CLEVELAND — A smirk came over center Joakim Noah’s face before the question was finished.
Then again, any reference to Jimmy Butler and his growing bravado seems to lighten the mood around Noah these days.
‘‘He’s definitely not backing down,’’ Noah said of Butler. ‘‘That’s not who he is. He hasn’t since he’s gotten to the league. That hasn’t changed one bit. He’s just a more experienced and better basketball player.’’
The Cleveland Cavaliers became the latest team to see that firsthand, with Butler and the Bulls earning a 99-92 victory Monday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series.
There was no denying Derrick Rose was great, scoring 25 points and making razor-sharp decisions. And Pau Gasol played like the two-time NBA champion he is, scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
But neither had to guard the best player on the planet. Butler not only scored 20 points, including nine of the Bulls’ final 15, but he led a defense that frustrated Cavaliers star LeBron James all game.
‘‘I think he missed a lot of shots that he normally doesn’t miss,’’ Butler said of James going 9-for-22 from the field, including 0-for-3 from three-point range, and scoring only 19 points. ‘‘I think he’s going to be taking the same shots the next game.’’
But didn’t Butler’s defense have something to do with that?
‘‘Obviously, we were contesting everything, but LeBron is LeBron,’’ Butler said. ‘‘He’s going to take and make shots. You’ve gotta hope he misses, like he did [Monday].’’
The Bulls shot 50 percent from the field (40-for-80) and 56 percent from three-point range (10-for-18), with the accuracy from the finale of their first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks carrying over against the Cavaliers.
But this was about Butler closing the game out in the fourth quarter and shadowing James wherever he went.
‘‘We’re both two NBA players,’’ Butler said. ‘‘His name might be more well-known than mine, but I’m just here to compete. I’m here to play. Everybody knows that LeBron is a hell of a player; I’m not knocking it. But I think I’m a
decent player. I think I can hang with the best of them.’’
He didn’t get much argument from his coach or teammates with that statement, either.
‘‘Jimmy is a fierce competitor,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. ‘‘Obviously, we have great respect for all their players, and I know Jimmy does, as well. But that doesn’t mean you’re afraid to compete against them. Jimmy is not afraid to compete against anyone. He’s shown that throughout his career.’’
In stealing Game 1 and home-court advantage, Butler and Co. passed the first test of their will with flying colors. Now it’s about keeping that momentum going. The Cavaliers were 22-1 in their last 23 home games before Monday, so it was more than an ordinary victory for the Bulls. It was a message.
And with the Cavaliers — who were led by Kyrie Irving’s 30 points — without Kevin Love (dislocated shoulder) for the rest of the playoffs and J.R. Smith (suspension) for one more game, it was a message the Bulls want to keep sending.
‘‘You could call it what you want,’’ Butler said. ‘‘ ‘Big Five,’ ‘Big Three,’ whatever it may be, everybody is playing to win.’’