CLEVELAND -- To say the Cleveland Cavaliers are overlooking their first-round opponent, the Chicago Bulls, wouldn't be accurate. The Cavaliers respect the young, scrappy Bulls team that beat them twice in the regular season -- albeit in the first week when the Cleveland newcomers were still adjusting and late when LeBron James was resting up for the playoffs.
|Shaquille O'Neal was back in the starting lineup and scores 12 points with five boards. (US Presswire)|
Shaquille O'Neal's words from his first news conference in town last summer after being traded to the Cavaliers still is the mantra for the team: "It's time for the King to get a ring."
The King being James, who still can taste some of the bitterness from last year's loss in the Eastern Conference finals to the Orlando Magic in six games.
"We're a confident bunch," James said after the Cavaliers, despite some late sloppiness, posted a 96-83 victory over the Bulls in Game 1 at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday.
"Our only goal right now is to win an NBA championship. That's long term. Short term is for us to continue to get better every day and continue to get better every game in each series.
"We have the look of a champion. We have a couple of guys that have rings on this team, Shaq has four and Leon [Powe] has one. We have a couple of coaches that have won NBA championships. We're looking forward to the challenge. This is why we're here and this is what we prepared for."
There was some speculation that the Cavaliers might be a bit rusty in Game 1 because James sat out the last four games after the best record in the NBA was clinched. But they had a 16-point lead just 10 minutes into the game and made the Bulls appear as if they were a bit rusty.
The lead was 22 points (68-46) early in the third quarter before Cleveland went scoreless for more than seven minutes to allow the Bulls to get back in the game -- at least on the scoreboard.
Recap: Cavaliers 96, Bulls 83
This was a game the Cavaliers were never in danger of losing, but the bad stretch at least will give coach Mike Brown something to focus on in the film session before Game 2 on Monday.
"I thought that throughout the course of the game we played pretty good basketball except for one lull in the third where we started to turn the ball over," Brown said. "Other than that, I thought it was a good win, a good win to build on."
By his illustrious standards, LeBron James had a so-so game with 24 points (9-for-19 shooting), six rebounds, five assists and four blocks, but he didn't need to be great on Saturday for his team to win.
The most encouraging aspect of the game for the Cavaliers was the play of their big men. It was the first time Brown has had all of the big men at his disposal in a long time because O'Neal was playing his first game in seven weeks following thumb surgery.
O'Neal, starting at center, had modest numbers (12 points, five rebounds), but appeared agile -- he reportedly dropped 20 pounds during his absence -- and dominated the paint while he was in there.
Antawn Jamison (15 points, 10 rebounds) started at power forward, which allowed Anderson Varejao (eight points, 15 rebounds) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to come off the bench. The rotation frustrated the Bulls and allowed the Cavaliers to post a 50-38 rebounding edge.
"That's something that we've been looking forward to all season, seeing how the size we play differs between last year in the postseason and this year," James said. "We have a lot of size and we have a lot of depth in the frontcourt and it showed today."
Of course, the Cavaliers acquired O'Neal with one opponent in mind -- the Magic and center Dwight Howard. The fact that O'Neal looks physically up to the challenge is encouraging for everyone wearing Cavaliers colors. At 38, O'Neal concedes he's not the dominant force he once was, but doesn't have to be because that's James' job.
"He's the unanimous MVP this year," O'Neal said of James. "He plays at a high level and does a great job of leading the team. Quite frankly, I'm impressed that a guy that's so young has the knowledge and the know-how to keep everyone together.
"I'm one of those unorthodox CEOs who's been hired as a consultant. This is LeBron's corporation. I'm a guy that's been there and done that. Whenever he needs advice, he has [me]."
So far, it seems to be a good business plan." John Jackson covers the NBA for the Chicago Sun-Times.