Save for a few LeBron James jumpers that answered the
Bulls' ill-timed verbal challenges late in Game 2, the only half-interesting stories in the Eastern Conference playoffs before Thursday night were Joakim Noah's war of words with the city of Cleveland and the Orlando Magic not even bothering to practice the day before their Game 2 punking of Charlotte.
Now, we have a series.
And not just a series in that both the
Cavs and Bulls are now in the win column, and/or that each team has reasons to believe it can win Sunday's crucial Game 4.
Now, we have Derrick Rose taking over games to the point that James decides he needs to guard him down the stretch.
Now, we have Noah not begging for attention from the public but becoming the series' dominant big man.
We have real reason to wonder if the Cavs just turned in a clunker Thursday night — or, maybe, if the Bulls have found some vulnerability in the league's best team.
We have Rose, who's all of 21, admitting he's flattered by James deciding enough was enough and calling his own defensive number. That call came in Game 3 because Rose was pretty much flattening the Cavs, scoring on a variety of drives and one-handed floaters that kept the Cavs at arm's length even though they'd clawed back from a deficit that was as big as 21 in the third quarter.
Rose had 31 points and seven assists without committing a single turnover in Game 3, and he made almost all of the Bulls' biggest plays.
James got 24 of his 39 in the second half as the Cavs came roaring back, but until the Cavs — and the circumstances — turned it into a scramble, he didn't have much help.
Even the Bulls missing free throws in the final minute and creating extra possessions (and chances) for the Cavs wasn't enough.
The Bulls earned this victory by shooting well early, completely dominating the first five minutes of the second half in building that lead and then getting clutch baskets from Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng late. The Cavs twice got within two points in the final five minutes but never did completely steal the momentum.
We have a series that's now swung darn near 180 degrees from Game 1, when the Cavs outsized and outmuscled what looked to be a feeble 8-seed.
On Thursday night, both teams went small in the fourth quarter with the
Cavaliers trying to find a combo that could both contain Rose on one end and score without James having to shoot an off-the-dribble jumper at the other.
The Cavs still had James, whom the Bulls still find darn near unguardable. But the Cavs had to go small, and they succeeded until Noah returned from foul trouble and joined Brad Miller in grabbing the rebounds that counted most.
Shaquille O'Neal played just 20 minutes and only seven in the second half. He was 2-for-8 from the field. Antawn Jamison scored 19 points and led the Cavs with 11 rebounds, but most of his numbers came once the Cavs went small for good with just over eight minutes to go.
Though James said he's "not concerned" about O'Neal's ineffectiveness as he shakes off the rust from a thumb injury that cost him seven weeks, he did say the Cavs need O'Neal "to pick up his play." James said he liked the small lineup that included himself and Jamison in the frontcourt with Anthony Parker, Delonte West and Mo Williams, but it's clear the Cavs need more from players besides James — no matter who they are.
Two hometown heroes and former No. 1 picks trading buckets and "wow" moves as Rose and James did Thursday night was good television.
But it's going to come down to the other guys if the Bulls are going to make this thing
really interesting, and they've put themselves in position to do just that Sunday. The Cavaliers' other four starters combined to shoot 18-for-48 in Game 3, and that number is even a tad inflated thanks to Williams throwing a couple in from very deep in the late-game scramble.
Those other Bulls guys were outclassed in Game 1. They were out-LeBroned in Game 2. They were huge here Thursday, with Hinrich going 4-for-4 from beyond the arc on the way to 27 points, Deng getting 20, Miller getting 10 and Noah seeming to be everywhere the Cavs didn't want him to be. He scored 10 points, grabbed 15 boards and blocked a pair of shots. His fifth foul early in the fourth quarter allowed the Cavs to get several easy layups with their small lineup, but his return clogged the lane.
"From the beginning of the series we felt like we could play with them," Noah said. "We handled our business tonight. We'll be ready to go again on Sunday."
"We know we have to play better than what we did tonight to beat these guys," Cavs coach Mike Brown said.
And now we know that — finally — there's at least one East series worth watching.