Any thoughts that the Cavaliers might have been shaken by their narrow loss on Thursday night in Game Three and would have to struggle to regain firm control of their first-round series with Chicago lasted about 18 minutes of game time today at the United Center, and then, to use a cliche, it was if a switch was flipped, and Cleveland rode a revitalized defensive effort, a quietly huge game from Antawn Jamison, a key contribution from J.J. Hickson, production up and down the line-up, and, especially, a triple double from LeBron James, to overwhelm the Bulls 121-98. The victory leaves the Cavs on the cusp of advancing to the next round, a deal they will try to seal on Tuesday night back in Cleveland.
The first quarter began with Cleveland seemingly determined to establish the three, as they quickly made six attempts, but converted only one in the game's opening minutes. Chicago, meanwhile, used the trio of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, and Luol Deng to stay close, and in fact led by four at 14-10 when Shaquille O'Neal picked up his second foul and went to the bench. Anderson Varejao checked in and at that moment the Cavs went on a 9-0 run to grab a five-point lead, then treaded water with the Bulls the rest of the low-scoring quarter, and the first twelve minutes ended with Cleveland up, 24-21. Chicago had established a commanding rebounding edge of 16-9 in the quarter, which helped them to stay right with the Cavs despite shooting only 32% from the field. Cleveland had also made only half of their six foul shots in the opening stanza, a figure that was to get much worse before shockingly turning around later. Noah's 9 boards supported Deng's 8 points, and Rose's six, while Anthony Parker chipped in with seven to lead the Cavs.
LeBron James went to the locker room between quarters, and the best immediate news was that he was walking fine, and thus there was no problem with his legs. It turned out that his elbow was a little sore, but by the time he normally would have checked back in anyhow, he had returned to the bench and was ready to go...any lingering soreness was transmitted to the Bulls as the game went on.
The second quarter began with J.J on the floor, a welcome sight for many Cavs fans, and they would be rewarded with a fine effort from Hickson. But after the Cavs had again bumped the lead back to five, at 32-27, Chicago mounted a run, and at around the halfway mark of the quarter, the Bulls had retaken the lead at 41-37 Then James ignited a comeback with a three, added another three shortly thereafter, the defense picked up the intensity and cut off the inside to the Bulls (including one memorable sequence of suffocating D by James on Deng), and a 25-11 spurt to end the half had the Cavs sitting pretty at the break, 62-52, which ended with a nice LeBron jump-shot to beat the halftime buzzer.
A key turnaround during the second quarter was that it ended with the Cavaliers having made their last eight free throws after beginning the game an abysmal five of thirteen, We all know that shots from the charity stripe have been an issue at times, including just three days ago, and the turnaround came at an opportune time.
At the half, LeBron led the Cavs with 17 points and seven rebounds, and Antawn Jamison , Anthony Parker and Mo Williams had pitched in another 30 points between them. For the Bulls, Rose led three players in double figures with 15, and Noah had thirteen rebounds, to keep the game from already being a rout. But the tide had turned, and the beginning of the third quarter saw it become a flood.
Straight out of the locker room, Derrick Rose came up limping after landing awkwardly on Shaq's foot, and although he remained in the game after a timeout, it seemed to slow his driving for the rest of the game, during which he added just six more points. Helped by Jamison's 13 points in the quarter, the Cavaliers quickly pushed their lead out to 21 points on a three from Mo Williams, and unlike the comeback the Cavs made from an identical deficit on Thursday night, the Bulls, with a quarter and a half to go, were done. The rest of the third consisted of Cleveland maintaining the same basic advantage, and a long LeBron 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the quarter extended the lead to 99-76. and gave the Cavaliers 75 points in the middle quarters.
All that remained in the fourth quarter was trying to get LeBron one more rebound to secure his triple double. He might not have got the chance, but the Cavs came out and went scoreless for the first nearly three minutes. In came James, and almost immediately he garnered his board, and added a couple of smooth-as-silk threes before finally retiring to the bench with 37 points, including six of nine on 3-pointers.
Five Cavaliers finished in double figures, including Jamison's 24, and Mo Williams' 19. J.J Hickson added 10, including four of four at the line, and Anthony Parker finished with 12. Shaq, though saddled with foul trouble much of the game, finished with six points and seven rebounds, and was much more of a force inside than he had been at any time since Game One.
Joakim Noah shared the Bulls' scoring lead with Rose, finishing with 21, and also added twenty rebounds. Five Bulls also finished in double figures, and Chicago won the rebounding battle, 49-41, including seventeen on the offensive end, but in the end, what the Bulls brought to the table this Sunday left them hungry and wanting.
On to Tuesday night we go, back to the Q in Noah's favorite city. If it is anything like today was, it should be a fun show to watch.