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Suddenly, Cavaliers series, and LeBron James, are in play

Now a look at those rampaging Cavaliers, completing their first-round sw—.

Never mind.

A funny thing has happened to the team that blew everyone away this season in their matchup with the Bulls, who made the playoffs because Toronto, which had a 1½-game lead and the tiebreaker with 11 days left, collapsed.

The Bulls won a game, beating the over-under on their total in the series, zero.

Of course, the Cavaliers already led, 2-0, but Game 1 wasn’t a blowout and the Bulls went into the fourth quarter of Game 2 tied with them.

They were still just the Bulls, seeded a lowly No. 8 in a city that, unlike Cleveland, doesn’t see the local NBA team as its reason for living, or it would have been evacuated years ago.

Tweeted Cavaliers play-by-play broadcaster Fred McLeod before Game 3:

“Not saying it’s a fe de compli in Chicago . . . but Bulls are on page 4 of the Tribune, kicked off front page by the Cubs and NFL draft.”

He meant fait accompli, French for done deal, which it certainly wasn’t. The Cavaliers lost, making it close only after trailing by 21.

Shaquille O’Neal, as svelte as he has been since LSU but no more explosive than in recent years, is averaging 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds.

Dieting faithfully while he was out — now he starts? — Shaq looks as if he has crashed the 325-pound barrier for the first time this millennium.

That would be good because right now, he’s a 325-pound anchor.

Back home, quiet concern has replaced jubilation, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s selection as the Cavaliers comment of the day warning: “They had better decide to play every minute on both ends or they will be making excuses all off-season.”

In the really bad news, an upset would have consequences a lot more dire than that, like the end of the Cavaliers as they’ve known them.

There’s no getting around the fact that this series also serves as the Bulls’ audition for free agent LeBron James, should he feel like leaving.

Let’s see, Shaq, 38, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, 37, are free agents.

Otherwise, it’s Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao vs. Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng.

Or, as former Chicago Tribune great Sam Smith, now writing for Bulls.com, noted:

“Hey, there’s room for another statue on the west side of the United Center.”

Amazingly, with all their young players, the Bulls, who have cleared a maximum salary slot, are just awakening to the possibility.

Not that they’ve fared well in previous recruiting wars.

Fate dropped Michael Jordan and Rose into their laps in the draft, or recent history might be as grisly as the early days in the Amphitheater, conveniently close to their namesakes on hooves in the stockyards.

In the last days of MJ, they eyed Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett, supposedly a local guy because of his year at Farragut Academy.

KG re-signed with the Timberwolves, saying he would never have considered the Bulls after Scottie Pippen’s contentious contract negotiations.

With two maximum slots for the big-free agent bazaar of 2000, the Bulls couldn’t get Detroit’s Grant Hill to visit. Toronto’s Tracy McGrady visited, then signed with Orlando, joining Hill. Charlotte’s Eddie Jones accepted their offer, then, while they were typing up the announcement, reneged and signed with Miami.

The Bulls got Ron Mercer.

This season, they started off realistically, eyeing Dwyane Wade, an area native . . . which just meant he knows all about local winters.

With Miami considered the front-runner for Phoenix’s Amare Stoudemire and Wade expected to stay, the Bulls now have Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson atop their list.

However, if James clearly wants to stay where he is, he also gave up guaranteed money to be a free agent this summer and refused an extension offer for a reason — to see what happens.

Of course, the Bulls have an issue or two, like the physical confrontation between Vice President John Paxson and Coach Vinny Del Negro, who’d have been out the door by now if Toronto had finished 10-17 instead of 9-18.

The speed at which both sides got contradictory versions into the media recently when the story surfaced suggests an irreparable breach.

Of course, what if. . .

Bulls beat Cavaliers — Vinny comes back next season, lasts till Thanksgiving or first three-game losing streak, whichever comes first.

Bulls make Eastern finals — Vinny gets one-year extension with $1-million raise.

Bulls make NBA Finals — Vinny gets three-year extension with $2.5-million annual raises.

Bulls win title — Vinny gets five-year extension as coach and head of basketball operations. Pax goes back to broadcasting crew.

So, even if Sunday’s Game 4 isn’t single-elimination, and this series isn’t the last chapter in this story, all that’s up for grabs is LeBron.

mark.heisler@latimes.com


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