The Cavs never did put LeBron James into the game. J.R. Smith refrained from asking for a trade almost the entire game. No one was blaming Kevin Love. And the Bulls won down the stretch 99-98 thanks to a crucial defensive play.
Yes, it’s a new Bulls/Cavaliers world, and the Bulls Saturday got off to a good start with 24 points from Zach LaVine, a career high 15 points from new starting point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and a block at the buzzer from Jabari Parker, the oft-maligned defender who actually was in the game for defense.
“They had a very small lineup out there, they had five shooters spread,” noted Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We went with guys who’ve been in that position and Jabari made a great play.”
It was Parker with a block on Cavs rookie Collin Sexton, who tried to overwhelm Arcidiacono on the last play with the Cavs trailing by one point with 13 seconds left. Sexton with 20 points challenged Arcidiacono, who held his hardwood space and appeared to get a piece of the ball as Sexton went up. Sexton got his miss and in going back up, Parker came across and swatted the ball away as time expired.
“We were due for one just because we’ve been in those stretches for a long time,” said Parker, who had 13 points with five in the fourth quarter while adding a few compound sentences. “They didn’t favor us, but everybody played well at the end.”
Perhaps the team’s relief was best shown in the demeanor of Hoiberg, who as he sat down for his post game media session paused and breathed a long sigh before starting to answer. It was a vital game, in some sense, for the Bulls with the Cavaliers coming into the game 1-10. The Bulls raised their record to 4-9 in the first game this season oddsmakers had the Bulls as the favorite.
“All our games except Golden State and Charlotte, we’ve been in with a chance to win,” pointed out Zach LaVine, who led the Bulls in points and five assists. “So that’s encouraging. It speaks for what we have on the team right now the way we fight. We’re competitive and that’s what you can ask for, that we go out and compete.”
Hoiberg called it the best game LaVine has played for the Bulls, and not because of the 360-degree dunk LaVine did on a breakaway after a steal. “Good to be athletic sometimes, good to be able to jump,” LaVine said with a laugh — and not because of the tip dunk LaVine had on a missed free throw.
“My first two years every time I got a fast break I’d try to do something crazy,” LaVine admitted. “Now I just dunk it. I’m not old, but I’m not focused on the highlight dunks. I’ll break them out now and then. I had a couple of good ones today.”
No, what Hoiberg liked most was the way with the Cavaliers trapping and blitzing LaVine off pick and roll repeatedly, LaVine made plays for teammates and kept the ball moving, teaming with the wily Arcidiacono to keep more activity in the Bulls sometimes stagnant offense.
“I thought it was Zach’s best game as far as making the simple play,” said Hoiberg. “They were blitzing him. He got the ball to Wendell (Carter Jr.) in the pocket, where he either went to the rim and finished or we slashed Jabari out of the corner. We’ve really been on him about making the right play and the right read, and I thought he was really good about that.”
Hoiberg was also good in making just about all the right moves, including replacing Carter in those last 13 seconds with Parker. Parker usually goes out in those offense/defense switches. But Hoiberg stuck to his belief with the Cavs playing small with quicker players. It saved the game when Parker got the block. Hoiberg also went with key lineup changes, Arcidiacono starting for Cameron Payne and Shaquille Harrison as the backup point guard and Robin Lopez replacing Cristiano Felicio as the backup center.
The Bulls were dominated 53-38 on the boards with Tristan Thompson having a career-type game with 22 points and 12 rebounds and more offensive rebounds than the entire Bulls team. But Harrison had three steals with harassing defense that included a breakaway score, and Arcidiacono had 10 first quarter points to help the Bulls off to an impressive 37-23 start.
“The start of the first quarter was a huge emphasis,” said Hoiberg.
LaVine had that early 360 and Arcidiacono had a pair of threes and a pair of driving scores to open that quarter.
“They were staying back on the shooters and trying to make me finish at the rim, so I I took what they gave me,” said Arcidiacono. He later had a terrific steal when Smith was dribbling repeatedly through his legs going nowhere. Arcidiacono leaped for the ball, knocking it loose for a Bulls score.
“Archie is not scared of anything,” said LaVine. “He’ll run through a wall for you. He’s always moving out there. Even if he makes a mistake he’s doing it with effort and he cares. I love Arch.”
LaVine had 11 points in the first quarter when the Cavs also realized as everyone else has that LaVine was the team’s main scorer with Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis, Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine out. So they began to send two and three defenders at him regularly. LaVine still had his share of degree of difficulty ventures to the rim, but he also frequently managed passes to Carter for rolling scores, Carter with 15 points, or to Parker to finish.
“You need the playmaking when they are blitzing,” agreed LaVine.
As ideal as the first quarter was, the second was much less so for the Bulls with not a three made, being doubled on the boards and suddenly tied at 53 at halftime after watching a 17-2 Cavs run. Yes, who are those guys? The Cavaliers took the lead in the third quarter in what became a much more competitive game than it looked like.
“I think we get content, get up and feel we can take a sigh of relief,” said LaVine. “But 10, 15 points in the NBA goes (quickly). You’ve got to stay focused, keep your foot on the peddle and not take crazy shots, still be aggressive on defense. We have to keep the same pace and aggressiveness.”
LaVine had a strong finish to the third quarter to get the Bulls a 79-77 lead. But the Bulls still could not shake the Cavs. Cleveland got within 86-85 with 7:42 left and 94-92 on a Rodney Hood three with 3:48 remaining. The Bulls appeared to be safe when Parker followed with a 16 footer, got a pair of free throws and made one and Carter dropped in two pressure free throws with 1:45 left for a 99-94 lead. But Hood came back with two scores and it looked like the Bulls had lost it when LaVine passed to Carter, who bobbled and lost the ball with 13 seconds left.
Carter admitted he wasn’t looking in trying to set a screen for LaVine, who said he thought he’d get a handoff from Carter.
“I made a dumb mistake at the end,” LaVine insisted. “I should not have non chalanted the pass to Wendell. I thought he was looking. I was going to come off for a handoff. That was my bad.”
And then it became very good for the Bulls with their defensive stand.
“Anytime you can win a close game like this, especially with the way we lost a few of these games, it just means we are growing as a team and we were able to stick with it,” said Arcidiacono. “I think I’m a solid defender within our game plan and system and something like that, it just comes down to one on one and who wants it more. I was able to get a little piece of the ball to make him miss the first and he got the second and thank god Jabari was able to be there. It comes down to who can be a better player at the end of the game.”
This time it was the Bulls.