Bearing With the Bulls
Nobody, including the Cavaliers themselves, expected the First Round matchup against Chicago to be easy.
Last season, Cleveland ran through eight straight and a couple players even remarked that the Playoffs didn’t feel like they were starting until they met Orlando. They didn’t face adversity until the Eastern Conference Finals and everyone remembers how that turned out. LeBron James recalled how it started.
“You saw what happened last year, we went 8-0 through the first two rounds and we lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals,” said the reigning MVP. “There’s nothing wrong with facing adversity and losing a game can make you better in the series. You want to go through some bumps and bruises throughout a series.”
There seemed to be mixed feelings about the Game 3 loss. On one hand, the Cavaliers allowed Chicago’s backcourt to score 58 points, fell behind by 21 and didn’t get much from their bench. On the other, they cut that 21-point lead to one and got another incredible performance from LeBron.
Mo Williams is having a solid postseason, including 21 points on Thursday night. He’s averaging 17.3 points and 6.3 assists through the first three games. And, after his early quote comparing playoff experience to having kids, has had some of the best quotes of the series. Talking about Derrick Rose facing LeBron, Williams said, “LeBron is a terrific defender, first and foremost, and Derrick Rose is athletic and quick, but he’s not going to grow any more. I know that.”
Only LeBron’s jaw-dropping performances have overshadowed Rose. The fellow No. 1 overall is averaging 27.3 ppg so far, and has had his way with almost everyone the Cavaliers have thrown at him. Adding insult to injury, Rose hasn’t committed a turnover in the last two games.
“With my type of game, I tend to make a few too many turnovers,” said Rose, following Thursday’s win. “But I've really been trying to make smarter decisions.”
Cleveland doesn’t want to be a team that flicks the proverbial switch. As Boston witnessed in early April, no lead is safe, and that’s good to know. But just because they can come back from a big deficit doesn’t mean they want to.
One of their regular season Achilles’ heels came back to bite the Cavaliers on Thursday: free throw shooting.
The Wine and Gold left 11 points on the floor at the United Center, shooting 65 percent – one game after going 22-for-24 at The Q.
The Cavaliers also put up 35 three-points – canning 14. LeBron and Mo combined for 19 attempts and Antawn Jamison and Tony Parker were a combined 3-for-12. In the Cavaliers defense, they were in scramble mode – down 21 – and had to lift a lot of long-balls. A.P.’s attempt at the buzzer wasn’t exactly high-percentage, either.
Shaq got in early foul trouble in Game 2 and had difficulty finishing from the floor in Game 3. O’Neal was 2-for-8 from the floor in 20 minutes. Mike Brown seemed to feel that the best way to get the Diesel going is to let him work it out on the floor.
“(O’Neal)’s ready to go – we can push him as hard as we want to push him,” said Brown. “I don’t think the thumb is a factor. He hasn’t played in a while and he’s not getting consistent minutes right now. He may still have a little rust on him. But he’s good to go for as long as we need him.”
Shaq is 4-of-12 from the floor (but 6-for-6 from the stripe) over the last two games. He missed 23 games rehabbing a surgically-repaired thumb.
“If I feel like that a group is out there and he’s not part of that group – and that’s with anybody – I’ll let a group that’s playing well run. I’m not going to make changes. But I need to go in and figure out ways to get him longer stretches on the floor.”
The Cavaliers will likely look to get Shaq more involved early, the recipe for success in Game 1. And there seems to be a common sentiment that J.J. Hickson might warrant some floor time. The young big started 73 games this season, and was integral in their success.
What makes Cleveland dangerous is that they’re deep enough to play any style. If they’re going to continue on in the postseason, the Cavaliers will need to go big. On Thursday night, they worked best with their smaller, faster lineup. (“Small” even though their point guard on most possessions was 6-8, 265.)
“(The small lineup) is definitely effective against them because they’re such an athletic team – all their bigs are athletic outside of Brad Miller, but he makes up for it in so many other ways,” said Mo Williams. “But their pick-and-roll is definitely bothering us and they’re putting the big fella and Z in pick-and-rolls and making us defend that and keep us on our heels.
“We’re daring them to make shots in those situations and they are.”
“We have enough smalls that we might have to show him some different guys – from Delonte, Mo, Jamario, Anthony and myself – we all need to take a crack at (Rose), just to put a different person in front of him,” added LeBron. “A different size, a different length, a different speed. He’s a great player; he’s going to get around anybody in this league because of his quickness and ball-handling ability, but you give him a different look and try to keep him off balance.”
The Cavaliers knew they had to weather the United Center’s early surge, and they also knew they waited too long to turn it on.
Odds are they won’t wait to bring it on Sunday afternoon. Game 4 is huge and could allow Cleveland to close the Bulls out on Tuesday night at The Q. That way Joakim Noah wouldn’t have to come back again this spring.