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Bulls look to continue early success vs LeBron

Sam Smith previews Game 4 of Bulls-Cavs

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By Sam Smith | 5.10.2015 | 9:20 a.m.

LeBron James killed the Bulls in the Cleveland Cavaliers Game 2 victory. But mostly James has been killing the Cavs in this conference semifinals playoff series. Perhaps the question now with Game 4 in the United Center 2:30 p.m. Sunday is whether the Cavs are better off playing with or without James.

Maybe he’ll tell me was insulted like he told Joakim Noah in Game 3 about their trash talking. Hello, it’s called trash talking. It’s trashy.

Perhaps I’m engaging in some hyperbole, though it is the playoffs when we all are asked to expand what we do and raise our games. But despite James averaging almost a triple double in this series at 26.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.3 assists, this has been one of James’ poorest playoff series in his career. James is shooting 39.5 percent, the lowest shooting percentage on his team. He’s one of 12 on threes, by far the poorest for a team shooting almost 40 percent on threes. James also is averaging five turnovers per game, more than double anyone else in the series.

James’ career shooting average in the playoffs is 48.2 percent; his career playoff three-point shooting is 33 percent. His career playoff average for turnovers is 3.5

It demonstrates two of the most significant elements of this terrific playoff series, in which the Bulls hold a 2-1 advantage.

The first is just how much James has to do and how alone he really is.

Kyrie Irving did have two good games to start and still is averaging 20.7 per game for the series. He’s very good. But he was three of 13 for 11 points in Game 3 and said he’s bothered by a foot or ankle injury from the previous series, which he aggravated in Game 2. Irving did tell reporters Saturday in a media session he expected to be in good condition and ready for Game 4.

But Irving is averaging three assists, making James the primary ball handler and scorer as well as a roving defender, occasionally resting to conserve energy but also switching onto various Bulls scorers.

Iman Shumpert was slowed some in Game 3 after a groin injury in Game 2. J.R. Smith returned from a two-game suspension and did make four threes, including what appeared the three to send the game into overtime before Derrick Rose’s unlikely game winning three.

But James is averaging 40 minutes per game trying to drag to the Finals probably his least talented team in about eight years.

It’s why despite Rose’s fabulous game winning three Friday, Jimmy Butler probably has been the Bulls MVP thus far.

Sure, Rose is playing his best this season, averaging 23 points, 7.3 assists and an impressive 6.3 rebounds, including 43 percent on threes.

Butler is averaging 19.3 points and five rebounds in a series most 41.1 minutes per game. He’s been the rock because he’s the one in a hard place, right in front of James every minute of the game. It’s the least appealing place to be in an NBA game. But Butler has handled it as well as almost anyone ever.

“We’re trying to make LeBron work as hard as we can, which is what Jimmy is doing,” Mike Dunleavy said after Game 3. “We want to limit the offensive rebounds, limit the threes. Easier said than done. But that’s what we did for the most part and were able to get the win.

“Jimmy’s playing his tail off,” Dunleavy added. “That guy (James) is going to go down as one of the best in history; it’s not an easy task. But Jimmy is doing his job, playing hard and battling and making it tough for him. He’ll have his moments, but if we can continue to keep his field goal percentage under control and not let him create too many shots for other people we’ll be in a good situation.”

It’s been a truly remarkable job thus far by Butler, who also is relied upon to be the Bulls primary or secondary scorer, especially now with Pau Gasol possibly out Sunday with a hamstring injury.

Rose and Butler combined for 23 of the Bulls’ 25 points in the fourth quarter of Game 3, Taj Gibson’s free throws being the only others. Plus, Thibodeau designed the last play to go to Butler. James overplayed Butler, opening Rose for what became the game winner.

“It says a lot about who Jimmy is,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after a team film session Saturday. “He just keeps working the game; doesn’t get wrapped up. He didn’t shoot the ball particularly well in the first half of the game, but he had the perseverance and will not to let that affect other parts of his game. All of a sudden he got going. He does a lot for our team and we ask him to do a lot. Obviously he and Derrick were very strong in the second half.”

Of Gasol, Thibodeau offered the usual: “Just a strain. Day to day. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. He’s got some soreness. Next man up.”

The Bulls list Gasol as questionable.

That next man is likely to be Gibson, who was terrific in the second half playing for Gasol while Thibodeau went smaller, though by necessity, to match the Cavs’ reliance on three-point shooting. And on James, of course.

It now seems likely the Bulls, at least for Sunday, will return to an old pal of a lineup with Joakim Noah back at center, Gibson at forward and with Nikola Mirotic playing backup minutes. Mirotic was out of the rotation the first two games, but after the Game 2 blowout loss, Thibodeau gave Mirotic a try and he should be a regular the rest of the playoffs. Mirotic was a better match for the Cavaliers’ perimeter shooters, who can’t create offense. He had 12 points and eight rebounds in 22 minutes. More impressively, he was plus-19 in his time on the court.

“I thought Taj played great for us all night,” said Noah. “He’s somebody who’s gone through a lot this season as well. For him to step up in a big moment like that was huge (the free throws). Really proud of this team with everything we are going through to be able to have a win like this. Like I said, we’re not satisfied. But it definitely was good for this team. Niko was huge, somebody who hadn’t played much in the series and to come ready and be prepared for this big moment meant everything. That’s what it’s all about.”

Though some pointed to Smith shaking Kirk Hinrich for that last three, I thought Hinrich was terrific with defensive aggression dropping off in traffic to help on James, causing a couple of turnovers. Tony Snell has remained out of the rotation, though if Gasol is out and the rotation shortened he could play. Thibodeau has made a point about producing when you are in, and though Snell is a better offensive option than Hinrich, at least in theory, the issue that has given Thibodeau pause is Snell being casual on defense. Mirotic’s defense hasn’t been great, but he is aggressive and physical on offense and rebounding. If Snell were more so he might get the extra time as well. Plus, Aaron Brooks is due. He’s just one of nine on threes and rarely goes long without getting hot from three. It will be something to watch for in Game 4.

As well as Noah and James again. The Bulls were sort of shrugging their shoulders at James, who has had a foul mouth in trash talking as well, but who suddenly was having his sensibilities disturbed Friday.

“We grew up playing basketball,” said Gibson. “Trash talking is in every neighborhood, every project, every city and state. It’s part of basketball: Two guys, great competitors going after it is part of the game. It’s not little boys; it’s grown men. It’s the NBA; it’s real physical. Things are going to be said. I just worry about his (Noah’s) production on the court. Jo is a player who just speaks his mind. He doesn’t intentionally try to do things like that. He’s just one of those great competitors; he’s going to have your back 100 percent.”

And then there’s the officiating, the villain for both fans bases. Rose finally got some free throws in Game 3, though it seemed James was being kept in the game after early fouls by officials looking the other way. Though that’s what they always said about the Bulls in the 90s. And in Cleveland, some columnists were pointing to poor officiating. That’s right; everyone thinks it’s gone against them. So just ignore it and play; it isn’t changing.

But for all the Bulls do and have done, it’s all about LeBron. Just as it always was all about Michael. Or Larry or Magic or Isiah. What will they do? How much can they do? Can they do it all? Or enough?

“We know he’s (James) a hell of a player,” said Noah. “He’s going to come out firing for Game 4. We just have to stay focused, understand even though Jimmy has the responsibility of guarding him we are trying our best to help even though it’s very hard with his passing ability.”

As for Butler, he said he was going to see the new Avengers movie Saturday.

Perhaps Jimmy returns with his anti-Hulk armor.