Another game for the Cavaliers, another night spent trying to claw back from an early, double-digit deficit against an Eastern Conference opponent picked to finish near the bottom of the standings.
But unlike Saturday, when the Cavs fell down by as many 37 points en route to an embarrassing loss to the Orlando Magic, Cleveland improved to 3-1 on Tuesday, thanks to another brilliant night out of LeBron James (34 points and 13 assists) in a 119-112 win over the Chicago Bulls.
The action began for the Cavs before they trailed by as many as 14 in the first quarter Tuesday. An expected one-for-one lineup swap, with JR Smith starting and Dwyane Wade going to the bench, became an all-out starter shuffle, with Tristan Thompson returning to the first five at center to combat the Bulls’ Robin Lopez and James assuming point guard duties alongside a frontcourt of Jae Crowder and Kevin Love. Derrick Rose (ankle) and Isaiah Thomas (hip) remained sidelined.
It was a notable night for James. Not only did he tie Zydrunas Ilgauskas for the most regular-season games played in Cavs franchise history (771), but he also added to his stature as the only active player to put up 20-plus points and 10-plus assists at four starting positions, according to ESPN Stats & Information. James has done that 141 times at small forward, six times at power forward, one time at shooting guard and now six times at point guard, including Tuesday.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always learned every position on the floor,” James said. “When I started playing ball, for some odd reason, I could learn every single position on the floor all at one time: the point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center. And [I] know all the plays, what they’re doing and what’s the reads. And to this day, obviously, still if …
Coach slides me to the 1, I know every set. If he slides me to the 5, I know the 5. I know the 4, I know the 3, I know the 2. I know every single play in every single position, so it makes the job a lot easier for me because I know where I should be and what my teammates should do.”
James called his own number early Tuesday, scoring 12 of the Cavs’ 28 first-quarter points, but that effort was necessary to keep Cleveland in the game, with Chicago hitting five of its 17 3-pointers in the opening quarter.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was “heated” during his halftime speech, one team source told ESPN. Lue briefly praised the bench and then challenged Cleveland’s starters to up their effort, another source said. Asked just how heated Lue was, the source said, “For the fourth game of the season, I’d say about a six out of 10.”
“Defensively, we’ve got to get better,” Lue said afterward. “We play teams like this that move around a lot, playing hard, younger guys. We’ve got to do a better job of respecting these guys. Until we do, we’re going to get off to slow starts and be in dogfights every single night.
We can’t continue to start games the way we’ve been starting them. Thank God for our bench tonight, which was great. But we’ve got to be better. Seventeen 3s again where guys are just looking at us, staring us down and raising for shots. We talked about making the guys put the ball on the floor, and we didn’t learn our lesson. I mean, 17 3s again. You’re not going to win many games like that.”
James distributed as the game wore on and kept the Cavs in it. Cleveland finally tied the score on a wide-open Crowder 3 with 9:33 to go in the third quarter, after James found him with a flick-of-the-wrist, cross-court feed. That sparked a 12-0 run that gave Cleveland control.
James’ passing opened up the Cavs’ shooting. They went 16-for-38 (42.1 percent) from deep against the Bulls, with four players — James (4-for-6), Love (3-for-7), Crowder (3-for-7) and Kyle Korver (3-for-6) — hitting three or more triples. This after Cleveland shot just 23-for-73 (31.5 percent) from 3 in its first three games.
Love continued his steady season with 20 points and 12 rebounds, and the Cavs’ bench outscored Chicago’s reserves 46-34, with Channing Frye (eight points on 3-for-3 shooting) cracking the rotation again. Wade got it going in his new role — 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting and four assists — and had easily his finest game as a Cavalier. Smith still struggled, shooting 1-for-8 for three points, but he added four boards and four dimes.
The Cavs finish their back-to-back Wednesday in Brooklyn. With Rose already ruled out with his sprained left ankle and the Nets starting former Cleveland center Timofey Mozgov in the middle, Lue said he would stick with the same starting lineup against the Nets as well as Saturday against DeMarcus Cousins and the New Orleans Pelicans.
“We’ll see how it works out, but for these two games next, for sure,” Lue said.