CLEVELAND (AP) — They’ve got more depth. They’ve got more size. They’ve got Shaq. And, of course, they’ve still got LeBron James.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have a different look this postseason.
“We,” James said, “have the look of a champion.”
Completely healthy and well rested, the Cavaliers took their first step toward an NBA title on Saturday as James scored 24 points and Shaquille O’Neal looked and played 10 years younger in a 96-83 victory over the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference series.
O’Neal, playing for the first time since tearing a thumb ligament on Feb. 25, had 12 points, five rebounds, four assists and three blocks in 24 minutes as the top-seeded Cavs won a testy opener between two teams that obviously don’t care for each other.
“I have no friends in that locker room, except for Danny Green,” said Chicago’s Joakim Noah, who was plagued by foul trouble and booed for much of the game by Cleveland fans. “I don’t really know nobody on that team and I don’t really care. I just want to win.”
The Bulls, who trimmed a 22-point deficit to seven in the fourth quarter before wearing down, will get a chance to even the best-of-seven series Monday night in Cleveland.
Derrick Rose had 28 points and 10 assists for Chicago, which had the misfortune of being the first team to face the Cavs in these playoffs. Cleveland has been rebuilt for a championship, adding starters O’Neal, Antawn Jamison and Anthony Parker to a team that made it to the Eastern Conference finals last year.
After they were eliminated last May by Orlando, the Cavaliers went out and traded for O’Neal, a four-time NBA champion and icon. O’Neal was brought in not only to combat Magic center Dwight Howard but to help James win his first title and deliver Cleveland its first in any major pro sport since 1964.
The Cavs need 15 more wins to get it.
“Everyone knows it’s the first team to 16 wins,” O’Neal said.
Leading 68-46, the Cavs were coasting to an easy win when the Bulls, who have been in playoff mode for the past two weeks as they fought for the No. 8 seed, stormed back. They scored 12 straight and were still within striking distance, down 73-60 entering the fourth.
Chicago cut it to 82-75 on Brad Miller’s basket, but James converted a three-point play with 2:29 left and Mo Williams followed with a 3-pointer to put Cleveland up 94-81.
The comeback may have fallen short, but it gave the Bulls confidence for Game 2.
“We can’t wait to play,” Rose said. “I know I can’t. This is something I live for. I think about it every minute of the day, playing against the best team in the NBA.”
Williams added 19 points and 10 assists, and Jamison, acquired at the trading deadline from Washington, had 15 points and 10 rebounds. Cleveland blocked 12 shots — 10 in the second half.
James was his usual MVP self, making plays at both ends. But unlike past postseasons, he doesn’t have to do it alone this time.
O’Neal, who upon arriving in Cleveland promised to “win a ring for the King,” looked remarkably sharp despite missing the Cavs’ final 23 games after undergoing surgery to fix his thumb. He dropped 20 pounds while he was sidelined by watching his diet and swimming.
“This is very vital for me, vital for everybody,” he said. “I wanted to come back extra, extra ready. This is the time we have to be ready.”
Cleveland’s offense ran smoothly while O’Neal was in the middle and he had the game’s signature play early in the third quarter.
Posting up Noah in the foul lane, the 7-foot-1 O’Neal made a quick spin move toward the baseline that faked out the Bulls center, who stumbled forward and nearly fell on his face. O’Neal then delivered a dunk and sprinted back down the floor scowling.
“That’s the patented move I’ve been doing for years,” the 38-year-old O’Neal said. “That’s the ‘Diesel Truck with No Brakes.’ When I get into that mood people get out of the way because they know I’m in the cab and I don’t have any brakes.”
Noah became quick road kill.
“I kind of knew he was going to do it at first, so I tried to take it away,” Noah said. “Then he waited and waited until a good time. He just knows how to use that 350 pounds.”
The teams, which split their two regular-season meetings, traded words and shoves on more than one occasion. Noah, who said the Bulls would “try to shock the world” in the series, got into it with Anderson Varejao. James and Brad Miller were assessed technicals in the first half following a collision, and James and Luol Deng had a discussion after the halftime horn.
Miller had to get medical treatment after taking an elbow from O’Neal, who was playing in his 204th postseason game.
“Just taking an elbow to the damn chin and bleeding,” Miller said. “My foul.”
James, who sat out Cleveland’s final four regular-season games to rest for the playoffs, was on the floor more than three hours before tip getting in some extra work. He’s waited almost one year to spit out the bitterness of coming up short last year and isn’t taking any chances.
Before the game, he conveyed that to his teammates.
“I told them, this is what have all waited for,” he said. “This is why we play hard throughout the regular season and throughout practices — to get to this point. As much as we loved the regular season, we love the postseason even more.”