It doesn't really matter what uniforms Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden are wearing as long as LeBron James' still reads "Cavaliers, No. 23."
In the first of four meetings since a three-team, 11-player trade dramatically altered the Cavaliers' and Bulls' futures, James scored 37 points and took over down the stretch of a 95-86 victory to write a script with a familiar ending in this Bulls season.
Tied at 83-83 with just over three minutes remaining, James sandwiched a left-handed scoop shot and thunderous dunk around a forced miss by Hughes, then turned the last of Ben Gordon's five turnovers into a jumper for a six-point lead.
After Gooden committed an offensive foul, James penetrated to free new teammate Wally Szczerbiak for a wide-open three-pointer. The Bulls, who dropped to a season-low 13 games below .500, closed on the short end of a 12-3 run.
"People have to step up and take a leadership role and understand that at the end of games, teams will play their best defense," interim coach Jim Boylan said. "You have to be ready to respond."
The Bulls appeared poised to do that when Hughes and Gordon each scored six points as part of an 18-3 run for a 76-68 lead with 9 minutes 56 seconds remaining.
But Smith hurt his former team by scoring all eight of his points in the final 8:08. And the Bulls collapsed in a series of bad turnovers (they had 18), bad shots (Gordon and Luol Deng went 8-for-26) and a heavy dose of James.
"That's what he thrives on," said Hughes, who should know.
Hughes admitted to getting "really juiced up" at the team hotel before the game. Despite being booed by fans who cheered him as a starter in last year's NBA Finals, Hughes settled down for a 23-point, five-rebound, four-assist game.
Gooden, cheered during introductions, added 11 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double as a Bull.
"Those guys will always be my teammates," Gooden said of the Cavs. "This organization meant a lot to me and my family."
Wallace, who now sports No. 4 in a nod to what he wore during his days at nearby Cuyahoga Community College, uttered similar sentiments about his days in Chicago.
"I got nothing but love and respect for those guys," he said. "They got a lot of young guys who are going to be impact players in this league before long. I encouraged them to keep playing.
"Of course, I wish things had worked out a little bit different. But if I had to leave, this is the situation I would have wanted to come to. I'm excited to have this opportunity."
One such opportunity is catching passes for easy baskets from James, who had six assists. Wallace finished with seven points, eight rebounds and two blocks, including one on a Deng dunk attempt.
"That ain't right," Wallace said with a smile.
Little is about this Bulls season. Hughes hasn't been here long, but this ending has happened before.
"You just have to be better, everybody," he said. "We have to keep competing."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun