CLEVELAND -— Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff had a definite message for his team heading into the rematch Sunday night against the Bulls.
“They need to feel us,’’ he said, referring to the idea that young teams could send a bad message to the opposition in the preseason if they appear soft.
If a team appears to be a pushover in exhibition play, that tag could carry over into the regular season, especially against teams within the division. That was Bickerstaff’s concern.
Getting run out of the gym against the Bulls in Chicago on Tuesday by 36 points was unacceptable — preseason or not.
So there was a different energy Sunday at the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, even if the Bulls pulled it out late 102-101.
It’s a good thing for the Bulls that Billy Donovan doesn’t have that exact preseason mindset.
Not that the visiting coach necessarily disagreed with Bickerstaff, but these Bulls have Donovan operating in a different head space. This team was put together not only to win games but to make a dent in the bigger picture.
“The way I look at it, with [executive vice president of basketball operations] Arturas [Karnisovas] and [general manager] Marc [Eversley] coming in, can we really build a sustainable culture? Are we playing to a standard? Are we building a culture?’’ Donovan said. “The guys that were here last year, you kind of started that process, and then the roster flipped, so we’re back to that process now. What kind of standard are we going to play to? Those are the kinds of things you’re battling toward.
“We have to establish the culture more so than, ‘Hey, we won tonight, we lost tonight.’ Maybe you win some games because you’re talented, but is what we’re doing sustainable? Can we be a sustainable team? Like, ‘OK, we won tonight, but this is not going to be sustainable against the highest-level teams.’ So what are we doing to build something that is sustainable to compete at the very highest level?’’
What they’ve been doing early in this preseason was playing defense at a high level, staying relatively turnover-free and sharing the ball.
Midway through the fourth quarter — or when the regulars were basically done playing — the Bulls had allowed the Cavs to shoot 47% from the field, while their ball movement was a far cry from what they had displayed in the first two games.
The starters finished with nine assists, turning it over 11 times.
But even on a night in which the play was less than stellar, an average showing by the Bulls (3-0) is better than a Cleveland team trying to throw haymakers.
Still, lesson learned.
“You can learn from every game,’’ guard Zach LaVine said. “We didn’t come out with the same aggressiveness on offense or defense, and that showed. It doesn’t matter who you play, these are all NBA players. They came out the more physical team.
“And that’s on us.’’
The one highlight of the game? Chicago’s own Ayo Dosunmu riding in on the horse and playing hero. Not only did the former Illinois standout score nine points in seven minutes down the stretch, but he hit the basket to put the Bulls up three with 13.8 seconds left.
“He doesn’t have any fear at all,’’ LaVine said. “He’s stone-cold. Doesn’t care about the situation. He’s going to play his heart out. He pretty much won us the game.’’