One month ago, the Chicago Bulls took advantage of a Cleveland team still trying to fit Shaquille O’Neal(notes) into the mix. The Cavaliers are now more comfortable with O’Neal on the floor, and haven’t lost many since.
Cleveland, seeking its 11th win in 13 games, tries to avenge last month’s loss to the Bulls on Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
The Cavaliers (13-5) acquired O’Neal from Phoenix in the offseason hoping the 15-time All-Star could provide some muscle in the paint and help the franchise win an elusive title.
Cleveland didn’t get the early results it was looking for, opening with consecutive losses and falling to 3-3 with an 86-85 loss to Chicago on Nov. 5.
The Cavs had a chance to beat the Bulls (7-9), but LeBron James(notes) lost the ball out of bounds on a layup attempt in the waning seconds. James, who finished with a game-high 25 points, thought there was sufficient contact by both Luol Deng(notes) and Joakim Noah(notes) to get a foul called, but the referees felt otherwise.
Since that loss, the Cavs have gradually been able to get in sync. They defeated Phoenix 107-90 on Wednesday for their 10th win in 12 games.
“We are a really good team. We are still getting better,” James said. “We are still not as good as we want to be, but you do not want to be great in November and December. You do not want to be that great right now. You want to continue to improve and continue to get better.”
James finished with a season-low 12 points against the Suns, but added 10 assists and eight rebounds.
Seven Cleveland players scored in double figures Wednesday with Zydrunas Ilgauskas(notes) leading the way with 14. Ilgauskas, forced to accept a backup role when the Cavs acquired O’Neal, became the team’s career leader with 724 games played.
O’Neal finished with 12 points and nine rebounds in his third game back after sitting out six in mid-November due to a strained shoulder. Although the 37-year-old O’Neal is not the same offensive threat he was in his prime, he still makes his presence felt on the defensive end.
Cleveland, which held the high-powered Suns to their lowest scoring output of the season, is allowing an average of 92.1 points in the 12 games O’Neal has played, compared to 98.8 when he sits out.
“Guys are playing together, helping out and rotating on defense,” O’Neal said. “I think that if we can get this and bottle it up and become a little bit more consistent, then the further we go, the better we will become.”
While the Cavs have shown improvement since the loss to the Bulls, Chicago hasn’t enjoyed the same success since that meeting.
The Bulls, 4-7 since beating Cleveland, snapped a five-game losing streak with Wednesday’s 92-85 win over Detroit.
The Bulls’ win at Cleveland - just their third in the last 12 meetings there - is one of only two victories in their 10 road games this season.
Chicago has been outscored by an average of 15.8 points in losing its last five away from the United Center.