The Cleveland Cavaliers (39-14) outmuscled, outhustled and simply outperformed the Chicago Bulls (27-26) Thursday night to capture a 106-95 victory at Quicken Loans Arena and rip off their fourth straight win.
Chicago, meanwhile, has now lost five straight and is in a tailspin with Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic both banged up.
The Cavs coasted behind 25 points, nine assists and nine rebounds from LeBron James, who appeared re-energized and positively locked in following a weeklong All-Star break.
Kyrie Irving—who helped spark a break that ended with James flushing home a gorgeous transition alley-oop in the third quarter—tallied 19 points and four assists.
He also spun in a layup after crossing up Bulls forward Taj Gibson with his outrageous handle:
Kevin Love was efficient with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting to go with 15 rebounds as Cleveland moved the ball effectively from side to side and kept Chicago's defense off balance.
The same couldn't be said for the Bulls, who mustered 12 assists and 13 turnovers while shooting 39.8 percent from the field.
Derrick Rose was superb and finished with 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting, but he received virtually no help from Chicago's depleted supporting cast. Pau Gasol didn't wake up until the second half as he tallied 14 points and nine boards, and Bobby Portis (13 points) was the only other Chicago player to finish in double figures.
With Butler (knee) out, LeBron sought to expose a tasty matchup with Bulls swingman Mike Dunleavy. James burst out of the gates by scoring Cleveland's first eight points, with several of his buckets coming in physically imposing fashion:
As the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson noted in the first quarter, James' desire to try to convert easy shots in the paint made it clear he was aware of his advantage in the size and strength departments:
LeBron James notices Jimmy Butler isn't playing.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 19, 2016
The Cavaliers were also able to build an early lead behind some dominance on the glass. Cleveland posted a 17-9 rebounding edge in the first quarter, with Love pulling down eight. Thanks to the superiority on the boards, the Cavaliers were able to free up several second-chance scoring opportunities and create some early distance.
CSN Chicago's Vincent Goodwill pointed to the Bulls' passivity on the glass as a reason for their inability to keep up throughout the game's opening stages:
This team’s lack of physical toughness on the boards is…glaring— Vincent Goodwill (@vgoodwill) February 19, 2016
However, the Bulls were able to lean on Rose, who looked sharp as he helped pace the Chicago offense with 18 first-half points, including a gorgeous layup that came via a left-handed-scoop finish:
As the Bulls shot 37.5 percent from the field over the game's first 24 minutes, Rose was able to pump the breaks on a panic attack with several fancy contortions around the rim:
Beyond Rose, bright spots were few and far between for the Bulls. Although Chicago's floor general flashed vintage form on several occasions, the Bulls didn't have any other scorers who could create off the dribble and help collapse Cleveland's defense.
But as The Cauldron's Nate Duncan noted, Chicago's continued struggles could ultimately unleash an all-systems-go Rose:
One positive to the Bulls' myriad injuries is that Rose has the keys, if he's ever to regain confidence this is the time.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) February 19, 2016
For the time being, that seems to be all the Bulls have to look forward to. Head coach Fred Hoiberg's club hasn't tasted victory since Feb. 3, and it's now quite possible the Bulls could slip out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture while Butler is rehabilitating.
And after trade-deadline moves indicated the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards are seeking to make postseason pushes alongside the Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers, Chicago figures to have plenty of competition for those coveted seeds.
As for the Cavaliers, Thursday was business as usual. Their grip on the Eastern Conference's top seed only figures to tighten if they can continue to lock down on defense and receive balanced contributions from James, Love and Irving.
The Toronto Raptors have the pieces to give the Cavs a run for the No. 1 seed, but Cleveland appears to be hitting its stride under head coach Tyronn Lue with back-to-back Eastern Conference titles in its sight.
With the result in hand, James and his teammates engaged in some of the most creative celebratory handshakes you'll ever see:
It's LIT 🔥https://t.co/ATjxnCLpTc— Bleacher Report NBA (@BR_NBA) February 19, 2016
Cleveland's coach was also happy with the result.
"I thought our physicality won the game for us tonight," Lue said, per Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor.
The same couldn't be said for the Bulls, who slid down to the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot with the loss.
"The early part of January, we got 10 games over .500," Hoiberg said, per Johnson. "We have to get back to playing the basketball that led to that success, including a six-game winning streak. I know our guys believe."
Rose stuck with Hoiberg and expressed a similar sentiment.
"We have to stay together through the good, bad and ugly," Rose said, according to Johnson. "It’s the ugly right now."
Looking ahead, Lue pointed to capturing home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs as all the motivation his team needs.
"We have great fans here, first of all, and I think we just play so good at home," Lue said, per the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd. "You never know in the playoffs, it can be a rough patch."