Pippen hopes Bulls will defend their home court against LeBron's Cavs
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The Bulls obviously have their hands full in their first round series with the Cavaliers, taking on the game’s best player in LeBron James. He seemed to start out fairly casually, if you can call it that, in Game 1. But in Game 2, he pushed the envelope and showed he was out to dominate, which he did down the stretch of a close game.
LeBron is doing what he needs to do to get his team on track, and he realizes he can turn it up to another level and any given time. I feel he came into his own this season as he continues to figure out how to make the game so much easier for himself and his teammates. We saw what he did throughout the regular season and he took some time off at the end, but now that the playoffs are here, he is right back to playing to his full capabilities. Unfortunately for the Bulls, that means they are in trouble as he poses so many matchup problems. It’s not easy for anyone to stabilize LeBron when he is competing like he is right now.
It may have seemed like the Bulls didn’t get LeBron’s best shot in Game 1, but I think he came out in Game 2 and tried to play the same way. However, the Bulls obviously came out with a different mindset. They played much better and their energy level was much higher. They seemed to be a much different team than the one who looked like they might not be able to hang with Cleveland in the first half of Game 1. If Chicago takes advantage of their youth and athleticism, there is a chance they can outplay Cleveland, which they did to a degree for three quarters in Game 2. It’s funny to label LeBron as the wild card in this series, but if he takes over games like he did at the end of Game 2 and turns it up, this series could be over quickly. But if he’s not on his game or missing shots, they become more of an average team and the Bulls can compete.
The Bulls really need to get Game 3 in Chicago on Thursday. That would give them some life and confidence. No one is picking them to win this series and they know that. But a win would give them a breath of fresh air and allow them to put some pressure on the Cavs. LeBron will continue to lead Cleveland, but will he hit shots in Chicago like he did in Game 2? He’s one of the top scorers in the league so he’ll get his points, but if the Bulls can keep it close and be in a position to win late in the game, that’s all you can ask for.
Chicago has to come in with the mentality that they have to defend their home court. That’s what it all boils down to. Right now the pressure is on the Bulls, but you can only take it one game at a time. If they get a win in Chicago, maybe that puts a little pressure back on the Cavs. That’s why Game 3 is so important; it’s the pivotal game of the series.
The Bulls are the 8th seed and a very young team. We all knew they’d be outmanned against the top-seeded Cavaliers. So you hope that they will play well and complete. To me, we’ve seen that so far in this series.
Derrick Rose is off to another great playoff series. He’s in such a great situation and he’s made the most of it in his two seasons. When he came to the team, they needed a point guard and a leader. He was put into a position that forced him to grow up quickly, but he’s handled it well and played through his mistakes. He’s out there on the court night in and night out, and it’s allowed him to develop to the point that he’s an All-Star at only 21 years of age. Derrick wants to put on an All-Star performance every time he goes out on the court. We’re seeing that growth and maturity as his game improves and it’s a lot of fun to watch. He’s proven that he’s ready to take his game up to the next level by how well he’s played in these first two games.
The sky is the limit for Derrick—he’s capable of doing some incredible things in this league. He’s continually improving and he’s still so young. He is a very coachable player who is still going to grow and mature over these next few seasons before he really reaches his plateau. His talent will keep developing, but for him, understanding the mental aspects of the game will be very important. We’ve seen his athleticism and all the things that he can do with his body on the floor, but how he handles running his team and controlling the tempo of the game, along knowing when to pull up and take a shot or go to the basket, is where we’ll really see how good he can become. It’s great to see he’s already expanded his game, adding a reliable jump shot in the offseason. I know he’ll eventually find some consistent success with his three-point shooting as well.
We’ve also seen how important Joakim Noah is to this team. When he was hurt, they lost ten in a row and the playoffs seemed like they were out of reach. But with Noah’s return, they won 10 of 14 to close out the season and he’s been a difference maker in the playoffs. He’s a special player. You look at him and see all the talent as far as his athleticism, rebounding and shot blocking capabilities. But he also understands the game, having the mindset and ability to talk on the floor and be a leader. You can’t ask for anything better than that. He takes total advantage of going for offensive rebounds and has a pretty reliable 15-to-18-foot jump shot. He runs the pick-and-roll extremely well and knows how to get to the basket. He’s been superb. He communicates with his teammates and that makes them better defensively. He plays very hard and this is a guy you want and need to have on your team in order to be successful.
This playoff series gives LeBron James, who is the premier free agent of this summer’s class, to take a good look at Rose, Noah and the Bulls. The Bulls will have enough to offer a free agent a maximum contract, but the question remains as to if LeBron will leave Cleveland. While it’s still too early to tell, for LeBron, I think he has got to be leaning towards staying home. That’s the best place for him. You look at Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and they left their legacies where they started. LeBron hasn’t left that mark in Cleveland yet, so I don’t know he is ready to move on. He’s received some individual accolades, but from a team standpoint, he has to do a little bit more. He knows that as well as anybody at this stage in his career.
It’s time for LeBron to evaluate what he can do for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and that will be his focus rather than moving on. Cleveland can pay him the most money and it is home. Shaq isn’t getting any younger, but I think he’s still going to be capable of doing what he’s done for them in terms of playing a decent amount minutes for another season or two. He is still dominant in the low post and he is a great passer on the inside. In terms of LeBron’s future, the best chance for him to win and be successful is by being in Cleveland.
I do expect the Bulls to get a win at home either Thursday or Sunday. The energy level of the crowd and the comfort of playing at the United Center will help them get a game. They need to find a way to close a game out against the Cavs. They played well enough to win Game 2, but simply did not have the ability to keep LeBron in check and gave up too many late baskets. If they can do a little better defensively on LeBron, things could be different. They’ve got to force him to shoot the ball. If they can throw double teams at him occasionally and keep him on the perimeter rather than letting him get to the rim, that might be the best way to try and contain him.
No matter how the series ends up, the Bulls made the playoffs and that’s a significant accomplishment after all the injuries and adversity the team faced this season. They were undermanned at times and lost some talent at the trade deadline, but they hung in there and closed out the season in remarkable fashion. The fact that guys continued to play hard and got them into the postseason is important, even more so because they are such a young team.
There were a lot of positives that came from this season, from Derrick stepping up and becoming an All-Star and Noah showing he’s on the verge of being at that same level. I know being 41-41 isn’t anything to go crazy and cheer about, but I hope the fans realize that these guys are working hard and heading in the right direction. Even if they do lose to Cleveland, they’ll go back and look at the tapes and get frustrated. They’ll come back a little hungrier next season, you can count on that.
Beyond the playoffs, it’s pretty clear the Bulls are going to have to look at a coaching change. Then this summer, they need to look for a player who can complement Noah on the inside. I think they are a big man away from having a dominant front court. You can watch the Lakers now and see all the big guys they have who make the game so easy.
Noah does a tremendous job already, but they need another player who can step up and keep it going. I’ve always felt like Amar’e Stoudemire would be a great addition for them. I know he’s not as strong of a defender or rebounder as teams might like, but you look at what he’s been able to do with the Phoenix Suns—especially since the All-Star break and all the trade talk—and he’s had a phenomenal season. Stoudemire would continue to allow Rose to play the way he plays. No one would have to take a back seat in terms of trying to fit in or play with a superstar. He would more simply be a great addition that would make the Bulls a contender in the Eastern Conference.