-- CHICAGO -- It took 5½ games to be revealed, but midway through Thursday's second quarter it became completely apparent, surely to both teams, that the Cleveland Cavaliers were better -- more resourceful, tougher mentally and physically, certainly more determined. And that's when this series and the Chicago Bulls' season, for all practical purposes, ended.
LeBron James was limping badly. Kyrie Irving had already been helped to the locker room because he couldn't stand up. Tristan Thompson had an NFL-sized ice wrap on his left shoulder. But no matter whom the Cavaliers trotted out there, they played circles around the Bulls -- particularly the Chicago kid.
Somehow, Nikola Mirotic had the bright idea to go after Iman Shumpert, who grew up about 10 minutes west of the United Center. Mirotic hasn't been in Chicago long enough to understand you don't mess unnecessarily with kids from the west side, especially when you're on the west side. Anyway, Mirotic clotheslined Shumpert, whom Phil Jackson traded away from the Knicks for a ham sandwich, and Shumpert, clearly angered to have some Euro dude try to punk him in front of his family and friends, went nuclear on the team he grew up rooting for.
Shumpert made a foul shot, Shumpert went hard to the basket for a layup, Shumpert (after a Mirotic miss) fired a 3-pointer and got right up in Mirotic's grill. And Shumpert, in his personal rage and hell-bent on vengeance, turned what had been a 40-38 Bulls lead into a 47-40 Cavaliers lead. Talk about The Chicago Way. As his coach, David Blatt, would say later, "I think that was the wrong guy to clothesline in his hometown. He's a really tough guy. ... It really seemed to wake him up."
It woke up everybody who'd ever worn a Cavaliers uniform.
And that was that. The Bulls, whether they actually were or not, appeared to be unnerved. They played as if they knew they were being chumped. By Matthew Dellavedova and Shumpert and James Jones. Another 3-pointer by Shumpert before halftime made it 55-42 Cavaliers, and you could have turned out the lights on the Bulls' season right then.
The rest of Cleveland's 94-73 victory was a lesson in humility. LeBron James and a bunch of spare parts, mostly ex-Knicks thought to be NBA afterthoughts, trashed the Bulls on their home court, meting out the worst and most humiliating defeat in the franchise's playoff history. Remember, with the season on the line, the Cavaliers played without Kevin Love, without Irving beyond the first 12 minutes, with James in foul trouble and having missed eight of his first 11 shots. And the Bulls, a team with four current or former All-Stars and as deep a bench as there is in the league, were helpless to do anything about it.
And anybody of a certain age should have recognized the dynamic, because, once upon a time, it was on display in Chicago, where for 13 years Michael Jordan made champions of a list of guys who were lucky to be in the league. The Cavaliers, because of James, are now what the Bulls used to be. Anybody who plays with James is better than he used to be with anybody else, better than he dreamt he could be when he was in college or, in the case of Dellavedova, playing in Australia. You play with LeBron James at the height of his career, which he is, you feel some of his superpowers just radiating across the court. You practice with him every day, you get encouraged by him every day, you feel his wrath at times, you become another guy you couldn't become playing with the Raptors or Grizzlies or Bulls or whomever.
Again, Blatt spoke plainly to the issue of James making average players so much better. "Throughout the playoffs, I have never seen a shadow of doubt or fear on anyone's face," the coach said. "He is a true leader here. He is vocal, willful and committed to helping his team succeed. He is really leading these guys to believe in what they can do."
Dellavadova is to James what Bobby Hansen -- or Dennis Hopson or Jud Buechler -- once was to Jordan. James could take just about any NBA-caliber players with whom he has practiced and played for three or four months and beat the Bulls, just as Jordan once did (though he did have the marvelous Scottie Pippen) to the Cavaliers and Knicks and Pacers. And while James might prove he can do likewise against the Hawks or Wizards and Warriors or Clippers, the fact is the team James just vanquished, despite missing so much of his help, is the Bulls.
Without question now, the Bulls will try to figure out whether this roster can perform more admirably with another coach, probably one of these new-wave coaches who is the polar opposite of Tom Thibodeau, who for the past four years got every single drop of effort he could from a mostly undermanned team. The Bulls will look to a new coach whose offense is more suited to today's style of play, and Thibs, while he does a great many things expertly, might as well be a Chicago Bears coach when it comes to modern offense.
The Bulls' offense stunk the joint out again in Game 6, just as players around the league have observed. After taking a 40-38 lead in the second quarter, the Bulls produced one basket over the next 6½-minute period. Joakim Noah, who scored 24 points in a Game 7 in Brooklyn just two years ago, took zero shots in Thursday's first half and only two for the game. Derrick Rose took no foul shots. Tony Snell, one of the few Bulls who can get his own shot most places on the floor, played 5 minutes, 26 seconds.
The marriage between Thibs and the men who run the team, John Paxson and Gar Forman, soured some time ago, and they stayed together this season only for the children. The irreconcilable differences were glaring. Playing time, style of offense -- you name it, they differed on how to do it. Thibs will be scooped up in no time, maybe in Orlando, maybe in New Orleans. And plenty of people will line up to inquire about the Bulls' job, what with Rose on the mend, Butler about to sign a shiny new contract, and Mirotic just ending his rookie season. The Bulls indeed have assets.
But they also have a stain after this loss, a long-lasting if not permanent one in which they scored 42 points the final three quarters, one in which they couldn't keep up with Cleveland's bench players, one in which they were again tormented by James -- the way the Cavaliers of Daugherty/Price/Harper/Ehlo/Nance were once tormented by Jordan.
It's likely going to take more than a new coach for the Bulls to have any real chance to catch James, and when they start to replay this series in their minds, the Bulls aren't going to like what they see.
"For whatever reason," Mike Dunleavy said, "we couldn't really channel our best effort and that's been the story all year long. ... It's just disappointing. We have a lot of talent and a lot of high expectations. If you had told me at the beginning of the series about all of Cleveland's ailments, I would have really liked our chances."