaliers to overcome.

Mirotic has been suffering with his deficiencies this season after so much promise with his late run last season. He’s still averaging 10.5 points, fourth on the team, but twice was dropped from the starting lineup. He still leads the team in three pointers made and his shooting is vital to the team with Mike Dunleavy not having played this season and Doug McDermott unable to find enough shot opportunities.

It’s seemed Mirotic has tried too hard to please and has attempted too much. He seemed to concentrate Saturday on defensive rebounding, a weakness for the team lately, and catch-and-shoot attempts, his two biggest strengths. The results were encouraging for the team.

“Niko came out and played his game,” said Rose. “Took the shots he was supposed to take. I loved that he was fighting on the boards and fighting as a big today, really tussling with guys guarding people. He made some huge shots for us that gave us the comfortable lead.”

Rose drove in the second quarter, drawing three defenders and fired back to McDermott for his only three in two attempts. It’s incumbent on the Bulls to find him more, though they were seven of 17 on threes after barely 20 percent the last two weeks.

The pace for both teams slowed considerably as the Bulls led 44-39 at halftime in the sort of game between the teams we’d seen in recent years. Then midway through the third quarter, Gibson grabbed a rebound and dribbled it up court, finding a fleet Gasol racing ahead for a slam dunk. Perhaps it’s not exactly what Hoiberg had in mind for his fast paced game, but it was a nice wrinkle.

“No,” Gasol joked, “we finally got to do it, in what, game 42? That’s what we’ve been working on, me and Taj. It just hasn’t happened until tonight; we’ve been working on it and Taj gave me a great assist to finish.”

Hoiberg also added a few other subtle wrinkles in the pick and roll with Rose and Butler running it together, which they haven’t done much and proving difficult to defend with each’s ability to get to the basket.

But seriously, Gibson was pretty serious just hours after he sat in the locker room in Boston with an eye specialist on the phone to the hospital with Gibson saying he could only see black from one eye after being hit by Isaiah Thomas.

“I couldn’t see out of my eye last night,” Gibson acknowledged. “It was completely black. It was scary. I didn’t know if I would be able to play today; it was still blurry the whole game, but I just wanted to play, wanted to help the team win a game and whatever it takes to get a win.”

Gibson did his share with the surprising fast break and less surprising fight on the boards with a game high five offensive rebounds. It’s the sort of effort that has been missing a lot this season as Bulls players have often admired from afar others scrambling to the floor or the offensive boards while it seemed Bulls players were drawing mental pictures of what it might be like if they someday did that.

“Taj did a great job competing, getting rebounds, being in the right spot at the right time,” said Gasol. “I think overall that was the rule for us in order to beat this team on their home court. Taj brings a defensive presence for the starting lineup, the hustle and the way he works both ends of the floor, his unselfishness, his ability to sacrifice for the better of the team; those are things hard to find and Taj brings them to the table.”

The Bulls led 72-58 after three quarters, got a Mirotic three to open the fourth and then did just enough with Rose weaving his way in for one late score and Gibson with a three-point play on the Rose assist and an 18 footer at the 24-second buzzer with 1:34 left that basically ended it with James scoring 16 in the fourth quarter to try to do it himself.

“Great win because we just got off two bad games and we needed a game like this against a team like Cleveland,” said Gasol. “Important win, but again it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t come out on Monday and take the temperature against Miami. We need to build some continuity; it’s a good boost of confidence, but now we have to build momentum.”

Unless they don’t, which they believe they can; still they’ll have to see, though you never know. Hey, who are these guys?