CHICAGO: Zydrunas Ilgauskas wasn't even in the Windy City on Thursday night, but he certainly had an effect on the outcome.
Covered by the buzz of former teammates matching up and LeBron James' continued offensive dominance, it was easy to overlook the impact the Cavaliers felt without their ailing big man. It was driven home by the Chicago Bulls, who ended the Cavs' three-game win streak with a resounding 107-96 win.
Ever since Ilgauskas shut things down last weekend when his bad back forced him to take a sabbatical, the Cavs' interior understandably hasn't been the same. The Bulls certainly noticed and, combined with an active big man looking to prove a point in Joakim Noah, embarrassed the Cavs in the area they usually dominate.
Noah had a career-high 20 rebounds and the Bulls (25-36) slammed the Cavs around the basket, winning the rebound battle 56-48 and putting up 25 second-chance points off 21 offensive rebounds, both seasons highs for Cavs' opponents. All that and Chicago was without big man Tyrus Thomas, who was suspended.
''We didn't box out; we just sort of went to the glass,'' Cavs (35-27) coach Mike Brown said. ''And (Noah) is
so long and active and athletic that he just jumped over us.''
For the last five seasons, the Cavs have been one of the best rebounding teams and one of the best second-chance scoring teams in the NBA. There are two reasons: the double teams James commands that mess up opponents' schemes, and Ilgauskas has almost always been in the middle. The third straight missed game is the most time Ilgauskas has been out in seven years.
So while Thursday could've been about former Bull Ben Wallace coming back to Chicago for the first time since being traded away, it really said something else. Even with Wallace and Joe Smith and a quasi-healthy Anderson Varejao, Ilgauskas is still a vital centerpiece.
''Z is really important to our team,'' said James, who had 39 points but did not play one of his better games. ''Just the way he changes the offense and how he spaces the floor and his rebounding and shot-blocking ability.''
Both Varejao and Wallace finished the game with 10 rebounds, but that sort of covers up their performance. Neither could control Noah, whose agility and jumping ability made it tough to box out in loose-ball settings as he pulled down 10 offensive rebounds.
Varejao was especially guilty, getting beat at his own energy game. He looks to be still favoring his left leg as he's coming back from a high-ankle sprain that appears to be limiting his jumping ability. He was also just 2-of-11 from the floor, further emphasizing Ilgauskas' absence.
''I'm not saying it is all him. That is not the reason why Noah kicked our behind,'' Brown said. ''Even if both your ankles are hurt you can still put a body on somebody.''
Brown felt his team in general had a hangover from Wednesday, when they won an offense-dominated game against the Knicks in New York. The 58 percent shooting the Cavs allowed the Bulls to shoot in the second half certainly supported that.
The Cavs gave up 216 points in the back-to-back set, which made them fortunate to come out 1-1, considering the way they are constructed.
But there were offensive issues, too, and it included the usually infallible James. He did have another highlight-filled night, but he simply was not his normal self.
After making a series of circus shots in the first half on his way to 26 points, James fell into a rare shot-chucking mode in the second half. He had a season-low one assist, and at times in the second half took contested shots over three defenders. He went just 3-of-12 after halftime, when fatigue also might have been a factor.
Without Ilgauskas as a safety net and with no other Cav showing much urgency to get to the basket, the Cavs had just six points in the paint after the half as the Bulls shot past them. A 19-2 run in the third quarter set the Bulls up for the win, as Ben Gordon scored nine of his 23 points.
''There was no sense of urgency to get stops,'' Brown said. ''It is concerning for me right now.''
Brian Windhorst can be reached at email@example.com. Read his blog at http://www.ohiomm.com/blogs/cavs/.