LeBron James, Cavaliers Begin Quest for NBA Title With 96-83 Win Over Bulls

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CLEVELAND — LeBron James and
Shaquille O'Neal have only one goal, and they moved one step closer to
their objective on Saturday.

Cleveland's superstars, separated for a
large chunk of the regular season, combined for 36 points and seven
blocks as the Cavaliers opened the Eastern Conference playoffs with a
96-83 win over the Chicago Bulls.

James had 24 points and four blocks
and a slimmed-down O'Neal, playing for the first time since Feb. 25,
scored 12 in 24 minutes as the top-seeded Cavs won a testy opener
between two teams that obviously don't care for each other.

Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is
Monday in Cleveland.

Derrick Rose had 28 points and 10
assists for Chicago, which trimmed a 22-point deficit in the third
quarter down to seven in the fourth.

But James converted a three-point play
with 2:29 left and Mo Williams followed with a 3-pointer to put
Cleveland up 94-81.

After they were eliminated in the
Eastern Conference finals last May by Orlando, the Cavaliers went out
and traded for O'Neal, a four-time NBA champion and icon. O'Neal was
brought in not only to combat Magic center Dwight Howard but to help
James win his first title and deliver Cleveland its first championship
in any major pro sport since 1964.

The Cavs need 15 more wins to get it.

Williams added 19 points and 10
assists, and Antawn Jamison, acquired at the trading deadline, finished
with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Cleveland blocked 12 shots — 10 in the
second half.

James was his usual MVP self, making
plays at both ends. But unlike past postseasons, he doesn't have to do
it alone this time.

O'Neal, who upon arriving in
Cleveland promised to "win a ring for the King," looked remarkably sharp
despite missing the Cavs' final 23 games after tearing a thumb
ligament. He dropped 20 pounds while he was sidelined by watching his
diet and swimming.

Cleveland's offense ran smoothly
while he was in the middle and he had the game's signature play early in
the third quarter.

Posting up Joakim Noah in the foul
lane, O'Neal made a quick spin move to fake out the Bulls center, who
stumbled forward and nearly fell on his face. O'Neal then delivered a
dunk and sprinted back down the floor scowling.

The Cavs quickly extended a 15-point
halftime lead to 68-46, but the Bulls, who have been in playoff mode for
the past two weeks as they fought for the No. 8 seed, wouldn't go away.

Chicago cut it to 82-75 while James
was on the bench, but once he came back, the Cavs were on their way.

The teams traded unpleasantness on
more than one occasion. Noah, who said the Bulls would "try to shock the
world" in the series, exchanged words with Cleveland's Anderson Varejao
and was booed every time he touched the ball. James and Brad Miller
were assessed technicals in the first half following a collision, and
James and Luol Deng had a discussion after the halftime horn.

As has become his ritual every
postseason, James arrived extra early at Quicken Loans Arena. He was on
the floor more than three hours before tip-off, getting in some extra
shooting as he prepared for a postseason Cleveland fans hope ends like
none before.

Taking passes from assistant coach
Chris Jent, James intently worked on his inside game before moving
outside to knock down jumpers. He maintained the serious demeanor he has
displayed in recent days, a clear sign he's locked in for this title
run.

"We've prepared for this moment," he
said, surrounded by reporters. "It's here."

Before taking the floor, James
gathered his teammates in the hallway outside Cleveland's locker room
for a prayer and then broke the huddle.

"One, two three," James said.

"Championship," they responded.

Anything less this time will be a
disappointment.

Notes
A diehard New York Yankees
fan, James said he did not watch the Bronx Bombers receive their
diamond-filled World Series rings earlier this week. "I saw them win it
last year, though," he said. "I knew the rings would come at some
point." … James entered the playoffs averaging 29.4 points, 8.3
rebounds and 7.3 assists in 60 postseason games. No other player in NBA
history (minimum 20 games) has averaged more than 25 points, seven
rebounds and six assists. … Entering the game, Cleveland hadn't won a
playoff game against Chicago since 1992. The Bulls have won all five
previous playoff series between the teams (1988, '89, '92, '93, '94).
… The Bulls are the first team since Toronto (2001-02) to reach the
playoffs despite a 10-game losing streak during the season.

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