CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers’ lineups are changing daily. Their defense is a mess, their slow starts are puzzling and the starting point guard is hurt.
Cleveland’s got some problems.
LeBron James minimizes them all.
Making a rare start at point guard, James scored 34 points as the Cavs, using another early season lineup, awakened after a sluggish first half and beat the Chicago Bulls 119-112 on Tuesday night.
Although he often handles the ball and runs Cleveland’s offense, James had not officially been listed as a guard since 2012 with Miami. The superstar added 13 assists, including a no-look, behind-the-back dish to Jae Crowder for a 3-pointer during Cleveland’s 15-3 spurt in the third quarter.
The Bulls did all they could. James just did more.
“You’re playing against the best player on the planet,” Chicago coach Fred Hoiberg said.
Kevin Love had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and Dwyane Wade, who asked Cavs coach Tyronn Lue to take him out of the starting lineup, came off the bench and added 11 points.
Justin Holiday scored 25 and rookie Lauri Markkanen 19 for Chicago, which made a season-high 17 3-pointers. The 7-foot Markkanen became the first player in NBA history to make 10 3-pointers in his first three career games.
Cleveland trailed 92-91 entering the fourth before Love dropped a 3 and Kyle Korver made a pair of 3s in 33 seconds. Chicago closed within six in the final two minutes, but the Cavs came up with two offensive rebounds to reset the shot clock before James drove past Markkanen for a left-handed layup to make it 118-110.
It was vintage James, perhaps the only player in the game who can play either guard spot, both forward positons and center.
It’s how he was raised.
“Ever since I was a kid I’ve always learned every position on the floor,” he said. “The point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center. And know all the plays, what they’re doing and reads. Coach slides me to the 1, I know every set. If he slides me to the 5, I know the 5. I know the 4. I know the 3. I know the 2.
“I know every single play in every single position, so it makes the job a lot easier for me because I know where I should be and what my teammates should do.”
The Cavs were coming off an embarrassing loss to Orlando and their defense was atrocious in the first half, when the Bulls made 12 3-pointers and scored 65 points — 12 less than in their previous game.
Lue has been experimenting with lineups and combinations because of new players and injuries. He trotted out another new starting five — his third in three games — against the Bulls, moving James to the point, and starting Tristan Thompson at center so Love wouldn’t have to guard 7-foot-1 Robin Lopez the entire game.
But Cleveland’s starters let Chicago control things early. Dropping uncontested 3-pointers, the Bulls opened a 14-point lead before the second group — led by Wade and Jeff Green — got the Cavs back in it. Green finished with 16 points.
“Thank God for our bench,” said Lue, who angrily got after his team at halftime about defense. “But we’ve got to be better — 17 3s again where guys are just looking at us, staring us down and raising for shots. We talked about making the guys put the ball on the floor and we didn’t learn our lesson.”
Bulls: Chicago came within one 3-pointer of matching the club record set on March 12, 2011. … Lopez banked in his second career 3-pointer as the shot clock expired in the first quarter. Lopez made his first career 3 on Saturday against San Antonio. … Former Cavs point guard Kay Felder, picked up on waivers from Atlanta before the season, scored 13 points in 15 minutes.
Cavaliers: Snapped a five-game losing streak to Chicago. … Starting PG Derrick Rose missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle. … James played in his 771st regular-season game, matching center Zydrunas Ilgauskas for the most in franchise history.
James is impressed with Markkanen, the No. 7 overall pick from Arizona.
“Very confident,” James said. “I watched him a lot. He wore my shoes a couple times. He wore my retro ‘Brons a couple times and I liked that. Can shoot the heck out of the ball and he’s going to continue to get better. And the best thing about it is he’ll get an opportunity.”
Markkanen didn’t show any nerves, but was in awe being on the floor with James.
“That’s a dream come true for me,” he said. “Your favorite player when you’re growing up and then you get to go against him. He’s a pretty tough guy to guard.”
Cleveland has been outscored 74-46 in the first quarter of the last two games.
Bulls: Host Atlanta on Thursday.
Cavaliers: Hit the road at Brooklyn on Wednesday night before playing at New Orleans on Friday.