Commentary

Cavaliers finish off pesky Bulls

Originally Published: April 27, 2010
By Chris Broussard | ESPN The Magazine

CLEVELAND -- Maybe, bored with these Bulls and sick of the small fries, they were looking ahead to the Celtics. Maybe they figured Sunday's demolition had zapped Chicago of its resolve and that bringing their A-game wasn't a must. Heck, maybe they were just hanging out late Monday night, doing the "Stanky Legg" for kicks and giggles at some Cleveland hot spot.

Whatever the case, in Game 5 on Tuesday, the Cavaliers looked nothing like the world-beaters their 61-win regular season suggests they are. A bit nonchalant, a bit sloppy, and perhaps even a bit too cavalier, they made this close-out game much tougher than it had to be. But on a bad night, they had enough to get past the pesky Bulls, winning 96-94 to dismiss Chicago 4-1 in their first round-series.

Now, it's on to Boston, that roster of proud old heads who are determined to make one last run for the ring before bowing at the feet of age and attrition. The second-round series everyone wants to see begins Saturday at The Q.

"We're looking forward to it," LeBron James said. We knew at some point we were going to have to face this team and we're happy it's now."

James, as always, was the big story, but not because of another triple-double (although he nearly had one with 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists). There's something freaky going on with his right elbow and the injury became a factor Tuesday night.

With 7.8 seconds left and the Cavs clinging to a 95-92 lead, he stepped to the foul line for two shots. He shot the first one normally, draining it with his right hand to push the margin to four. But with more than a one-possession cushion, he decided to shoot the second free throw with his left hand to avoid aggravating the painful elbow.

After the Bulls called a timeout following the foul shots, James walked to the bench wincing and holding his arm.

An MRI and X-rays taken two days ago revealed no structural damage, and James said it "feels like when you hit your funny bone and it kind of numbs up for a little bit," adding that the pain comes and goes sporadically yet on a daily basis.

But he said he's not overly concerned about the injury, that he'll play through it, and that at the most important time of the season, he's not making any excuses.

"I don't like to harp on injuries," said James, who has had the pain for a few weeks. "I hate it. I don't want nobody to feel sorry for me. I don't like that. So if I'm on the court, I'm healthy."

James was actually more aggressive when the elbow started bothering him in the second half. In the first half, he was more playmaker than scorer, taking only three shots in recording three points, five assists and four rebounds.

Yet the Cavs looked fine at that point, building a 55-48 halftime lead on the strength of ball movement and Antawn Jamison. They notched 15 assists on 22 baskets, and Jamison was the recipient of several of the nice feeds as he scored 20 of his 25 points before intermission.

But the third quarter is often the Cavs' Kryptonite, and it beat them down like Lex Luther on steroids Tuesday night.

Appearing almost disinterested, they missed 15 of 21 shots and got manhandled on the glass. James shot an air ball and got his pocket picked near half court by 6-foot-11 Bulls center Joakim Noah. Cavs guard Anthony Parker took a turnaround 3 from the right corner that wound up hitting the side of the backboard. And point guard Derrick Rose continued treating the Cavs' defense like a collection of traffic cones, weaving his way around the court in scoring nine of his game-high 31 points.

But there were a few bright spots amidst the dysfunction. Shaquille O'Neal rebounded from three straight poor performances to produce 14 points and eight rebounds while getting the Bulls in foul trouble. He attributed his improved play to the fact that the sprained right thumb that kept him out the final two months of the regular season finally feels normal.

"I'm just glad I've got my thumbs back," he said. "For six weeks, I couldn't even wipe my furniture. You need your thumbs. Your thumbs are very, very important."

Even bigger than O'Neal was Delonte West. Forget a spark, he provided a burning blaze off the bench, recording 16 points and four assists in a hustle-filled performance.

Don't let the length of this series fool you. Chicago gave Cleveland a fight, a fight the Cavs were happy to endure. Wary of easy early-round foes after last year's first- and second-round sweeps went for naught, they want to thank the Bulls for testing them.

James actually said the Cavs were hoping to meet Chicago in the first round rather than the hapless Toronto Raptors, precisely because the Bulls would battle them.

"We knew this team would push us," James said. "That's not taking anything away from Toronto, but with [Chris] Bosh being out for the rest of the season and all those injuries, it just didn't seem like they even wanted to make the playoffs at the end of the season. So it probably would've ended up in that same way if we had played Toronto like it was last year.

"But when Chicago made the eighth seed, we were excited about that because we knew we had to be in tune every possession and every game because that team plays hard no matter the score, no matter the time and no matter what the series is."

Well, Boston certainly wanted to make the playoffs, so the Cavaliers better be in tune at all times, even in the third quarter, even if James' elbow starts aching.