CLEVELAND — The headband returned. The aggressiveness, dunks and dazzling plays all came back, too.
LeBron James rarely has two sub-par games in a row, especially in the playoffs.
James attacked from the start and scored 33 points, Kyrie Irving added 21 and the Cleveland Cavaliers evened their semifinal series with Chicago, beating the Bulls 106-91 in Game 2 on Wednesday night.
Donning his signature headband for the first time in two months and powering to the basket, James kept the Cavs from falling into a 2-0 hole. He added eight rebounds and five assists for Cleveland, which led by 25 in the third quarter and withstood a third-quarter charge by the Bulls.
For the second straight game, the Cavs were without forward Kevin Love (shoulder surgery) and J.R. Smith (two-game suspension). But they had James and he was more like himself after a sub-par performance in the opener.
“We’re a little banged up, we’re short-handed, so I have to be aggressive,” James said. “Even more aggressive than my usual self, and I was happy I was able to make a couple of plays to help our team win tonight.”
Jimmy Butler scored 18 and Derrick Rose had 14 points and 10 assists for the Bulls, who host Game 3 on Friday night. Pau Gasol added 11 points — 10 fewer than Game 1, when he destroyed the Cavs on uncontested jumpers.
Iman Shumpert added 15 points, James Jones made five 3-pointers and Tristan Thompson added 12 rebounds for Cleveland. Thompson started at power forward in Love’s spot, allowing James to move back to his usual role at small forward. On the perimeter is where James is most dangerous and he made it clear from the outset that he wasn’t going to stand around and wait for the game to come to him.
The Cavs burst to a 13-2 lead and led by 22 in the first quarter.
“They smashed us,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
The Bulls used a 14-0 run to get within 11 in the third quarter, but Jones hit consecutive 3s and James scored twice near the basket to put Cleveland up by 16 going into the fourth.
James arrived at Quicken Loans Arena at around 4 p.m., three hours before tip-off. As if there needed to be another sign of the game’s importance to Cleveland this was it, as the superstar typically gets to the arena for a home game around 90 minutes before the start.
“Maybe he wanted to beat the traffic,” quipped Cavs coach David Blatt. “Knowing him, it was something else.”
It sure was.
Back in his familiar headband after ditching it since March 7, and with an all-business look from the time he took the floor for warmups, James came out as aggressively as he promised.
He scored 14 points in the first quarter and got to the free-throw line five times, three more than in Monday’s 99-92 loss. James, who went just 9 of 22 from the field in Game 1, set the tone and his teammates followed.
“That’s what a leader of the team is supposed to do,” Rose said. “Everybody on the team followed right behind him.”
Love visited his teammates in the locker room before the game, and he joined them on the bench in the second quarter. Moments after Love, wearing a sling on his left arm, waved to the crowd, James delivered one of those plays only he can make. He burst down the left side of the lane and delivered a right-handed dunk over Butler, who did a marvelous job defending the four-time league MVP in Game 1.
But this wasn’t the same James or the same Cavs.
Bulls: Not everyone was thrilled with James’ fashion choice. “I don’t care about no headband,” Butler said. “He’s a great player, headband or not.” … The Bulls are now 21-8 this season with their “A” lineup: Rose, Gasol, Butler, Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy.
Cavaliers: Reserve G Matthew Dellavedova added nine points and nine assists. … Smith will return for Game 3, but the way Shumpert is playing, there’s no guarantee he’ll have his starting job back. … James (1,059) moved into a tie with Tony Parker on the career post-season assists list. He’s two away from catching Steve Nash (1,061).
Shumpert left in the third quarter with a strained left groin that could be serious. After riding a stationary bike, he returned to the floor but Blatt indicated the injury could limit him.
“Time for one of those miracle-48-hour recoveries,” Blatt said. “That’s what we’re hoping for.”
Rose has not attempted a free throw in three straight playoff games, dating to Game 6 against Milwaukee.
He didn’t have any excuses and didn’t want to discuss whether or not he’s getting calls.
“If they’re not calling it, they’re not calling it,” he said. “I can’t worry about that.”
Thibodeau was careful not to critizcize the officiating when asked what Rose needs to do to get to the line.
“I guess he’s got to go harder, I don’t know,” he said. “It looked like there was a lot of contact to me. Others didn’t see it that way.”
Tom Withers, The Associated Press