Does LeBron James really make the Cleveland Cavaliers 2 points better against the Bulls?
Obviously, a first-round playoff matchup against the Cavs doesn't seem promising right now.
But the Bulls stayed in postseason contention with a thoroughly unimpressive 109-108 win on Thursday at the United Center.
About an hour before tipoff, word spread James would sit this one out. No reason, other than getting the league's likely repeat MVP a little extra rest before the playoffs start next week.
In theory, this should have been easy. But the Bulls could never pull away and missed 4 free throws in the final 15 seconds - sweating it out as the Cavs missed 6 shots in the final minute while trailing by 1.
"We all know they're a better team with LeBron," Bulls forward Luol Deng said. "Us right now, it doesn't matter who's playing and who's not. We played Milwaukee without (Andrew) Bogut and lost. We couldn't relax and they stuck with us the whole game."
Toronto fans had every right to throw a shoe at the television, considering all the bad luck the Raptors have faced this week, with all-star Chris Bosh going down and James sitting out. But the Bulls and Toronto are now tied for eighth place in the East with four games left.
The Bulls (38-40) play tonight at New Jersey, the league's worst team, while the Raptors have a tough test in Atlanta. The Bulls and Toronto square off Sunday at the Air Canada Centre.
"We can't have any letdowns," said center Joakim Noah. "A lot of things are going our way and we just have to take advantage of it."
Noah (17 points, 15 rebounds, 4 blocks) was a game-saver for the Bulls. He tipped in a Derrick Rose miss with 1:21 remaining, which turned out to be the final points of the game.
Then it was time to hang on for dear life. Cleveland (61-18) missed a couple chances to take the lead, but got new life when Deng missed 2 free throws with 14.4 seconds left.
Anderson Varejao tried to pump-fake the Bulls into a foul, then missed an 18-foot jumper. Athletic forward Jamario Moon grabbed the rebound and had a point-blank shot at the rim. But Noah reached over and knocked the ball out of Moon's hands from behind.
"If he wouldn't have blocked it, I would have dunked it. Ain't no question, " Moon said. "I thought I was up there by myself. I was going to grab it and just put it back."
Noah's block sent the ball back to Varejao and he misfired form 17 feet. Rose grabbed the rebound with 1.3 seconds on the clock and missed 2 more free throws. But Noah tipped the second miss outside to Kirk Hinrich as time expired.
"It's nice to get something to fall our way a little bit," Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said.
Cavs guard Mo Williams (35 points) knocked down 4 baskets from 3-point range in the final six minutes, including 1 with 1:32 left that gave Cleveland its last lead.
"They know we're good. We know they're a scrappy team," Williams said. "Whoever gets us (in the first round), we'll be ready to play. It's always good to play well without 'Bron, but he's our guy without a doubt. We're much better with him, trust me."
Mike McGraw's game tracker
Bulls 109, Cavaliers 108
No LeBron, more problems: The Bulls got a huge break when LeBron James decided to sit this one out, but they barely hung on. The Cavs missed six shots in the final minute while trailing by a point.
Streak shooter: Cleveland guard Mo Williams knocked down 4 shots from 3-point range in the final six minutes on the way to a 35-point night. Derrick Rose scored 24 points for the Bulls, but Joakim Noah's 17 points, 15 rebounds and 4 blocks were beyond vital for the home team.
Toronto tie up: The Bulls and Raptors are tied for the final playoff spot in the East with four games left. On Friday, the Bulls are in New Jersey, while Toronto plays at Atlanta. Then the Bulls and Raptors face off Sunday at the Air Canada Centre.