While a lineup change put a stop to the Chicago Bulls’ pick-and-roll game, a headband-clad LeBron James went from feeling things out in the opener to dominating Game 2 for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With Cleveland’s J.R. Smith now available but Iman Shumpert’s status unclear, the onus is on the Bulls to respond with their own adjustments Friday night when the Eastern Conference semifinals shift to the United Center.
After confessing he’d been too passive in a Game 1 defeat, James relentlessly attacked Chicago’s defense Wednesday. He finished with 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists as Cleveland never trailed in a 106-91 win.
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The four-time MVP scored 15 of his playoff-high point total on 13 drives in Game 2 after he had seven points on 14 drives Monday. He also went 7 for 9 from the foul line after getting to the stripe twice in Game 1.
”There wasn’t one possession where he wasn’t dominant,” said Kyrie Irving, who added 21 points. ”When he has that mindset, he’s the greatest player playing our game right now.”
Much was made of the fact that James went back to his signature headband, which the superstar had ditched since a March 7 game against Phoenix.
It’s a good bet it’ll be back on Friday when the Central Division champions attempt to regain home-court advantage. James totaled 67 points as Cleveland split two visits to the United Center during the regular season, though he had eight turnovers as the Cavs played without Kevin Love there in a February defeat.
Chicago’s Jimmy Butler, who’s spending most of his time guarding James in this series, did not play in either of those meetings. The All-Star guard, named the NBA’s Most Improved Player on Thursday, led the Bulls with 18 points in Game 2 but shot 5 of 14.
"I have to man up and take the challenge," Butler told the team’s official website. "LeBron was aggressive, but I wasn’t aggressive enough. I was counting too much on help being there, which is on me. I will be better."
Smith could give the Bulls something else to worry about after serving a two-game suspension for striking Boston’s Jae Crowder. He’s averaged 17.3 points while hitting 15 of 31 from 3-point range in three games against Chicago after joining the Cavaliers.
Shumpert has totaled 37 points and made 8 of 17 from beyond the arc in this series, though coach David Blatt says the team needs a little more time before knowing if he’ll play after Shumpert strained his groin Wednesday.
With Love done for the playoffs, Blatt seemed to make the right move in Game 2 by pairing Tristan Thompson with James in the frontcourt instead of Mike Miller.
Pau Gasol went 8 for 9 on shots with no defender within four feet en route to 21 points in Game 1, but didn’t have the same looks Wednesday when he scored 11 and went 1 for 3 in those situations.
Derrick Rose, who has shot a combined 9 for 34 in his last two home games, looks to regroup after he finished with 14 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds while missing 14 of 20 shots Wednesday. He only has four points on 17 drives in the series and hasn’t attempted a free throw since Game 5 against Milwaukee.
Irving had 27 points on 24 drives and has been to the line 21 times.
”If they’re not calling it, they’re not calling it,” Rose said. ”I can’t worry about that.”
The Bulls are focused on improving defensively after allowing a playoff-high regulation point total and 12-of-26 shooting from beyond the arc. They had given up 89.0 points per game and held opponents to 29.6 from long distance over their previous seven.
"I know our fans are waiting, the city’s just waiting for us to come back there and it should be another exciting game," Rose added. "Hopefully we play some defense."