Joakim Noah likes to talk. Joakim Noah likes to talk bad about LeBron James and Cleveland. Following their most recent spat last month the towering Frenchman licked his lips at the prospect of a playoff series with the biggest names in the East.
He declared: "If the opportunity presents itself and we can play Cleveland I would be very happy. We're confident... It would be really, really exciting. I hope it happens. "
Ahead of Monday night’s Game One of the Eastern Conference semi-finals James refused to be hauled into a verbal duel with his long-time rival. If anything, he tried to kill Noah with kindness.
He stated how he perceives Noah to be “a guy that you hate to compete against but if he' you're teammate, you probably, you love him”. While this is hardly “My bounty is as boundless as the sea”, it is a compliment dished out to a spiky character who feeds off hate.
James continued: “For us, it's not just Joakim, but he's one of their glue guys. He plays well, they play well, his energy, his effort, you love to watch him. As a competitor, you hate him, but it's all for the love of the game".
When the sides lined out for the series opener the combative pair were in direct competition, but nobody could dispute the game was won elsewhere.
The Bulls dominated proceedings in the first quarter; holding Cleveland’s offense to it’s lowest first quarter total of the season and dropping buckets as easily as a housewife throwing filthy clothes into a wash basket. Mike Dunleavy went 5-for-5 in the first half including 3 three-pointers as Chicago shot 67% from downtown to the Cavs’ 25%.
In retaliation for receiving a 1st quarter pounding, James and Kyrie Irving began bee lining toward the basket; Irving scoring ten consecutive points for the Cavs by racing around the Bulls’ presence in the paint before a series of neat finishes. In truth, this routine was a result of desperation for the Cavs as opposed to a designated source of success. They missed their lethal outside shooters Kevin Love (injury) and JR Smith (suspension/stupidity) and lacked a line-up that spaced the floor sufficiently against a Bulls defence whose strength lies in preventing three-point attempts.
The absent duo were responsible for 39% of Cleveland’s catch-and-shoot points this season and replacement Mike Miller in particular struggled to contribute to the Cavs offence, while Iman Shumpert’s lack of size compared to Love meant the side conceded too many inches to a taller Bulls team.
Derrick Rose took the Bull by the horns; resembling his former, two-kneed-self more than any occasion on any of his previous returns. He persistently created space for shots by pulling up on the run; draining 16 first half points by sticking to the successful formula.
Cleveland tied things up for the first time early in the second half when their red-wood Russian centre Timofey Mozgov tipped in following another slash to the basket from Irving but Rose, who has a Masters in bouncing back from adversity, orchestrated a run of thirteen consecutive Chicago points to put the Bulls back in the ascendancy.
He was at the heart of everything positive the Bulls did; releasing the Catalan Pau Gasol for a brace of unchallenged mid-range baskets that set him up for a third quarter where he shot 6-for-7 from the field as his side took an 11 point lead into the fourth.
Noah may have stated his pleasure to play in Ohio, but his performance painted a miserable figure. His missed easy lay-up threatened to halt the Bulls’ finest period of the game and was punctuated by a Mozgov dunk. He was held scoreless by his nemesis James all night.
Fortunately for him his four fellow starters all chipped in with considerable tallies (Gasol, Rose and Butler all climbed higher than 20), while a tiring Jimmy Butler put in a noble shift to defend the physically superior James; something that was sure to please the flailing centre.
Cleveland never led during the course of the 48 minutes, meaning Chicago have stolen the valuable home court advantage afforded to the Cavs despite their week off following a washout victory of the Celtics in Round 1.