By Steve Aschburner, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 14 2010 3:31PM
On paper, this is the biggest mismatch of the 2010 playoffs: The East's No. 1 seed, sporting the league's best overall record and homecourt advantage throughout (with a week to spare actually) vs. a team that scrambled to qualify on the final night and barely made it to .500. In truth ... well, it likely will be the biggest mismatch of the playoffs there, too.
Cleveland won't be challenge-less in the first round, mind you. That great rest vs. rust debate means the Cavaliers must guard against spotting Chicago a game or two that could haunt them in later rounds. Then there's overconfidence against which to guard. And the tricky process of working Shaq back into the rotation. Let's not neglect the Bulls entirely, since they did play with some urgency down the stretch and are healthier than they have been most of the season. Besides, based on recent news reports, they ought to have a puncher's -- or at least a shover's -- chance in the series.
1. Was it smart of Cleveland to rest LeBron James and others so much in the final week?We'll see. Dropping 1-2 games to Chicago might not alter series, but adding to their postseason workload could hurt.
2. Is Shaq's return on track? They mostly need him for the third round. But Hickson is better as a starter, and a dropoff from him off the bench would be a shame.
3. Could Chicago's off-court turmoil be a distraction? It might foster an us-against-the-world mindset that actually helps in playoffs.
4. Will these coaches be back in October? Odd, isn't it, that both Mike Brown and Vinny Del Negro have so many critics while leading playoff teams? Anyway, here's your answer: One will be.
5. Can Chicago do to Cleveland what it did last spring to Boston? Seven games with a bushel of OTs? Uh oh, better check Noah's minutes limit!
A veteran NBA assistant coach provided some unbiased breakdowns of the two teams. Of Cleveland's offense these days, he said: "It's going to be a pick-and-roll with Mo Williams and Shaq involved, trying to get momentum to the basket. Or they'll run some iso's -- a pick-and-roll on one side and then swing it to LeBron on the weak side, where he can attack or run another pick-and-roll. They do a good job of getting the ball from side to side. They'll try to get Shaq some touches in the paint to get him going. From what I've seen, they'll try to get Jamison some step-ups by running a pick-and-roll with Mo Williams -- Jamison is really good at rolling or pumping off of that."
Chicago, our coach said, at least is better equipped to cope with Cleveland than the Toronto Raptors would have been. "The Bulls have some pieces. Believe it or not, Hinrich is a solid defender," he said. "Rose has gotten better. Miller knows how to play position defense. And Noah does an excellent job of blocking shots, clogging the middle and talking defense. He can match Varajao's energy the way he runs the floor and dives to the basket."
From the sound of it, the Cavaliers might as well be playing Miami. "The Bulls try to get Rose in as many pick-and-rolls as they possibly can and make sure he can catch and attack. They want him in the middle of the floor so he has maximum room to attack the rim. I see them wanting to get Rose with momentum going toward Shaq and Varajao and Ilgauskus. That's a tough matchup for Mo Williams.
The Bulls' lack of reliable outside shooting since Ben Gordon left last summer and John Salmons was traded in February will allow the Cavaliers to pack the middle to thwart Rose's drives. "But what helps Chicago," the assistant coach said, "is playing Rose and Hinrich together. Hinrich is a solid shooter, and when Rose draws and kicks, that gets him open."
Don't be fooled by Cleveland's claims of a new, more egalitarian offense in which the resident superstar lifts a lighter load. That's the view of Boston center Kendrick Perkins anyway. "It's just LeBron," Perkins said this week. "At the end of the day, it's LeBron. Another MVP season, 30-8-and-8, that's pretty impressive. That's LeBron."
At the end of tight games, it surely is, with four other Cavaliers getting out of his way. The challenge for the Bulls is that they don't have a natural defender to match up against him since Salmons was moved. Deng gets overpowered and, for all of his grit, Hinrich doesn't have the size either. "One thing Chicago can do," the NBA assistant coach said, "is run Noah at him -- he's energetic andcan trap pretty quickly. They'll just have to send double-teams."
When Chicago faces a late-game situation, it will be Rose, only more so. "You might bring Noah up but, when you do that, now you're bringing another defender to the ball," our expert said. "So they might just flatten it out where he can go 1-4, Rose in attack mode going 1-on-1." At that point, James could be Cleveland's counter. He could get the benefit of doubt from officials -- the "superstar treatment" our coach called it -- and James reads situations, moves his feet and has punishing size.
The biggest hurdle for the Cavaliers will be working O'Neal, recovered from his thumb injury, back into the center of its offense and defense. There's not a lot of urgency right now -- let's face it, they acquired him last summer as an antidote for Orlando's Dwight Howard -- but it still is a process that will require minutes for the big man and patience with the results. Mike Brown, for all his critics, has done a swell job of blending the new pieces given him by GM Danny Ferry and seems geared to playoff coaching where he and his staff can lock in on one foe.
Chicago, meanwhile, might be the most relaxed team in these playoffs. Nothing is expected of the Bulls, of course, and they already have gutted out a final week that was as intense as anything they'll face next. Whether dropping games they shouldn't have (Milwaukee minus Bogut, at New Jersey), winning at critical times (Toronto, Boston, Charlotte) or dealing with the Del Negro-Paxson sideshow, the Bulls already have their adrenaline flowing. Del Negro has held it all together while wondering where he'll be working next season.
If people think Cleveland overdid the rest thing over the season's final week, what will they say when the Cavaliers have a bunch of days between their first-round sweep and their opener against the Boston-Miami winner? Chicago barely beat Cleveland last week at United Center with LeBron in street clothes -- that tends to get tougher when the guy suits up. Cleveland in four.
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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