CLEVELAND – The Cavaliers outsized, outmuscled and out-everythinged the Bulls Saturday afternoon, 96-83, striking the first blow in a first-round playoff series that sure looks like the 1 vs. 8 matchup that it is.
The Cavaliers were simply too big and too deep. They were sharp from the start in welcoming LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal back to the lineup, and by the time it was over it was clear that they aren't strictly a two-man show.
James scored 24 points and was his usual explosive and assertive self, but it wasn't Luol Deng's effort to keep him out of the paint that will go down as Game One's biggest mismatch.
The Cavaliers dominated on the block and on the glass, outrebounding the league's top rebounding team, 50-38. They also blocked a whole bunch of shots (12 of them to be exact), turned many of those into transition opportunities and wore down Joakim Noah, who clearly can't match O'Neal's strength in the post and really will sleep well tonight after also spending some time trying to match the energy of Antawn Jamison and Anderson Varejao.
The Bulls' only hope in this series might be Miracle-Gro.
"We have some length up front," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We're not the biggest team, obviously, but we've done a nice job rebounding all year. But [the Cavs'] combination of guys causes a lot of problems. Shaq can wear you down."
Early foul trouble for Noah, Brad Miller and Taj Gibson certainly didn't help the Bulls' cause, but those fouls didn't come by accident, either. James looked for O'Neal early and often. Jamison scored from inside and out in the first quarter as the Cavs built a lead they
wouldn't relinquish. Varejao had 15 rebounds.
"It's something we've been looking forward to all season," James said. "We have a lot of size, a lot of depth. We showed it."
O'Neal, who hadn't played since suffering a thumb injury Feb. 25, scored 12 points, had 5 rebounds and blocked 3 shots in just under 25 minutes. O'Neal beat Noah baseline with a spin move for a powerful dunk early in the third quarter and followed that with an exaggerated sprint back to the defensive end -- "a diesel cab with no brakes," he said.
The Bulls wouldn't find the brakes until it was essentially too late, as that dunk was followed by a Jamison layup on a no-look pass from Mo Williams (10 assists), James and O'Neal taking turns stripping the ball from Noah on the opposite block and an Anthony Parker jumper that pushed the Cavaliers' lead to 68-46.
Derrick Rose (28 points) and the Bulls then went on a 12-0 run to make it mildly interesting and would trim the lead to 7 in the fourth quarter, but James scored a three-point play on a drive and created a wide-open 3-pointer for Williams with another in the final three minutes to put it out of reach.
James also had a career playoff-best 4 blocks. Williams had 19 and a trio of 3-pointers. Jamison had 15 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks, and Varejao was seemingly everywhere.
"In the playoffs, possessions are huge," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. "(Varejao) had a lot of them for us. You see it in the 15 rebounds but he got many more 50-50 balls that may not show up in the stat column. The energy he brings to the game when it comes to earning more possessions is off the charts. He can be a pest."
As good as Rose is -- he's lightning-fast and unafraid to attack the rim -- it's a big man's game. Kirk Hinrich hit some jumpshots for the Bulls early in the game, but watching Hinrich try to get around an O'Neal screen in the fourth was like watching a wobbly toddler trying to dart past his dad to escape punishment.
O'Neal's first points came five minutes in on a dunk that also included a foul on Hinrich. Two possessions later he scored on a putback of a Parker miss, and in the third quarter he stopped a Noah drive to the rim with a foul that let everyone in a Bulls uniform know whose paint it was.
"We have to do a better job with their size and with LeBron's athletic ability," Del Negro said. "(Noah) played hard. He's going to battle."
Though Del Negro said "it's a long series," the Cavaliers used their depth and length Saturday to show why it probably won't be.