COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Less than two weeks before their first regular-season meeting, LeBron James believes the Chicago Bulls are better than his Cleveland Cavaliers.
The two teams played Monday night in a preseason game at Ohio State University, with Cleveland winning 107-98. The Cavs had called it their most important preseason game, not just because they were facing a potential Eastern Conference rival but because James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were starting together for the first time against an NBA team.
"(The Bulls) are a team that's much better than us right now just off chemistry. They've been together for a while. We've got a long way to go."LeBron James
"[The Bulls] are a team that's much better than us right now just off chemistry," James said before scoring 18 points in 32 minutes. "They've been together for a while; we've got a long way to go."
James has faced the Bulls in the playoffs three times in the past five seasons, once with the Cavs and twice with the Miami Heat. He has a long history not only against Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah but also coach Tom Thibodeau, who designed the defense against James in two playoff series when Thibodeau was an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics.
Rose looked like the MVP version, not the player who has missed most of the past two years with injuries, scoring 30 points on Monday.
The Cavs recently had a weeklong trip to Brazil where they focused on bonding. And while there's also been a focus from James and some of the veterans, like Mike Miller and Shawn Marion, on mentoring the younger players, James freely admits the Cavs are not battle-tested like the Bulls.
And he doesn't think such chemistry will come from preseason games or team dinners.
"You've got to go through something to create a bond; that means for the worse," James said. "We've got to lose ballgames that we think we should've won, we've got to get into an argument every now and then just to test each other out."
James is speaking from experience. When he joined the Heat in 2010, that team struggled significantly out of the gate and started the season 9-8. There were chemistry issues and there was friction in the locker room. After that difficult first month, however, the Heat won 21 of 22 games and ended up reaching the Finals.
He's not predicting such struggles for the Cavs in the early going, but he said Monday that he's expecting adversity.
"It has to happen. I know it is going to happen," James said. "A lot of guys don't see it, but I see it. That's the only way we're going to be able to grow. You don't define yourself during the good times, you define yourself through the bad times. That's for the players and the coaching staff, as well."
Overall the Cavs have played well in the preseason, going 4-1 to this point, but they haven't had much time to test their new lineup. Irving missed three games with a sprained ankle, Love skipped a game to rest a sore neck and James took a game off to rest his back.
Monday's preseason game was the first time that Irving, James and Love will play together against an NBA team. Irving scored a team-high 28 points, while Love had only nine on 2-of-10 shooting, but he added 13 rebounds.
"We haven't had the opportunity to see them all together as yet," Cavs coach David Blatt said.
"I have an idea in my mind, I have a feeling about it. Is that tried and true? Up to this point, honestly it's not. ... But I see them at practice and I obviously know the players, their skill set and their basketball IQ and their willingness to play together, so I'm pretty optimistic about it."