Bulls fall to Cavs in overtime in home opener

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By Sam Smith | 11.01.2014 | 4:02 a.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

The Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers Friday put on a terrific show for a national TV audience and a raucous United Center. The two Eastern Conference favorites turned what would usually be a routine cold October day into the heat of NBA May in a 114-108 Cavaliers overtime victory.

“It would have been better if we had won,” Joakim Noah offered long after:

– A classic first half duel of MVPs with LeBron James scoring 19 of his game-high 36 points and Derrick Rose with 18;

– Seven Bulls players scored in double figures, Pau Gasol had six blocks, Mike Dunleavy barely missed a triple-double and Tony Snell had his best game as a pro with rugged and active defense on James;

– The Bulls rallied from nine points behind with another big reserve contribution in the fourth quarter and a profusion of jumpers from Kirk Hinrich, who had 10 fourth quarter points, to hold a five-point lead with under a minute remaining.

But the Bulls could not keep the lead with a tough official decision on a three-point play by Kyrie Irving with 27.9 seconds remaining and then could not hold off James and the amazing Tristan Thompson, the Cavs’ backup forward with five offensive rebounds in the overtime period to give him 12 for the game, one more than the entire Bulls team that usually is considered among the best rebounders in the league.

“Tristan Thompson we did not have an answer for,” lamented Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau in the first time that statement ever has been made after an NBA game.

But if the defeat was disappointing for the Bulls despite the artistry of the combined efforts and anticipation of future meetings, the immediate concern was again the health of Rose.

Rose suffered a sprained ankle in the second quarter after landing on the foot of Irving on a second chance play with Rose again in the midst of an extraordinary effort. Rose had nine points in 8:07 in the first quarter and kept Irving scoreless. Irving, who finished with 23 points, would not score until Rose left the game.

Rose sustained the injury following up a miss of a 10 footer. He got the rebound, one of three offensive he would get in the first half of the team’s total of five. Rose went back up with a push shot and landed on Irving with 4:03 left in the first half. Rose hobbled to the bench, drawing a disbelieving quiet from the home crowd. But Rose stayed in and made a three-pointer later in the half as the Bulls went on to trail 58-52 in the fast tempo game.

Rose started the second half and played his usual rotation until about three minutes left in the third quarter with the Bulls trailing 71-68. But Rose never returned to the game and went to the locker room for treatment. He assured media after the game he wasn’t seriously injured, though there’s a question about playing Saturday in Minnesota.

Similarly for Taj Gibson, who went to the locker room early in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle as well. Gibson would later liken it to the one at the end of the Washington playoff series last spring that knocked him out of parts of the final game. Gibson did return Friday, but he clearly was slowed and lost position on rebounding to Thompson several times with his gimpy ankle.

Plus, Jimmy Butler remained out with his sprained thumb. Butler, meanwhile, failed to come to agreement with the Bulls on a contract extension. He will now become a restricted free agent next summer as he and the team cannot negotiate again until then.

Though the immediate concern, as it always is given Rose’s unhappy health history, is the team’s star guard. Though the Bulls were in good position to win with that lead in the last minute of regulation, it was apparent how much they missed Rose’s scoring and his defense against Irving, who had four of his 23 points when Rose was in the game.

“Right now, I’m feeling good,” Rose told reporters seemingly more anxious than he was. “My ankle is throbbing a little bit, but just playing basketball. I’m just happy that it’s not that serious. (I’ll) go to Minnesota, try and give it a go. If not, we still have, what [80 games) left. I guess it’s part of the process. Of course, the gods are testing me right now. It’s fine. I think I’ll be able to get through it.

“I think I stepped on somebody’s foot,” said Rose. “I just knew I twisted my ankle. I tried to give it a go in the second half, played my minutes in the third. I saw it kind of limited me shooting jump shots and I wasn’t getting the bounce I wanted. It’s basketball.

“It's not like I tore a ligament or something,” Rose reassured. “It’s just I sprained my ankle and had to sit out. It’s minor and I’ll try and get it going [Saturday]. No swelling, no swelling. I had X-rays, not an MRI. It’s not that serious. I think the [X-ray were negative]. I’m walking around so everyone can breathe. Trust me.”

It doesn’t appear serious. But because it is Rose not only was there immediate concern, but questions of whether he should rest until the ankle is back to 100 percent or whether he is more prone to injuries after his surgeries. Of course, Gibson also sprained his ankle and it basically happens in just about every NBA game. But when it’s Rose, it becomes a story.

The story of the game, however, other than the Cavs bouncing back from their awful opening day loss at home and James regaining his brilliance after a long one game slump, was the absolute domination the Cavs had over the Bulls in rebounding.

It was 52-42 overall after 27-15 in the first half, 20-11 on the offensive boards and 22-14 in second chance points. The Cavs also had a dazzling 58-44 advantage in points in the paint, another area where the Bulls generally outmaneuver their opponents.

It’s been different for the Bulls this season even with the comfortable opening night win in New York when the Bulls dominated those categories. They often didn’t in preseason, though it’s difficult to make judgments in those games with the odd rotations. But it’s been a different dynamic to this season’s Bulls team, perhaps more aesthetically appealing in some respects from a basketball standpoint. But somewhat less effective in the defensive grit categories that have made this Bulls team a model for hard play around the NBA.

“Some games in the preseason we didn’t rebound as well as we normally do, so we’ve got to get it done,” noted Hinrich, whose eight straight points in less than a minute with under two minutes remaining in regulation looked like it had clinched the game. “Rebounding and defense, we’ve got to get back to that. We got smoked down there tonight. That’s something that’s propelled us through the last few years. When you had bad shooting nights and things weren’t going your way we knew we were going to be in the game because of low turnovers and rebounds. We’ve got to get back to our identity.”

Some of it is the absence of Butler, the team’s primary perimeter defender and a good rebounding guard. Some of it Friday was the ankle injury to Gibson, who played on but had difficulty getting into rebounding position at times. Some, of course, was a very good Cavs team, though one not highly regarded for its rebounding as they were outrebounded by the small Knicks on opening night.

“They’re a very good team,” agreed Hinrich. “Obviously, they are as talented as anyone at one (James), two (Kevin Love with 16 and 16), three (Irving). And their bigs are very good at complementing the other guys. They are going to be a tough out, no question.”

That’s no surprise since basically all the preseason predictions had the Bulls and Cavs in some order of one/two in the Eastern Conference.

But perhaps what was most unusual for this Bulls team has been the increasing frequently of three-point shooting. After averaging almost 24 per game in the preseason for a team that attempted the third fewest in the NBA last season, the Bulls attempted 24 on opening night in even surpassing the usually quantity shooting Knicks. On Friday, the Bulls were 13 of 31 on threes, about double the attempts of the Cavs.

Thibodeau said he had no issue with that.

“I like the three,” Thibodeau said. “They are inside out, made 13, shot a good percentage. We have guys who can make then. Pau (Gasol with 15 points, nine rebounds and six blocks) has gotten us a lot of good looks (passing out). Our guys have to be ready to shoot when the ball comes out. The three was one of the plusses. The free throw disparity was a concern (33-17 Cleveland). That probably was the difference down the stretch.”

But threes lead to fewer free throws because you don’t drive to the basket. Though the analytics advocates recommend threes, they also tend to lead to longer and less predictable rebounds. That seemed to be an issue for the Bulls as the Cavaliers constantly got inside and around for second shots.

Playing that style isn’t inappropriate. After all, the Bulls offense has been slow and somewhat predictable the last few seasons, especially without Rose. But you also have to become accustomed to the more open style of play, which favors the Cavs, who prefer to play fast and open. They dictated the first half with that game that led to such a big halftime score. The Cavs obviously practice that game even with their surfeit of new players. The Bulls played that game and, after all, were in position to win with maybe a different officials’ call or a better defensive play or one more shot going in. And it made for an entertaining game played both with urgency and elan.

Though perhaps the Bulls weren’t as ready for it now because they did not have their starting backcourt when the game was decided. So there are plenty of questions and the next meeting in January cannot come too soon.

“Things weren’t going our way,” said Gibson. “Like other teams opening at home, opening night every team comes out feeling good about themselves. But we just got humbled, including myself. They did an extremely good job coming off a tough loss to the Knicks. That’s part of our league, part of the NBA. When you are feeling good about yourself someone comes to smack you in the face to wake you up.

“The edge they had, (it was) a much stronger edge than us,” said Gibson. “That happens in the NBA. Look at how we played in New York; we felt we did a good job, guys feeling good about themselves. Come back home you tend to get lax and they played a strong, physical, tough minded game. It was like a playoff atmosphere. It came down to the wire. I felt like we had a chance to win it. It was a couple of tough calls, but that’s part of our business. Just got to keep pushing.”

Push was the appropriate description in a wild first quarter in which the Cavs led 28-27. James after a passive home opener had 11 points and 10 of the Cavs 23 field goal attempts.

“It was an opportunity to go out and redeem ourselves, and I was happy with the outcome,” said James. “I take pride in the way I perform and last night I give myself an F. I’m my biggest critic. I understand how important I am to our team.”

Rose is just as vital and he was matching James with aggressive play, twice grabbing missed shots that led to Bulls scores, scoring on a drive and hitting a pull up three for a Bulls offense that continued to look exceptional.

“He’s our guy,” said Hinrich, who started again for Butler. “When he’s out there everything is so much easier. When he’s not out there we have to work harder, do everything more collectively.”

Dunleavy quietly had a terrific all around game as he led the team in assists in the first quarter working with Gasol and one time finding him for a lob slam dunk. Yes, those high jumping kids for a highlight poster. Dunleavy would end with 14 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. He also had two of the Bulls’ 14 blocks, many off Love shots. Love is a brilliant position player and thus good rebounder and outlet passer, again finding James for a long one. But Love doesn’t get off the floor much and the Bulls thwarted him at the rim as Love shot five of 17. But he and James each had four steals with the Bulls committing 20 turnovers as the ball handling suffered with Rose out.

The second unit after a sparking debut Wednesday stumbled to start the second quarter and fell behind 42-33 before Thibodeau rushed Rose back four minutes into the quarter, a bit earlier than expected. Rose immediately stopped the Cavs’ run with a crossover drive and was fouled and a slashing drive for a score. Rose hurt the ankle after that, though James dismissed it as a reason the Bulls fell in the end.

“I don’t know if it changed,” James said about the Bulls’ momentum after Rose was hurt. “D Rose on the floor, D Rose off the floor, they’re going to play that same style of basketball. They’re going to defend. They’re going to run their offense and they’re going to make it tough for you offensively. Kirk Hinrich came in the fourth quarter, took over the game.”

Though Rose was back after halftime, it was clear he wasn’t the same aggressor with two points in almost 10 minutes. The Bulls climbed back in to trail 71-68, but again stumbled after the starter substitutions and trailed 78-69 going into the fourth quarter.

But the Bulls were starting to get Snell’s best game as a pro.

The second year swingman had 10 points in the game and made a pair of threes. But most impressive was his rugged and relentless defense against James, which forced James into some misplays and giving up the ball several times.

“Kirky is playing really confident basketball right now,” said Noah. “I think Snellie, when you think about when he had to guard LeBron last year around this time compared to this year, I would say that’s a pretty big improvement. I think that’s big for us. I think Snellie is a guy who works really, really hard every day. This summer he put in a lot of work, sacrificed his whole summer to get stronger and get better and I think he did a really good job.”

And Thibodeau demonstrated he’ll play whomever be believes can help the team win as Snell played 14 of the last 17 minutes in the fourth quarter and overtime.

But as uncertain as the reserves were until then, they regained their swagger in the fourth quarter as Aaron Brooks responded with eight points and a pair of threes, Snell had five points and Gibson four. It looked like a Bulls win and 0-2 Cavs start when Hinrich made the back to back threes and then a step back jumper with 47.1 seconds left to lead 98-93.

“We had the five point lead with 40 seconds in, reckless fouls,” muttered Thibodeau.

Before then even James doubted his team.

“It was something I didn’t know if we had just right now,” James said of the comeback.

The fans were in full throat, Noah was screaming at the Cavs bench coming off the floor one time, Gasol was enthusiastically signaling after a block, Hinrich was pumping and bumping enthusiastically after his makes, the first three to give the Bulls a 93-91 lead with 1:42 left. Hinrich then forced Irving into a turnover after a James turnover on a drive. Then came Hinrich’s second three within 27 seconds, running Matthew Dellavedova under a Gibson screen for the biggest Bulls lead of the game. Over, right?

Gibson then lost Love while trying to help on a James drive and Love dunked on the James pass. Hinrich hit once again. But Snell fouled James on the inbounds pass and James made both to make it 98-95 with 46.5 seconds.

Gibson missed a foul line jumper. Irving then drove and what turned into the key play as Gibson grabbed Irving at about the free throw line. Irving continued to the basket for a layup, taking two long steps and getting a three-point play to tie the game at 98.

“I thought we had some tough calls go against us,” said Thibodeau. “Had the lead, moving screen, free throw (lane) violation, couple touch fouls (tough offensive foul call in overtime). That’s the difference.”

The Bulls hung onto the ball a bit long for a last shot and missed a force and the Cavs missed to go into overtime.

James then dominated and Thompson beat everyone to the ball for enough that the Bulls never led or were tied in the overtime.

“We tricked the game today. Should have won,” said Noah, who had eight points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. “We’ll do better. I’m not worried about it. It’s tough. Just sucks. We had the game won. We beat ourselves tonight. Felt like we beat ourselves. We tricked it. We’re going to get better from it, definitely. I think it’s going to make us stronger. It’s going to make us better. We’re going to learn from our mistakes and play another basketball game tomorrow.”

There is no Next, a book by Sam Smith