CLEVELAND – It was all the way back in October, 10 days before the Cleveland Cavaliers threw a LeBron James homecoming party that somehow included a loss to the New York Knicks, that the Cavs and the Chicago Bulls played a totally meaningless and easily forgettable preseason game at Ohio State University.
After that game, James was asked about seeing the Bulls again, but not in the context of the teams playing a regular-season game the following week in Chicago. The question was about the Bulls being an established playoff team and the Cavs potentially seeing them down the road.
In the playoffs, for example.
James was dismissive, but it was a legitimate question. Derrick Rose was healthy and explosive that night in Columbus, Pau Gasol was brought in to give the Bulls an offensive dimension previous Bulls teams didn’t have and the Cavaliers with James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love seemed a lock to make the Eastern Conference playoffs, possibly as a favorite.
"We haven’t done anything," James said then. "They are a team that is much better than us right now, (much better) chemistry. We have a long way to go."
It was a fair answer.
The Cavs, who had been practicing together for three weeks at the time, started Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao that night. Lou Amundson made an appearance off the bench, too; Amundson and Waiters were later moved in separate trades that brought the Cavs J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov following Varejao’s season-ending injury. Love was lost for the season late last month in a playoff series-clinching win in Boston.
So, the Cavs are much different. But something else James said that night sounded familiar in the aftermath of Game 2 of the Cavs-Bulls series that’s going on now, one that plenty of people saw coming even back in October.
"I think every practice, every film session, every game will continue to help our chemistry, help us continue to improve, know what we like, dislike out on the floor," James said then.
And here’s what he said after the Cavs evened the series Wednesday night: "Like I continue to say, every day, every game, every shootaround, every practice, every film session is just a great learning experience."
"We’ve played six playoff games together," James said. "We’re probably the least experienced team out of the eight teams (still playing). But one thing about this team, we love the opportunity we have in front of us and we just try not to take it for granted. We go out and play hard, and when you play hard, you can be satisfied. Whatever happens, happens.
"It’s a one-game-at-a-time mindset."
The Cavs are still learning, growing, adjusting on the fly in the aftermath of Love’s injury and a two-game suspension for Smith, who’s eligible to return for Game 3 on Friday night. The Bulls never trailed in Game 1 of the series, dominating with Rose, Gasol and Jimmy Butler leading the way. The Cavs never trailed in Game 2 as James asserted himself early and got plenty of help.
The Cavs get Smith back, but Shumpert is trying to battle through a groin injury. It’s possible the Cavs will have their third different starting lineup of the series in Game 3. A lot can happen, as James knows — and knew back in October. Every game brings a new story and a new challenge.
"We avoided being down 0-2," James said. "I think those guys (the Bulls) feel good about their situation being able to split (in Cleveland), now they have two on their home floor. I’ve been in that situation. It’s a tough place to play. Those guys feed off their crowd.
"I think we have a very confident group. We’re so young, guys don’t even know — they don’t even know what it would have been like to go down 0-2. They have no idea. We prepared for Game 2 like we prepared for Game 1. It was a very upbeat practice we had. A very upbeat shootaround.
"Kyrie, Tristan (Thompson), (Matthew) Dellavedova, they just love to play ball. They don’t know. They just love to play ball."
The next team to win three games advances to the Eastern Conference finals. The Bulls have been through playoff series, through adversity, through stealing games on the opponent’s floor and getting them stolen at home. The Cavs are feeling their way through, changing as they go, maybe just getting good as the stakes get higher.
Are the Cavs good enough to keep winning? We’ll see.
"Just as good as we were (in Game 2)," James said, "we have to be even better on Friday night."