I've seen this game. I saw it March 28, 1990 in Cleveland. I saw it May 1, 1988 against Cleveland. I saw Nov. 3, 1989 against Cleveland. I saw it Dec. 17, 1987 against Cleveland. And I especially saw it—as Craig Ehlo did—in May of 1989 when Michael Jordan cleared everyone out of the way, and then coach Lenny Wilkens sacrificed Ehlo to history as Jordan hit his first true NBA BIG SHOT as the Bulls effectively began their playoff march that would conclude in six championships.
Twenty three times—wouldn't you know it, 23—Jordan scored at least 40 points in games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, taking over down the stretch, hitting remarkably unlikely shots and leaving defenders bewildered.
"The end of the game when he's feeling his jump shot like that," Luol Deng said of LeBron James, "he's a tough cover. We played hard and I thought we played well and together. There were a lot of teams we could have beat tonight if they did not have that one guy."
Saturday wasn't a night to bemoan the loss for perhaps three months of Bulls point guard Kirk Hinrich or that Drew Gooden was out with a sprained ankle or that the team actually now needs Larry Hughes to return from his dislocated shoulder or that the Bulls had a 10-point lead in the third quarter but lost 106-97 to the Cavaliers as LeBron James again had 41 points.
(I always smile thinking about dislocated shoulders, though less for the pain than John Starks. I remember when Starks had the injury and always said it was "discolated," even when someone would correct him. He's not really dumb, but it is a funny word. It made me think about dancing to Saturday Night Fever when he talked about it. Now that would really be funny. Sorry for the digression).
Anyway, Saturday was a night to marvel over James, and occasionally wonder just why the Bulls weren't trapping James all over the court to see if someone else could make a shot. We used to quiz Wilkens about that all the time as he was on the way to the most coaching wins in NBA history. Lenny used to sigh with the unspoken thought bubble of, "OK wise guy, you figure something out."
"He picks you apart and then other guys get involved and the ball moves," said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. "We tried doubling him sometimes. We tried to go over, under. But he was shooting the ball well from the perimeter. That's what star players do. They make plays for their team to win and that's what he did tonight. You try to keep him out of the middle as best you can. He's so strong and powerful. It's so easy to talk about. We had success sometimes, but not on a consistent basis. You have to do a better job."
"Once I get in a zone it doesn't matter whether I get doubled or tripled," said James. "They brought the double a couple of times. They play me like other teams. They play me to go under the pick and rolls and I was shooting outside tonight. I accepted the challenge. The fourth quarter is when I make my name."
I probably would have trapped him more, but who knows. The Cavs actually were trapping Ben Gordon much of the fourth quarter, driving him far to the right. Sometimes Gordon would make a hard jumper, but it's more difficult at his size, and he pitched the ball away a few times. He did score 29 to lead the Bulls with Deng adding 20 and Derrick Rose with 17 and nine assists. But Gordon missed three of his last five attempts with a turnover.
James was mouth opening fabulous.
It was fairly clear he was going to win the game or go down on his own as he also had 13 rebounds, but just four assists.
The Bulls, as Deng suggested, did play well.
Joakim Noah, starting the second half for Aaron Gray, threw off his early season lethargy again, Andres Nocioni hit four threes as he plays off Rose well and Tyrus Thomas had six offensive rebounds of the team's impressive 17 and three blocks. Thomas is head shaking to watch. Early in the game, he bit on a pump fake of Ben Wallace, yes Ben Wallace, and jumped up and fouled him and then goaltended a shot after a foul call and the ball was falling on the side of the basket. Then he was on James after a switch and down in a good defensive stance and peeking up at the clock with a veteran's savvy to see it was almost down to zero and forced James into a wild miss and then hustled down a Rose miss Rodmanesque with everyone standing flatfooted to send it back to Nocioni for a three.
The Cavs looked like they were going to put the game away leading 96-87 with 4:20 left. But Nocioni hustled full court to block a Daniel Gibson breakaway and then got the ball back to hit a three.
"We played hard," said Deng. "Everyone can see it compared to last year. We're fighting."
Gordon then knocked down a pair of jumpers to get within 96-94 with just over two minutes left when it was Michael Time.
Yes, yes No. 23, LeBron.
He faced up Deng and drained a three pointer, Gordon drove and was fouled, making one of two, and then James faded left as Deng ducked under a screen and James hit another three for a 102-96 Cavs lead with 1:28 left.
Rose drove and was fouled, making one, and then James was fouled, made both as he had 16 points in the fourth quarter, and that was pretty much it, the second time in a week the Cavs beat the Bulls with James scoring 41 in each game.
"Everytime you look up, he hits a key shot," said Ehlo, err Gordon.
"He ain't showed me nothing yet," joked Ben Wallace in the visitor's locker room as reporters marveled over James.
"I always try to take what the defense gives me," said James. "Tonight was a prime example of that. I was able to find some creases and get to my comfort. I felt really good."
Geez. He's even sounding like Jordan now.
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.