CHICAGO -- There was less than a minute remaining in the first quarter of Sunday's Game 4 when LeBron James first let his irritation show.
When you're LeBron James, irritation manifests itself by spotting an opening in the lane, bulldozing through it and then pumping your fist furiously before your feet hit the ground following your resounding slam.
The basket would only expand Cleveland's lead to five points, and it would take more than halfway through the second quarter for James' annoyance to take root and spread to the rest of his team. But by the third quarter, it was positively ugly, both the Cavs' level of impatience and the Bulls' response, as Cleveland outscored the home team 39-15 in one nine-minute span to turn a three-point deficit into a 23-point lead. And turn a tease into a rout.
If the Cavs do go on to win the NBA title, it may well be said that the official start of the championship march began here on Sunday, when James and his teammates said, "Enough's enough." When the team with the league's best regular-season record appeared to definitively shake loose from the club with the 19th-best, defeating the Bulls 121-98 before a subdued United Center crowd to take a 3-1 series lead.
"We just got fed up," said Cavs forward Antawn Jamison, who complemented James' 37 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists with 24 points on his usual array of scoops, flips and jumpers.
From afar, you might be tempted to ascribe this Bulls' loss as another example of the inconsistent play that has plagued them this season. And Joakim Noah, who became the first Bulls player to hit 20 points and 20 rebounds in a playoff game with his 21 and 20, said he hated the way the entire team became discouraged when the bottom began to fall out in the second and third quarters.
"We have to be tougher in that area," Noah said. "When things aren't going well, we have to find a way to get stops and play our game. That's where I think a major problem was. When things weren't going our way everybody, from players to staff, had their heads down and it just wasn't a good look, especially playing in front of our home crowd.
"To have a performance like this in this kind of game is disappointing."
At the same time, when James -- oh yeah, with a sore right elbow -- hits a 43-footer to close the third quarter with just a little more effort than you or I might use to reach into the overhead compartment and retrieve our carry-on, inconsistency and toughness are not the problems.
"I can comfortably shoot that shot from probably half court and beyond," James said without a hint of arrogance. "It's a regular jump shot. For me. It is."
"This is just what the man is capable of doing," Cleveland coach Mike Brown said of James' triple-double. "This was a good performance by him, but I don't know if you could call it one of his best in the playoffs."
The Bulls were lucky to be down only 10 at the half after a miserable close to the second quarter, resorting almost exclusively to jumpers under the Cavs' racheted-up pressure, and finishing with six turnovers (after committing 12 total in the last two games). They also allowed James, defended by Bulls rookie James Johnson, and Jamison to combine for 16 points in the final four minutes.
And any possibility for a Bulls comeback was squelched when they allowed an albeit tough Cavs defense to completely shut them down without a field goal for the first four minutes of the third quarter.
"We probably took some quick shots," said Kirk Hinrich, who followed up his 27-point Game 3 performance with 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting. "We shot 37 percent, they shot 53 and they scored 37 in the third quarter. That's just not a good formula to win."
"We just kind of forced our will on the game," James said.
The Cavs meant business, having James return to the court (when the Bulls shaved the deficit to 19) three minutes into the fourth quarter to restore things back to blowout status after it looked as if he might be through for the day. Three James 3-pointers later, and his job was done.
If the Cavs have not demoralized the Bulls, James surely has. More than one Bulls player offered awkward pauses when asked to describe James' performance Sunday, or the feeling they had watching it. Luol Deng, who had 16 points on 7-of-17 shooting with four rebounds, answered simply, "I don't know" when asked about James and turned his back on the interviewer, thus effectively answering the question-and-answer session.
"If LeBron is going to have 40," said Noah, "we've got to find a way to slow down [Jamison and Mo Williams, who finished with 19 points]."
Derrick Rose, who finished with 21 points on 9-of-20 shooting and five assists, insisted his confidence would not be affected for Tuesday's game in Cleveland. But the Bulls will surely need more than that.
"Game 5 is going to be a huge test for us," James said. "Are we going to close this team out or let them hang around?"
Either way, he didn't sound too worried.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.