CHICAGO -- The Cleveland Cavaliers are such a likable little team, so carefully built with hard workers and solid citizens, that it's a shame what's about to happen to them.
They finally are mended after three seasons of injury problems and trade-induced strife, and they have diligently played their way into the Eastern Conference finals.
But against the Chicago Bulls, the Cavs are receiving the unkindest of revelations: They still aren't good enough.
Last night, the Bulls made that point emphatically in a 103-89 opening-game victory that left little doubt as to the better team.
Chicago, finally unleashed after a stifling series against the thuggish New York Knicks, scampered happily out to a 20-point second-quarter lead and successfully repelled ensuing Cleveland rushes.
Occasionally, the Cavaliers would narrow the margin below a dozen points -- they got to within seven at one heady juncture of the fourth quarter -- but then the Bulls simply would turn to Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen for fresh points, and the matter would be resolved.
Jordan and Pippen combined for 62 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists. It is a disastrous reality for Cleveland that Chicago is strongest at the two positions -- shooting guard and small forward -- at which the Cavaliers are weakest.
This series may yet have different stories to tell, but they will be short stories quickly told -- unless Cleveland can detect some Chicago weaknesses that weren't apparent last night.
"We were a little flat tonight," Cavs coach Lenny Wilkens said. "We're going to look at some things, and I guarantee we're going to be a lot sharper in the next game."
The next game is at Chicago Stadium tomorrow night, but Cleveland's sharpness was not necessarily at issue last night. The Cavaliers shot the ball as well as the Bulls and, after an early spate of turnovers, executed as well.
But the mannerly Cavs did none of the sort of manhandling of the Bulls that the Knicks did to such effect in the second round.
"The Knicks were successful?" Wilkens said. "They're not still playing, are they?"
No, but they grabbed the Bulls by the throat early, winning the first game of that series in Chicago, and didn't relent until Sunday's seventh-game blowout.
"We controlled the tempo of the game," Jordan said. "It was something we wanted to do, but we didn't think it would be this easy. They were a little timid defensively. This is new ground for them -- the conference finals. Maybe they were jittery at the beginning.
"We were able to get out in the open court more, and it made it easier for us to establish ourselves and get out and run with it.
"They weren't on us as hard as New York was," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "But we anticipate a more determined Cleveland team the next time out. This is a club that shoots better than they did tonight."
"We're not going to change our offensive or defensive strategy," said center Brad Daugherty, who led the Cavs with 23 points. "It got us where we are today. But we can't give them an early lead like we did today. Their game is a running game, and we played into their hands."