For all the talk about their fast-paced offence, defence once again lifted the Chicago Bulls in their season opener.
Pau Gasol’s block of LeBron James and a pass deflection in the closing seconds helped preserve the win for new coach Fred Hoiberg. And that had to please the president.
Nikola Mirotic scored 19 points and Derrick Rose added 18 to lead the Bulls to a 97-95 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers with US President Barack Obama watching on Tuesday night.
After Gasol blocked James’s potential tying layup in the closing seconds, Jimmy Butler then broke up an inbounds pass intended for James as time expired.
Obama sat courtside for most of the game as his beloved Bulls got contributions from a variety of players to knock off the defending Eastern Conference champions and give Hoiberg a narrow win in his first game.
“That is how we are going to win every game,” Rose said. “It kind of feels good going into every game knowing you have the possibility of winning. You have a chance of winning every game because we are so good and deep.”
James scored 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, but the Cavaliers came up short against the team they knocked out in the conference semi-finals last season.
The Bulls, playing a more open offence with Hoiberg than they did under Tom Thibodeau, did not exactly light it up. But they came away with a promising win.
Rose, playing with a mask to protect his fractured left orbital, shot just 8-of-22 after missing almost the entire pre-season.
Mirotic, starting over Joakim Noah, nailed three three-pointers.
Butler added 17 points and two steals to go with that deflected pass. Gasol blocked six shots.
The Cavaliers got 19 points and seven assists from Mo Williams, filling in while Kyrie Irving recovers from a fractured left kneecap. Kevin Love added 18 points and eight rebounds.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win,” James said. “That’s all you can ask.”
The Cavaliers took an 83-82 lead on a floater by James with 5:32 left in the game.
Mirotic immediately converted a three-point play after getting fouled by Tristan Thompson on a baseline floater. That started an 11-2 run that put Chicago back on top 93-85 with 2:42 left.
But just when it looked like the lead was safe, the Cavaliers came roaring back again.
Love nailed back-to-back three-pointers to make it 97-95 with 33 seconds remaining. After a miss by Rose with 10 seconds remaining, a driving James got swatted by Gasol.
The ball bounced out along the baseline. The Bulls had no doubt this time that James was getting the final shot.
They probably thought the same thing at the end of Game 4 of the conference semi-finals in Chicago. In that one, Cavaliers coach David Blatt designed a play that had James taking the ball out. He vetoed it and drained a corner jumper at the buzzer to give Cleveland the victory.
Things didn’t turn out so well this time for the Cavaliers. Butler broke up Williams’ inbound pass.
Obama, in his hometown to speak to the International Association of Chiefs of Police and attend a Democratic fundraiser, had not sat courtside to watch the Bulls since they visited the Washington Wizards in February 2009.
But with his favourite team taking on the best player on the planet in a rematch of last season’s second round, Obama decided to take in this game.
Secret Service agents started blanketing the United Center in the morning and all eyes turned toward the tunnel as Obama entered the arena late in the first quarter. He greeted some people at courtside as he made his way to his seat opposite the scorer’s table.
“I think it’s very promising,” Obama told TNT. “You’ve got a new coach, he’s opening up the offence a little bit. The question is going to be can they hang on to the defence, with the new offence?”
Elsewhere in the NBA
Detroit Pistons 106, Atlanta Hawks 94
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 21 points to lead all five Detroit starters in double figures, carrying the Pistons to a victory over Atlanta and ruining the opener of the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season.
The Pistons, who haven’t had a winning season since 2008 and finished 28 games behind the Hawks a year ago, began to pull away just before half-time. They led by double figures through most of the final two quarters and held on despite missing 20 of their last 22 shots from the field.
Andre Drummond had 19 rebounds and 18 points for the Pistons. Marcus Morris also had a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Ersan Ilyasova chipped in with 16 points and Reggie Jackson added 15.
Dennis Schroder led the Hawks with 20 points. Paul Millsap had 19 and Jeff Teague 18, but new starter Kent Bazemore – who stepped in at small forward after DeMarre Carroll left in free agency – was held scoreless.
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