Bulls face Cavs hype train head-on

CHICAGO -- In last season's home opener, Derrick Rose returned from his ACL sabbatical and hit a baseline floater with just under six seconds left to give the Chicago Bulls a one-point victory over the New York Knicks.

The United Center crowd, finally satiated with Rose's return, went appropriately berserk. Joakim Noah took the mic for a postgame, on-court interview and bellowed, "I missed this s---. I missed this s---!"

When I asked him about that verbal slip in the locker room, he gave me a sheepish grin and said, "Whoops."

Chicago missed it, too. We thought it was the beginning of a special season, but it turned out to be another gritty, Rose-less affair that ended, mercifully, in the first round of the playoffs.

On Friday night, the United Center will once again be the hottest ticket in town as LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers come calling in Rose's second home "return" in two seasons.

Bulls fans will fluctuate between shouting hosannas at Rose and four-letter words at LeBron. For an athlete, it'll be heaven.

"It's as good as gets," Noah said.

Naturally, I expect more ebullient expletives from Noah at the appropriate time.

While Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is stressing his "just one out of 82" mantra, the returning core of the Thibodeau-era Bulls will be extra hyped-up for this one.

From the Chicago fans to the actual Bulls, everyone in town seems to hate LeBron, who in turn, doesn't really seem to care. It's a perfect symbiotic relationship for a rivalry.

"It's really exciting," Noah said Thursday at the Advocate Center. "There's a lot of excitement right now. I just like our mindset. We're focused. We're in a good place. Playing against a very good team. So we're excited. I said excited like five times, right?"

Four, but who's counting?

Noah was fairly chill as he talked to reporters dying for a choice quote ("You think Cleveland's cool?") about James and the Cavs. But it's no secret there's real enmity in his feelings toward James and whomever he's playing with.

We can talk about how good Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are, and the new Big Three and all that, but it's James and James alone the Bulls are gunning for. They want what he has: a perennial berth in the NBA Finals.

Rose's injuries robbed the Bulls of three postseason chances to knock off James and the Miami Heat, and now James' Cavs and the Bulls are again the favorites in the East.

But no matter how touted the Bulls are in October, the road to the NBA promised land, once again, goes through James. And the Bulls know that.

So while neither the Bulls nor the Cavs are finished products -- each team fitting in new faces, as Thibodeau likes to say -- every game has a story.

For me, it's Noah versus LeBron.

While Noah and the Bulls carry themselves like eternal underdogs, James is the unquestioned overdog of the NBA.

With Noah, it all goes back to his youth, when James was the marquee prospect and Noah was basically a ballboy at the famed ABCD camp. Then there was Noah blowing his top when James danced during a victory, back when the Cavs were on top and the Bulls were just mediocre. And there was James spurning the Bulls in 2010 to form the "Hollywood as Hell" Heat, who beat the Bulls in their only trip to the conference finals during Noah's time in Chicago.

"How does LeBron affect the way we play?" Noah said. "We just want to win a big basketball game. He affects the game in a lot of ways, we know that. We're focused on what we're supposed to do right now. There's a lot of talent on that team, it's not just LeBron. We've got to game plan for a lot of guys. Coach gave us a pretty good plan."

But, really, it's all about LeBron, who is getting better every year.

While LeBron is larger than life in NBA narratives, that "pretty good plan" is how the Bulls can beat Cleveland on Friday.

If Jimmy Butler (thumb) can't go, Mike Dunleavy, fresh off guarding Carmelo Anthony, will start the game matched up against James, but it's really about all five players staying true to Thibodeau's defensive principles of five guys "tied together," packing the paint and forcing contested 2-point shots.

"It's definitely a team effort," Noah said. "You crowd him as much as possible, make everything hard. He's a tough cover."

James has shot 52.1 percent against the Bulls in Thibodeau's four seasons as coach, with last season the only time he hit less than 50 percent from the field (39.2 percent). Over 13 regular-season games, James has shot 36.6 percent from 3-point range and averaged 8.5 free throw attempts a game.

As Thibodeau said, when you're devising a game plan for James, it's all about "what you're taking away" and "what are you willing to live with."

Since the 2010-11 season, the Bulls have beaten James' team eight times in the regular season, though much more important, only two out of 10 in the playoffs (James shot under 45 percent in both series).

Thibodeau doesn't downplay regular-season games, because each one is Game 7 of the Finals to him. But behind closed doors, he knows how to motivate and push buttons. He's constantly peppering his players about having a championship mindset. One wonders if he gives Rose, who shined in a preseason game against Cleveland, a little something extra Friday. One hopes he doesn't need to.

"It's just the next game, so the thing is we can't get wrapped up," Thibodeau said. "There's something in every game. If you get distracted by all the side stuff, you lose focus on what you need to lock into to win. We appreciate the support we get here, we have great fans, but we have to give them something to cheer about."

One guesses the Bulls will do just that.