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LeBron James, Cavaliers bury Bulls from start to even series

CLEVELAND — Bulls guard Jimmy Butler wasn’t running from his failures Wednesday night — and make no mistake about it, Butler was calling them failures.

LeBron James threw down 33 points on Butler on the same night Butler found out he’d been named the NBA’s Most Improved Player. That was as unacceptable as the Bulls’ 106-91 loss that evened their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Cleveland Cavaliers at a game apiece.

What does that award mean?

‘‘Right now, nothing,’’ Butler said. ‘‘I’m focused on helping this team win, and if we don’t get to four [wins] in this series, that award is good for nothing.’’

There were bigger concerns for Butler, the Bulls’ best defensive player, starting with how passively he played against James after frustrating the four-time NBA MVP in Game 1.

‘‘We came out sluggish,’’ Butler said. ‘‘We weren’t guarding. We were trying to outscore them. We’ve been saying that we can’t do that all year. It’s easily correctable, but we’ve got to guard. It starts with me. Once again, like I always say, I’m the one that’s got to set the tone on defense, and I didn’t do that.’’

Coincidentally, earlier in the day, teammate Derrick Rose said that while Butler has reached All-Star status, he hasn’t achieved NBA stardom — but he could change that if he continued to handcuff James.

‘‘This is the matchup right here that can definitely build his confidence being a superstar player,’’ Rose said. ‘‘He’s playing against a player that is extremely talented. [James] puts so much pressure on the defense, just with him having the ball. Jimmy, he’s got to take that challenge.’’

Mostly what he took from James in Game 2 was a lesson. Butler didn’t think what Rose was putting on him was too heavy.

‘‘No, that’s fair,’’ Butler said. ‘‘I do have to outplay guys. End of story.’’

Even James?

‘‘Yeah, I have to produce,’’ Butler said. ‘‘That’s my job on this team — to guard, score some baskets, and I didn’t do a great job of that [Wednesday]. It’s not too much in my basket because I think I’m very capable of doing that.’’

Early on, it didn’t look as though the Bulls were capable of much. James promised a more aggressive game plan, even going back to wearing his signature headband. By the end of the first quarter, the Cavaliers had a 38-18 lead, James had 14 points and Iman Shumpert had 10. The Bulls had only problems, allowing the Cavs to shoot 5-for-6 from three-point range in the first quarter and coughing up seven turnovers that led to 13 points.

‘‘The story of the game was the first quarter — they smashed us,’’ coach Tom Thibodeau said. ‘‘We knew the aggression would be better, harder, and we didn’t respond well to it. Got outrebounded, gave them everything, 38 points in the first quarter. Too big of a cushion for that.’’

The Bulls made a run in the third quarter and cut the deficit to 11 points, but it never got closer. Butler’s 18 points led the team.

‘‘It’s tied 1-1, and we go back to Chicago now,’’ center Joakim Noah said. ‘‘That’s it.’’

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @suntimes_hoops