Chicago is hoping this is the season it can -- at last -- overcome their longtime foil in the Eastern Conference postseason
POSTED: Oct 27, 2015 12:09 PM ET
The Bulls have lost to LeBron James-led teams in four of their last six playoff appearances.
CHICAGO — So it begins, not just for the NBA and this shiny new 2015-16 regular season but for the Chicago Bulls, another Sisyphean run uphill at LeBron James and his team of choice in the Eastern Conference.
When the Bulls open up against the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night at United Center (8 p.m. ET, TNT), they'll be right back where they were when the boulder rolled down the hill on them five months ago. Same fate, same foe, same nemesis against whom not only their seasons but their annual ambitions and maybe even their long-term dreams always seem to end.
Like everyone else in the East, Chicago is all too aware that, as far as recent history goes, if you don't have James on your team, you're paying your own way into The Finals come June. In the Bulls' case, they have been eliminated by James up-close and personal, in both his Cleveland and Miami incarnations, in four of the past six postseasons.
I think the biggest part for us is our mental [game]. We've been playing against LeBron for a number of years. Each year in the playoffs going deep, we always have the tools and the makeup of a good team. It's just all mental, I think, nowadays.
– Chicago Bulls forward Taj Gibson
To more than a few fans in the Windy City, it's starting to feel like payback for what their guy, Michael Jordan, did to the Eastern Conference six times in eight years from 1991-98. Some NBA superstars are speed bumps to other good teams and players -- an individual who can slow you down until you learn how to navigate past him -- but Jordan was like a barricade, fortified with armed agents and tire spikes.
No how, no way the New York Knicks or the Indiana Pacers were getting past Jordan in his prime. The same is true these days with James.
As Bulls forward Taj Gibson said in May, in the midst of his team's six-game elimination by James and the Cavs from the East semifinals, "He's the Michael Jordan of our generation." It's a daunting thought, accepting that your path to an NBA championship ring might forever be blocked because of when you were born.
Said Gibson, who had the possible misfortune to be born just 177 days after James: "I think the biggest part for us is our mental [game]. We've been playing against LeBron for a number of years. Each year in the playoffs going deep, we always have the tools and the makeup of a good team. It's just all mental, I think, nowadays."
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Coach Fred Hoiberg is new to Chicago's battles with James, but no stranger to the dynamic. He was a Pacers reserve during the Bulls' second three-peat (1996-98), when Indiana was never quite good enough and Jordan, in particular, cut out the Pacers' hearts in Game 7 of the East finals in 1998.
"It is both [mental and physical]," Hoiberg said after practice Monday. "We almost got over the hump. Game 7, I think we were up 18 in that game and then Michael just completely took over down the stretch. I think Rik Smits had a jump ball against Michael and he tipped it to Kerr [who] hit the 3 and Jordan just took over down the stretch.
"There certainly is a mental hurdle to get over when you're playing against a guy and a team that you haven't been able to beat. Again, you've got to put a game plan together and trust it and execute it."
As the new "X" factor in this rivalry -- the Bulls' roster is largely unchanged from last season -- Hoiberg and his staff might be expected to provide the answers and close the gap. Historically, what has made LeBron teams so troublesome for the Bulls in the past has been a) their quick-strike, run-out baskets, b) a difficult outside match-up vs. a quality big man (typically Chris Bosh, but now Kevin Love), and c) the defensive clamps the Cavs (or Heat) have put on Chicago.
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With Hoiberg's faster, looser system replacing Tom Thibodeau's half-court sets, the Bulls believe they have the offensive chops -- if not on the season's first day, certainly by the end -- to score on anybody. Defensively, though, they experienced significant slippage in the preseason. The individual options for guarding James remain the same: Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell and Gibson.
Hoiberg can recite all the ways in which James has hurt Chicago and can afflict anyone. "Starting off, he's so fast, explosive," he said. "His size. The game hasn't really seen someone with his physical attributes [who] does the things he does. He can shoot the 3. He can post. He has midrange. His passing ability is so unique for someone with that size and athleticism. He's just a load out there. You have to try to make it tough, knowing he's going to make some spectacular plays. You can't hang your head when he does it. You have to try to stick with the game plan and execute."
Statistically, James has been as good or better against Chicago as he's been against any specific opponent. He has averaged 28.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists in 44 regular-season meetings and 26.8, 8.9 and 7.9 in 21 playoff clashes. He has scored 20 points or more 52 times in 65 games, at least 30 points in 26 of those.
Most vexing for the Bulls is that, while James' Cleveland and Miami teams have a 24-20 record against them in the regular season, that mark is 16-5 in the postseason. That includes the three-loss thud in May, a Chicago collapse triggered by James catch-and-shoot buzzer beater in Game 4 on the Bulls' court.
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Given the banged-up nature of the Cavaliers' roster then, the patchwork lineup with which James had to work, it's quite possible that fending him off that day to take a 3-1 lead might have propelled Chicago past him, finally. But James' trust in fill-in Cavs like Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson took a huge stride forward that day and, essentially, the Bulls were done.
There will be a fill-in component to the opening game, with Cleveland's Kyrie Irving still rehabbing from his fractured knee cap surgery in The Finals and backcourt mate Iman Shumpert (wrist) out as well. The Bulls will play the first month, at least, without small forward Mike Dunleavy (back). And then there is Derrick Rose, who might be in the roughest spot because -- thanks to the left orbital fracture he suffered on Chicago's initial workout in training camp -- the former MVP point guard says he still is seeing double in that eye.
Seeing one LeBron is bad enough for most guys. Seeing two, with the Bulls on the wrong side of the match-ups, must really stink for Rose, yes?
"Nah, it actually makes you work harder," Rose said. "If anything it makes you want to play against him even more. He's a great player. That team is great. And if anything he pushes you to work harder on your game and make the team work harder. So all this is happening for a reason. We don't know what the reason is now, but we're hoping that it will lead to a championship."
That's what it always comes down to, though. LeBron and his teams contending for titles, the Chicago Bulls hoping.
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