By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — LeBron James embraces challenges, big or small, personal or professional. They drive him, push him, make him dig deeper.
He’s now facing another daunting one. Actually, a dozen of them.
The Bulls are charging at him.
On Monday, the Cleveland Cavaliers, missing two starters, opened their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals against a confident and finally healthy Chicago team looking to exact some revenge on James, who has eliminated them from the NBA playoffs three times since 2010.
The Cavs, who entered the postseason as the East’s favorite to make the NBA Finals, were without power forward Kevin Love and his 10 rebounds and floor-spacing ability and will remain out for the rest of the postseason after he underwent shoulder surgery. And, they also missed starting guard J.R. Smith, who has been suspended for Games 1 and 2.
Down two key players, Cleveland appears vulnerable – except James is still around.
“Nah, we’re not vulnerable at all,” James said. “It’s just basketball. You go out and play, you try to win and give it your best shot.”
Speaking of shots, the Cavs got some hard ones from the Bulls.
Cleveland is coming off a four-game series sweep over Boston that was anything but easy. The Celtics were physical with the Cavs, who lost Love when Boston’s Kelly Olynyk yanked his shoulder from the socket in Game 4. The Bulls are one of the league’s toughest, most defensive-minded teams, and the Cavs are preparing for a dogfight.
“Without a doubt,” Cavs guard Iman Shumpert said following practice Sunday. “If not more (physical). I just think that’s just every round you go through, it just gets a little more physical because, guys don’t want to go home.”
James has some history with the Bulls. He’s never lost to them in the playoffs, beating Chicago in 2010 in his first stint with Cleveland and twice with Miami (2011, 2013). He’s averaging 27.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists while going 12-3 against the Bulls in postseason.
Despite his dominance of the Bulls, James dismissed any thought the past gives him any confidence.
“Every year is different,” he said. “Yes, I’ve had success but that doesn’t mean anything today. My approach is always the same but every playoff run is different and for me I have to make sure myself and my guys are ready for a very, very competitive and well-coached ball club.”
Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau first crossed postseason paths with James as an assistant in Boston. He didn’t have much luck scheming ways to stop James then either.
“The only thing you can do with him is try to make him work for his points,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t really give him a steady diet of anything. You have to mix it up on him. The thing that makes him who he is he can beat you a lot of different ways. It’s not only his scoring. It’s his passing. He’s seen every type of defense there is.”
And unlike past Cleveland teams, the Cavaliers have two All-Stars: James and guard Kyrie Irving, who averaged 23.3 points against the Celtics in his first playoff series.
“Any team that has LeBron and Kyrie, you’re not short-handed,” Thibodeau said.
Here are some other things to keep in mind as the Bulls and Cavs tangle:
PUBLIC ENEMY: Bulls center Joakim Noah has spent the past few seasons needling Cleveland -and James.
In the past, Noah has criticized the city for not being exciting, and he and James have had their share of physical and verbal confrontations. Still, James respects Noah and what he means to the Bulls.
“A guy that you hate to compete against but if he’s your teammate you love him,” James said. “He’s one of their glue guys. He plays well, they play well. His energy, his effort, he’s a guy that you as a fan love to watch him, as a competitor you hate him.”
NO LOVE: The script is flipped for the Bulls. For once, they have all their key players available, while the other team is missing pieces.
“I guess that’s the irony there,” Chicago’s Mike Dunleavy Jr. said. “We certainly have (empathy) because we’ve been in that situation before.”
The last time the Bulls had Derrick Rose available for the duration of the postseason was in 2011, when he capped an MVP season with a loss to Miami in the conference finals.
SEASON SERIES: Cleveland went 3-1 vs. Chicago during the regular season, winning the most recent pre-finals matchup 99-94 on April 5. Rose missed that game with a knee injury.
In the Monday match-up, the Bulls were decisive in their victory over the Cavs winning 99 to 92.