CHICAGO - Was it an early playoff?
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls - two franchises that are finally emerging from the rebuilt darkness - sit surprisingly close to the top of the wide-open Eastern Conference. Both seem to be coping with the off-season for the first time in a while. Both showed why Wednesday night - even though Chicago snatched Cleveland's five-game winning streak, 117-104.
The Cavaliers, who have not managed the off-season without LeBron James since 1998 and fell into oblivion after his departure for Los Angeles in the summer of 2018, got a small taste of what the end of April could be like if they continue on the same path and stay true against the identity they have established.
The filled building had the feel of a playoff atmosphere, with fans standing throughout the fourth quarter, clinging to every possession and breaking out after every big shot. The back-and-forth game felt like the kind that is also reserved for months from now. There were 11 leadership changes and five draws. It is expected with two of the best teams in the East.
Down nine as they went into the fourth quarter and trailed by 10 at the 7:22 mark, the Cavs kept scraping. Second-year swingman Isaac Okoro even had a chance to equalize with a couple of free throws about three minutes later. But Okoro split the pair, keeping Cleveland behind by one. The Cavs could not get any closer. MVP candidate DeMar DeRozan and powerful center Nikola Vucevic came through in the coupling for Chicago, putting an end to any hope of yet another Cleveland comeback.
The Bulls, who played without the usual starters Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball, ended the match with a run of 14-2.
DeRozan had a game-high 30 points, including eight in the fourth quarter. Vucevic added 24 points and 12 rebounds and overwhelmed Cleveland's All-Star aspiring opponent Jarrett Allen.
"He's a great player and played with a high sense of purpose," Bickerstaff said of DeRozan. "You give him credit tonight. I thought there were areas where we could have improved, but I tip the hat to him and all those guys. Vucevic is an All-Star and has been for a reason. When guys go out and win a game, give them credit for that. "
Lauri Markkanen, once considered a cornerstone of Chicago's reconstruction, sent a reminder of why. Markkanen delivered his best game since joining the Cavaliers in an offseason trade that created a unique look with high balls that have given opponents a fit. In his first appearance of the regular season in Chicago, back at the arena he called home in four years, Markkanen scored 28 points on 9-of-14 shots and 5-of-9 from 3-point range.
"It was good to see a few shots go down," Markkanen said. "Just try to stay aggressive. Even though I missed the last one, it was a good shot and you take it again and try to get a different result. It's fun to see the guys I've made a relationship with and attached to. a couple of years. Good to see the familiar faces and to see a pair of my jerseys in the crowd always feels good. A little different on the opposing team, but it was fun. "
Point guard Darius Garland had another double-double and scored 20 points left with 12 assists. The rising youngster had a brief injury scare early in the fourth quarter after a baseline collision with Malcolm Hill. Garland grabbed his left shoulder and walked to the bench in pain. During the timeout, Garland chatted with coach Steve Spiro and was able to stay in the game. A source tells cleveland.com that the first feeling is that Garland suffered from a sting feeling "OK" after.
Rookie Evan Mobley, who took advantage of a size mismatch, scored 18 points. This is his 13th match in a row with double digits.
"They really shrunk the paint and were just really trying to collapse on us," Mobley said of Chicago's strategy to combat the size disadvantage. "I feel like they did a good job with it. We just had to move the ball more, create rotations and then get it back in. That's something we can learn from that game."
About three months ago, the new Cavs preseason opened with a clunker in Chicago. Coach JB Bickerstaff called it their first lesson. The terrible night seemed like an ominous sign of the team's hopes of turning around. Only the Cavs used that loss. It helped them develop. Made them better. Cleveland is very different these days - a legitimate candidate after the season.
But on Wednesday night, they got another teaching moment thanks to Chicago. Their hope: This will have the same positive effect.
"It's an example of what it takes to win in this league," Bickerstaff said after the loss. "They are a really good team and they have really good players. To go away against a team that had lost four games in a row, they had to come out with that sense of purpose. Now is our chance to understand it and see if we can figure it out.We keep getting tested.But I trust our guys that every time we have been tested we have the answer.I bet we will continue with it. "
Backup point guard Rajon Rondo, who is put on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, did not accompany the team. Instead, Rondo was in Cleveland, practicing with the G League-affiliated Charge. Bickerstaff said the feedback from the Charge coaches was positive and that Rondo continues to make progress. The plan is for Rondo to train ahead of Saturday's match to see how his buttocks recover after increased exertion. If all goes well, Rondo may return this weekend.
The Cavs return home for a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder Saturday night. Tipoff is set for at. 20.00
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