The statue outside is of Michael Jordan. The court inside, come playoff time, has often belonged to LeBron James.
James is headed back to Chicago — with J.R. Smith joining him for the first time in the series — when the Cleveland Cavaliers face the Bulls tonight in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Los Angeles Clippers host the Houston Rockets in the other game on the NBA’s playoff schedule after a league-wide night off Thursday. That series is tied 1-1.
So is the East series after James had 33 points and eight rebounds Wednesday night in Cleveland’s 106-91 victory. The Cavaliers will have to win in Chicago after losing home-court advantage by dropping the series opener, and James has often been up to the task.
His teams are 5-2 at the United Center in the postseason, with James averaging 28.6 points, 9.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists, according to STATS. That includes a series victory with the Cavs in 2010 and two with Miami.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge, like we do every night. We know it’s going to be a tough environment,” James said after Game 2.
“These guys don’t particularly know,” he said about his inexperienced Cavs teammates, “but I’ve been there before and I know how hard it is to win in that building. Those fans are amazing and they feed off their crowd and they play exceptional basketball at home, so we have to be just as good as we were tonight.”
Smith could help with that. Suspended for the first two games of the series for striking Boston’s Jae Crowder in Game 4 of the Cavs’ first-round sweep, he hasn’t played since April 26, though Cavs coach David Blatt isn’t worried that having to reintegrate him will be a problem.
“Absolutely it’s an addition and a positive one. To that, there’s no negative side,” Blatt said. “We’re getting one of our main guys back, a guy who knows how to play, a guy who’s been a big contributor and a guy who fits in with us. I don’t see any negative in that, only a positive.”
A look at the two games:
Cavaliers at Bulls, tied 1-1, 8 p.m. EDT, ESPN
Blatt said Iman Shumpert, who injured his groin in Game 2, was feeling better Thursday and was hopeful of playing. He said Shumpert’s health could determine if he remains in the starting lineup or if Smith reclaims his spot.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau seems committed to keeping his lineup as is, even with center Joakim Noah struggling. Noah is 1 for 14 from the free throw line in the postseason and Thibodeau was asked Thursday if he would consider starting backup forward Taj Gibson instead.
“Not right now,” Thibodeau said. “When Jo was on the floor, we were a plus. You’ve got to look at a lot of things. We’ll see how it unfolds, but Jo brings a lot to our team.”
Noah is leading the Bulls with 10.8 rebounds per game in the postseason and said his free-throw woes haven’t become a mental thing.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep working and make them tomorrow.”
Rockets at Clippers, tied 1-1, 10:30 p.m. EDT, ESPN
Chris Paul tested his injured hamstring on the court Thursday, though it’s still unknown if he can play Friday in the first game at Staples Center since his series-winning shot against San Antonio last Saturday in Game 7.
“My guess is it’s going to come down to the eye and feel test. With hamstrings, there really is no gauge,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.
The Clippers took the opener in Houston without Paul and had a nine-point lead at halftime of Game 2 before the Rockets surged ahead behind James Harden’s big fourth quarter and won 115-109.
“We’ve got momentum,” Harden said. “That second half we played extremely well and we’re going to take this momentum and take it into Game 3. It’s going to be a great test for us.”
If Paul can’t play, the pressure remains on Blake Griffin, who was dominant in the first three halves without his point guard but seemed to wear down in the second half of Game 2. He had only eight points after scoring 26 before the break.
“In the first half, he got what he wanted. In the second half, we made it a little more difficult for him,” Rockets center Dwight Howard said. “He’s a terrific scorer, especially in the open court. We just have to do a better job of fighting for 48 minutes and not allowing him to have those big games.”
AP Sports Writers Tom Withers in Cleveland, Andrew Seligman in Chicago, Beth Harris in Los Angeles and Kristie Rieken in Houston contributed to this report.
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