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LeBron came and he conquered the Bulls

by

Mar 20

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Veni, vidi, vici.

Yup, same old LeBron James.

He came to Chicago, he saw a city he liked, as he would concede afterward to reporters, and he conquered a Bulls team once again without Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng, though this time by a more pedestrian 92-85.

Hail, LeBron, which a sellout crowd of Bulls fans mostly did as James had 29 points, 13 in the fourth, when he won the game after the Bulls led by two with six minutes left. He also had 11 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks, converting 11 of 12 free throws.

The guy is really good, though we’re not sure yet whether good enough that they’ll name a salad after him as they did with Caesar.

Though I’m sure he can get a deep dish pizza named after him if he decides to leave the Cavs as a free agent after this season and come to Chicago.

“I am well respected here,” James acknowledged. “They like their basketball here and the way I play.  For these fans to see what they’ve seen, going back to 1984, when Jordan was doing what he was doing all the way to 1998, they’ve seen the top of the tier. It is very humbling for me for them to respect my game as well. Chicago is a great city and one of the best in America. From lifestyle to sports town it’s a great city. I know that. You (media) guys know that. Everyone knows that.”

OK, but tell everyone something we don’t know, like what you’ll do after the season.

It’s the biggest question of the NBA season, much more so than who will win the NBA title or when the Nets will win again.

I believe he’s staying in Cleveland, especially with the Cavs rolling like they are with a 55-15 record and playing just parts of games to win, like they did with the Bulls Friday. James scored his 15,000th point during the game, making him the youngest player ever to 15,000 points after he also was to 5,000 and 10.000. Just another young king, eh?

James had quite a time of it Friday, mostly floating through the early parts of the game before he turned it on with the Bulls leading 78-76 with about six minutes left behind Taj Gibson with 20 points and 13 rebounds and James Johnson, guarding James, or at least as much as James would allow him, with 16 points and eight rebounds.

James then hit a 22 footer to tie the game at 78, and after the Bulls came out of a timeout with Flip Murray missing a bad, long jumper, James hit another long jumper for an 80-78 lead with 4:48 left. Johnson, who did some terrific things but has to lead the league in turnovers in the last six minutes, palmed the ball as he got caught up in going at James. Not a great idea, but Johnson is showing that athletic potential many saw in him in the draft.

James drew a double and hit Anthony Parker for a three. Gibson answered with a followup slam dunk on a Kirk Hinrich miss, and then James lined up Johnson from the far left wing right in front of the Bulls bench.

James, as he does too often, stops the ball and all his teammates, which makes the Cavs most vulnerable, and faked move after move against Johnson. It pretty much rendered Antawn Jamison useless Friday as he relies on cutting and movement for his scores. Mo Williams shot well and added 18 standing around waiting for James passes when doubled.

Johnson stood in defensive position, mostly isolated with the Bulls coaches up yelling for defenders to help behind. Bulls players on the bench began to yell at James to shoot.

James isn’t a big talker on the floor, certainly not like Kevin Garnett, but he does engage in playful banter, sometimes between his dance steps, which were limited Friday as James was out late Thursday night at a Jay-Z show. That’s his rapper friend better known as Beyonce’s husband.

“Whoever was telling me to shoot it,” James said about the taunting Bulls bench led by Noah and Jannero Pargo. “You want me to shoot it? Shoot the ball? I said, ‘OK, I’ll shoot the ball.’”

Great.

James blew by Johnson and was fouled at the rim by Gibson, making both for an 85-80 lead with 2:56 left.

Johnson then, again, committed a turnover, traveling. He pointed toward himself, which I hate. Yes, we know who was at fault. This isn’t Tiger Woods or John Edwards. You don’t have to ask for forgiveness in public. It happens in games all the time, but so often down the stretch? Your fault? Yes, we know.

James then made a hard curl down the lane beating Johnson easily, scoring and getting fouled by Brad Miller for a three-point play and 88-80 Cavs lead with 2:28 left.

“I’m feeling confident knowing what I can do to close games out,” said James. “I never get rattled or shaken, no matter down one, up two, whatever the case may be.”

As good as the Bulls played throughout without their regulars, they again couldn’t do anything with their sub squad when the opponent got interested. Flip Murray drove and was blocked and Gibson picked up the ball and got hammered with no call, James retrieving the ball. He missed twice around an Anderson Varejao rebound, but Murray, five of 17, missed again. James got the rebound, came up slowly again and fired in a long bank shot from the wing to effectively end the game with a 90-80 lead with less than a minute left.

“I was born with a God-given gift,” said James. “I take full advantage of it by being able to do what I do on the basketball court. Hopefully, I can continue to stay healthy, and hopefully, I’ll continue to break records.”

And surely this summer break hearts somewhere.

James can infuriate you if you are an opponent with some of his dancing and celebratory antics. The last time the teams played, Joakim Noah was annoyed and had a little faceoff with James. But you’ve got to admire someone who brings that much joy to work.

I’m not saying he didn’t take the Bulls seriously—OK, maybe I am—but it was amusing to watch him on the bench in the first half. He had some sort of game going with headbands with reserve Jamario Moon, who didn’t play. There always seems something amusing being said as Jamison, one of the more responsible veterans in the NBA, kept laughing.

When it was approaching time to come back in the game, James leaped off the bench and patted his behind like you would see someone do with a horse when they holler “giddy yap!”

Later in the game, in the fourth quarter when the Bulls got a nice open court steal from Murray and dunk and took the lead  on a strong move from Hakim Warrick and three point play after being set up by Acie Law, James just seemed to stand up and head for the scorers’ table to check in as coach Mike Brown still watched he action.

There was 7:23 left in the fourth and James hadn’t played yet, so it probably was time, anyway. James had 13 of the next 16 Cavs’ points as the Cavs outscored the Bulls once James returned to the game 18-7 before a meaningless three by Murray with two seconds left.

James has been coy all season about his free agency plans, basically cutting off conversation after the first few weeks. So I asked him why given how well the Cavs are playing, how many good deals they’ve made getting Jamison most recently and how much he seems to be enjoying himself why he just doesn’t declare his intentions to stay.

James declined, leaving the slightest window opening for everyone.

“It’s still a business,” James said. “I’m in a business. This isn’t high school basketball anymore. You have to do what’s best for your family and do what’s best for yourself. I’ve always said I love being in Cleveland. But to me as a basketball player, no matter what happens I love to play the game of basketball. I love to play it for the fun, the joy. I love my teammates. I love the guys here and that’s just the way I approach the game.”
 
James, as I said, was complimentary of Chicago and also was positive about the Bulls players, which management believes is perhaps its major selling point to free agents.

“Derrick Rose was a first time All-Star. He’s an unbelievable talent,” said James. “Unfortunately, he has a wrist injury (Rose said he’ll likely play Saturday in Philadelphia along with Noah). Taj Gibson is a bright spot. Joakim Noah is a bright spot. They’ve got Luol Deng. They have a lot of great players.”

James has studied well from many of his star predecessors and tends to be very engaging after games. He used to speak with reporters before every game, but has mostly stopped doing that. As someone around the Cavs joked, “He’s got the MVP locked up now.”

But James is very aware of what goes on around the NBA and in talking with him after the game in a large group of Chicago reporters, he showed an unusual knowledge of the Bulls season.

“When they were all healthy they were playing great,” James said about the Bulls. “I remember the West Coast trip they had. They had an unbelievable West Coast trip when they were healthy. Having four guys out of the starting lineup, I don’t think you can recover from that.”

Who follows Bulls road trip from two months ago?

Does it mean James is watching the Bulls closely regarding free agency?

Perhaps, though he wouldn’t bite when one of the local TV guys not often at the games—James brings out the stars—asked James if he thought the Bulls were one star away from winning a title. James asked him what he thought.

James is quite the show, much like all the great ones, and he brought out what little celebrity we have here with Olympian Shani Davis, Chicago Bear Julius Peppers and actor/writer Harold Ramis, whom I recall was in Ghostbusters, among other high brow epics, where the version of Caesar’s famous short war description, “I came, I saw…” was offered with, “We came, we saw, we kicked (butt).”

It was no kicking this time as the Bulls didn’t fall behind by 25 like in Memphis and Dallas, and might have stolen one instead of losing their 10th straight and falling to 31-37 if they could have made some jumpers.

Beware the Ides of March?

Heck, beware all of March as the Bulls haven’t won yet this month.

Murray, Hinrich and Pargo were a combined 13 for 44 and two of 16 on threes, and the Bulls really didn’t have a chance with that.

The Bulls defense was sharper, they moved the ball better and broke that streak of giving up at least 100 points in 12 straight games.

“It is frustrating,” repeated Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.  “Our guys battled.  Taj was solid and we got some good performances.  We just did not make enough shots.  In the first half, we had some fast break opportunities but we were just a little bit out of control.  At the end of the game we were not able to knock some shots down and we had some turnovers.  They put pressure on you with LeBron at the elbow.  You have to double if he gets it going and you have to make someone else beat you.  That’s when they hit the three or somebody is on the glass.”

The Bulls were outrebounded 53-41, no surprise lately without Noah, though they had about half as many turnovers and 20 assists to 16 for the Cavs. The Bulls also had a large margin on points in the paint.

It probably was a game to give Acie Law more time, and not only because he averaged 20 points the last two games on 13 of 19 shooting, especially with Pargo and Murray firing blanks.

I’m not a huge fan of the plus/minus stat in basketball. But the Bulls made the best run late with Law, Chris Richard and Hakim Warrick in the game in the fourth, and Law was the only Bull in the game to finish with a plus/minus higher than zero. He was plus-3 and the next best were Johnson and Warrick both minus-1.

Also, I wanted to see more of Joe Alexander, who came in late in the first quarter to go against James. He stripped James of the ball for one of James’ five turnovers leading to a Law runout for free throws, and never got back in after his 24-second stint, one of the best ever, at least on defense.

Del Negro is just trying things now, so it’s easy to second guess when guys don’t make shots. But you could see Murray and Pargo weren’t going to get it back on this night.

But we’ll start to see less of them now with both Rose and Noah saying after the game they’ll play Saturday in Philadelphia. They were also planning a late arrival as the team’s plane broke down and with so many college games going on there wasn’t another charter to find. The players usually dress quickly before a road game on a back to back, but were lingering as the takeoff time was announced at 1 a.m., hopefully. It would be an early morning arrival.

“I’ve got to play through it,” said Rose. “Basically be a right handed player. I’ll fight through it. It’s going to feel weird, but I’ll make the adjustment. I think I’ll do fine. I’m mad I missed this big game, but hopefully we can get the eight (playoff) spot and play them every game.

“We’re getting closer (to winning),” said Rose. “We’re fighting back. Now we’ve got to find a way to win these games.”

Noah said he was given a choice in the back to back by team doctors of playing one of two and he chose the 76ers’ game, which starts a run of games in which the Bulls, theoretically, have better odds of winning.

The Bulls looked like they had a surprising chance Friday as Gibson came out strong, and the only problem was teammates taking long jumpers even at times he had big advantages in the post, especially against Leon Powe, who was dragging his leg returning from injury.

Gibson, who also has a severe case of plantar fasciitis, has been a revelation the way he continues to compete.

“It’s inflamed,” acknowledged Gibson. “The doctor said some players play with it. He said (I’m) playing a lot of minutes and playing where the team looks to (me). So I’m just going to have to fight through it. He said with the ice and treatment so far it’s been doing well. Don’t worry. I’m not going to sit out. If it tears, that’s a positive because I’ll never have it again.

“They said after the season I’ll probably get rid of it,” said Gibson. “It takes time. They told me some guys can deal with it and (I’ve) been dealing with it and fighting through it and I don’t need to sit down now with the stretch starting now. The last couple of games could be like the East playoffs. I’m not going to sit out. I care about this team. The coaching staff. I’m not going to let them down. I’m going to keep fighting. It’s tough because I feel the coaching staff has been geat. Vinny talks to me all the time, pushes me, tells me no letdown. That’s the way players get better. It’s a tough stretch but we’ll keep fighting.”

The Bulls did Friday, though they fell behind 54-46 at halftime despite some strong moves from Johnson, who also drew the unenviable job of defending James. Though James did back off some early to let his teammates get going.

“I was trying to make him a shooter,” said Johnson. “Trying not to let him drive anywhere he wanted to. But if we give the same effort we did tonight we’re going to win.”

The Bulls had perhaps the best defensive stretch in this 10-game losing run in the third quarter, though James had one of those highlight come-from-behind blocks against a fast breaking Hinrich. Johnson had one as well in the fourth in addition to a beauty of a reverse layup on the run and slam dunk as the Bulls got within 69-65 after three.

But in the euphoria of a close game, Johnson got caught up in trying to go against James with one-on-one moves after James’ scores in the fourth. Thus the turnovers.

“That was not the plan,” said Del Negro.  “It’s not the way you want to go about that.  I thought a couple of times our ball movement got a little stagnant.  You have to have good ball movement.  When it came down to it we turned the ball over too many times and we did not make them pay for their close-outs. James has to control his turnovers.  Those are the things we have to work through.  From a positive standpoint, it is giving them an opportunity to learn.”

But did we learn anything about LeBron and his plans?

“I’m here,” James said in deferring a cloying query about would be please join the Bulls. “They can see me until I catch the plane.”

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