Cavs play the Grizzlies tonight at 8:00
The greatest burden of LeBron James' career awaits him this season
CHICAGO – The high-energy music of rappers Eminem and Future blared throughout the visiting locker room Tuesday night at United Center, drowning out all conversations and forcing anyone seeking a quiet moment to flee, as LeBron James took his place alongside a powder blue medicine ball occupying the middle of the floor. James leaned back on the ball, then balanced his toes on it as he stretched forward. He contorted his body in awkward positions to get his troublesome lower back ready for the first game of a 13th season in which the burden to produce a title is perhaps greater than at any point in a career filled with often unrealistic or unfair expectations.
Back in a building where he ended the Bulls' season for the fourth time last May, under the shadow of Michael Jordan's six championship banners, James was set to play in front of an audience thatincluded the team's most famous and powerful fan in President Barack Obama. And, despite nursing a back injury that has required two injections in the past 10 months, starting the season without its intended starting backcourt, a recently settled contract dispute involving the backup power forward and working in the starting power forward back in the fold after a nearly six-month hiatus, James was being asked to lead a Cleveland Cavaliers team that is the prohibitive favorite to win the Eastern Conference – and to end a 51-year championship drought for its city.
"We have to get healthy and be full to really see our potential. But we have the potential to be very good," James said hours before the Cavaliers dropped their season opener 97-95 to a highly motivated Bulls team that won in the debut of coach Fred Hoiberg.
James didn't have enough bounce to prevent Bulls centerPau Gasol from stuffing him on a potential game-tying layup with 3.6 seconds remaining. But the Cavaliers managed to make a relatively full-strength Bulls team – with the exception of a one-eyed Derrick Rose – sweat until Jimmy Butler knocked away Williams' inbounds pass to James as time expired.
"I was kind of surprised," James said of the performance, conceding that the first few weeks of the regular season won't be easy to navigate as the Cavaliers attempt to become the team many expect.
James was given somewhat of a pass last season as he attempted to establish a winning culture on a franchise that had drifted into the abyss while he salsa danced to two championships and four NBA Finals runs in Miami. The Cavaliers had the talent but lacked the experience and pedigree to win – proven by their 19-20 start, the need for two season-altering trades and James' two-week mental and physical vacation. But the success of James's ability to impart the lessons learned from his time with the Heat was found as Cleveland eventually pushed Golden State in the NBA Finals for six hard-fought games without Love and Irving for all but one game.
"When he made the decision to come back here, he was the first one to admit it would be extremely frustrating because the expectations and the process we had to take, we couldn't short cut," Cavaliers reserve James Jones said. "We know that it has to come together for us to do what we want to do, and that's all on us. We know that there are going to be some trials that come with it."
Injuries and misfortune, but not James, were to blame for coming up short against the Warriors. James' performance was so majestic that many argued he should've been named Finals MVP in defeat. But that run raised the expectations for what a full-strength squad could accomplish, to where the Cavaliers are supposed to win at a time when James seriously had to confront basketball mortality as he crossed over to the other side of 30. The culmination of those deep playoff runs and summers dedicated to USA Basketball in the quest for two Olympic gold medals, are finally beginning to show, forcing James to contemplate every means of preservation.
"I didn't just sit around, I actually worked a lot of things to help me stay balanced, keep me going in the right direction," he said. "I know the work that I put into it. I know how I treat my body and it responded very well."
By the time President Obama high-fived his way into the arena with about three minutes left in the first quarter and grabbed a courtside seat to watch his beloved Bulls, James had already taken his first breather of the season, pulling himself off the floor. He needed another early in the second half because, "I was gassed." Whatever pain the back is causing, James will keep to himself. But coach David Blatt stated afterward that the plan will be to limit James to around 35 minutes to keep fresh the four-time MVP for what the Cavaliers hope will be another deep run.
"LeBron, obviously, is our guy," Blatt said. "We're a team and we need to play like a team" to lighten his load.
James has vanquished all foes in the league's perennially inferior conference to reach the NBA Finals five consecutive years, and no team stands out as an obvious obstacle to a sixth straight trip, something not seen since the days of Bill Russell. Blatt agreed to a suggestion that the Cavaliers had some "rotten luck" in the preseason, but that hasn't changed the ultimate objective for the franchise. The Cavaliers know that until another team emerges as a serious threat, they are the only team standing in their way.
"We're not yet where we're going to be," Blatt said. "Without question, we're going to be a little bit choppy in the beginning, it's just the nature of what we went through. We will get there."
LeBron, Cavs fine with results of 'first test' against Bulls
Make no mistake, the Cleveland Cavaliers would have liked to come away with a win on opening night.
But in a matchup of division rivals seemingly destined for another collision course in the postseason, LeBron James and the reigning Eastern Conference champs will leave Chicago comfortable with their performance despite a 97-95 loss to the Bulls.
The shorthanded Cavaliers even had a chance to spoil the Bulls' home opener for a second straight season. But two stellar efforts from the Bulls in the final 10 seconds, a Pau Gasol block on James and then Jimmy Butler batting away the inbounds pass to run out the clock, ended a frantic rally just shy.
"There were a lot of positives for us," Cavaliers coach David Blatt said after the game. "We were one shot from winning the game. We're not yet where we're going to be. Not to be someone that knows what happens ahead of time, but that's what happens."
Though appropriate for all teams playing in their first "real" contests, Tuesday night acted as 48 minutes of allowing the Cavaliers to shake off the rust and acclimate further following a hard-luck preseason that included time missed from five of their top six contributors. Neither members of the expected starting backcourt of Kyrie Irving (knee) and Iman Shumpert (wrist) have begun practicing, and neither have a timetable for their return. Newcomer Mo Williams and J.R. Smith started in their places; Williams scored 19 points and Smith added eight points and five rebounds.
LeBron James dazzled in front of the 21,957 in attendance with 25 points and 10 rebounds, but did so after missing the last two weeks of practice following an anti-inflammatory injection to help his ailing back. His departure from the team's final four preseason games coincided with the return of Kevin Love, who had missed the last six and a half months following surgery to repair a dislocated shoulder suffered in the playoffs. Love, in his first game action with James since Game 4 of the first round against the Celtics, scored 18 points.
There was also Tristan Thompson, who ended a holdout less than a week ago by agreeing to a five-year, $82 million deal. There was little doubt he'd play, but missing time in training camp and all seven preseason games meant a rocky start was inevitable; a two-point, 12-rebound, four-foul performance validated that.
"When you haven't played and practiced with your full unit," Blatt said after the game, "you're going to be off with some of your shots."
Blatt also remained upbeat about the Game 1 loss, a far different assessment of his team than last year's shocking loss at home to the Knicks on opening night. His players agreed, with the Cleveland locker room far from panicked or concerned following the game. The good included 26 assists on 36 made field goals, an impressive figure considering Irving's and Shumpert's absences. They also committed just 10 turnovers and outscored the Bulls in every quarter after an abysmal opening stanza. Those numbers, despite poor shooting, left James feeling good, all things considered.
"We missed, I would say, 6 chippies, 8 chippies around the rim where we could have got to 30 assists. So I am surprised at that. I thought that offensively we would be a little bit more rusty, out of place," James admitted, "and for us to have 26 assists and 10 turnovers in a game, especially versus the Bulls, that’s something you can say we’re better than we all expected.
"Tonight was the first test," he added. "We gave ourselves a chance to win on the road and that’s all you can want."
But the slow start simply proved too much to overcome. The second unit struggled mightily when James exited early in the first quarter, shooting 1-for-8 and allowing the Bulls a 13-0 run that pushed the lead to as many as nine. But there was unexpected improvement there, too, and it came in the third quarter as the Bulls appeared to be pulling away.
Derrick Rose, who scored 18 points and handed out five assists, lit up Williams and the Cavs to begin the third quarter, scoring or assisting on 15 of the Bulls' first 17 points of the stanza that gave them a 13-point lead at the 8:27 mark of the period. With 4:21 remaining and the Cavaliers down 10, Blatt lifted James. A group that included reserves Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson and Anderson Varejao proceeded to go on a 13-6 run to close the period, giving the Cavaliers life heading into the final quarter.
"It started with our second unit doing a great job defensively and really moving the ball in their minutes," Blatt said of the second-half comeback. "And obviously it got us back in the game. We went to the bench and they did a great job fighting back for us."
Cleveland briefly took the lead on a floater from James with 5:32 to play, its first since midway through the first quarter. But Fred Hoiberg, making his NBA head coaching debut, and the Bulls responded with a 10-3 run, led by Nikola Mirotic and capped off with a Rose bank shot to give the hosts a 93-85 lead inside 3 minutes to play.
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Kevin Love scored eight straight points for Cleveland before Gasol and the Bulls clamped down, securing their first victory of the year and the first mental edge in a battle between two rivals sure to last the entire year.
For the Cavaliers, though, the loss was given context. Missing their backcourt, Love and James together for the first time since May, shooting 32 percent in the first half and still having the ball with a chance to win on the last possession was reason enough for them to take positives leaving Chicago, understanding that the prohibitive favorites in the East are playing for much more than a regular season game in late October.
The Cavaliers' "first test," as James described it, was done shorthanded. Blatt and his group will be more prepared in terms of depth and firepower, as those tests begin increasing in difficulty and importance.
"When you have weapons like we do you’ve got to just stick with it. Kevin hit some big shots. LeBron made some big plays," Jefferson said. "And we had a chance to win it on the road after not playing well, and that’s a compliment to everyone in this room."