Cavs, Bulls step on collision course

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There were nearly a dozen advance and personnel scouts on hand Monday night at Ohio State, flying to a non-NBA city because they wanted to see what perhaps was the most relevant preseason game that's taken place so far this month.

The Cleveland Cavaliers deployed their full team and the Chicago Bulls did as well, save for Jimmy Butler, who had to miss the game with a thumb injury he suffered Sunday night.

Their reports back across the country, both the official versions and what they were texting to their peers, no doubt contained two strong bullet points: 1. The Cavs are primed to be a fearsome offensive juggernaut, and 2. Derrick Rose really and finally looks like he's back.

The Cavs weren't even operating that efficiently, and they racked up a 107-98 victory in which most of the front lines played until the end. This was against a Bulls defense that will once again be among the league's best this season. And with Kevin Love, who came in shooting 57 percent in the preseason, having a course-correction game in which he shot just 2-of-10.

They are averaging 107 points a game in the preseason and LeBron James hasn't played more than the 32 minutes he logged in this one, Kyrie Irving has missed three games and coach David Blatt hasn't fully installed his modified Princeton offense.

Just to illustrate the point, Anderson Varejao scored 22 points and Tristan Thompson scored 10. When either is in the game, they are the fifth scoring option. Yet in the preseason, they are combining to average 25 points a game on 57 percent shooting. It's very simple as to why: because with so much attention on James, Love, Irving and Dion Waiters, they are constantly operating in space. All they do is get good looks. Neither are good offensive players, but they just can't help it -- the overall offensive talent on the floor for the Cavs can overwhelm.

We haven't even gotten to James, who had a routine night of 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists.

"I think tonight is a good example of what we can do," James said.

There's that. Then there's this: Rose eviscerated the Cavs defense with the sort of speed and vision that once made him an MVP. Irving was almost hopeless in staying in front of him and so were the other defenders the Cavs tried. Rose's aggression in the pick-and-roll and transition was vintage. And, on this night, even his jumper was deadeye.

There had been some whispers going on in the league about if it was time yet to worry about Rose. Truth be told, he wasn't exactly impressive in the handful of games he played last season before suffering another knee injury. Blame the size of the ball -- and he did -- or whatever else you want, he was dreadful this summer at the World Cup in Spain. And this preseason, he wasn't exactly showing routine pop, shooting just 40 percent.

Forget that now. This was a change-everything type of performance, maybe the best Rose has looked in public view since before the 2012 ACL tear. He scored 30 points in just 24 minutes and nailed 4 of 5 3-pointers. Had it been a real game, he might've scored 45 points and James probably would've been called on as an emergency defender late. And it was the second night of a back-to-back. This was a legitimate brilliant show.

"I don't know what to do with that guy, to be honest with you," Blatt joked after the game. "You got any ideas?"

Rose was monotone about what he'd just done -- "I'm just trying to pick my spots where I can affect the game" -- but there was no missing the excitement in the Bulls locker room. If this is the Rose who is around even on a semi-regular basis, the Bulls are bona fide contenders.

"He's our big gun, so just to see him play like that, I know how hard he's worked to get there," Bulls center Joakim Noah said. "I just feel like if we just keep improving, we can do something special."

These two teams play again in a week and a half, next Friday night, when the Bulls host the Cavs in their home opener. Monday could've been the first of 10-plus times they play each other in the regular season. They are on a collision course for a rivalry, not just because of their current standing, but because of the past bad blood James has built up from three playoff series with the Cavs and Miami Heat.

What the scouts saw in this is what is likely going to be a theme that runs throughout the season, as so much attention is paid to these two teams. The Cavs are going to be devastating on offense, they are probably just going to simply outscore teams. Because of it, they'll probably approach 60 wins unless they have significant injury problems. But their defense is going to be a constant issue.

They'll enjoy those coming 114-106-style victories in which all the stats look fantastic and the confetti is flying in the postgame din. But Blatt, and James for that matter, will be worried about their defense for a while or until they show improvement. There's a lot of room for it. Their perimeter players are pushovers way too often, and their second line is either sluggish or ill-equipped far too often to win at the highest level. At least right now.

Not every opposing point guard is Rose, but on a night when the Cavs actually felt OK about their defense -- the Bulls shot just 42 percent overall -- it was still clear that they're going to have major issues keeping the opponents out of the lane.

As for the Bulls, their season-long story might be "just which Rose is it going to be every night?" This Rose, it sure seems, will be back, and when he is, they are sure going to be hard to beat. If Rose played 40 minutes Monday, the Bulls easily could've beaten the Cavs even had they given James a full run -- that's how good he was. But the fact that the performance was borderline shocking is alarming in itself; Rose just hasn't been doing this regularly.

James, who's seen many seasons now, recognized all of it and encapsulated it quite well. He's as interested as anyone in how this budding drama plays itself out.

"You know, it was two teams that have aspirations of trying to win a championship, and both teams know that it is a process," James said. "It's not right now when you accomplish it, but it is right now that you create the habits."