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Bulls, Cavs get back to work with differing tasks ahead

Cleveland looks to make up some mental ground on Golden State, while Chicago is just trying to stop its recent swoon

POSTED: Feb 18, 2016 10:39 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


The Cavs and Bulls meet tonight in Cleveland in both team's first game since the All-Star break.

— For the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls, what's left of the 2015-16 NBA season is all about closing the gap.

Those two Eastern Conference rivals meet Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena (TNT, 8 p.m. ET) to start what commonly is referred to as the season's "second half". But, since All-Star break falls well past the midpoint each year, what's left now really are two frantic months of playoff preparation and aspiration adjustments.

Given their relative positions in the standings, it's fair to say the Cavaliers are more focused on the former while the Bulls are faced with a whole lot of the latter.

"Closing the gap" for Cleveland means taking seriously the 10 games that separate the Cavs, at 38-14, from the Golden State team they're still chasing. While LeBron James and his teammates don't actually have to make up those games in the regular season, they do have to erase what they represent: a Warriors crew that, at 48-4, is better than the team that beat a hobbled Cleveland in six games last June.

That's why Cleveland, and specifically general manager David Griffin, owner Dan Gilbert and (wink, wink) anyone else who makes personnel decisions for that organization were crazy-busy with a doubleheader Thursday: first the NBA trade deadline (3 p.m., ET), then the Bulls.

Cleveland knows that, by the end of the night, its roster essentially will be set. Aside from the unpredictable intervention of health or fatigue issues, the bunch it has in the locker room will be the bunch that grinds its way back to The Finals, chases down the Warriors or Spurs or Thunder and delivers on James' promise to bring The 'Land its first major sports championship since the 1964 NFL Browns. Or doesn't.

So the Cavaliers were heavily involved, according to league sources, in trade talks at all levels. From tweaks at the edges of coach Tyronn Lue's rotation to what-if speculation involving big-name third wheel Kevin Love and multiple scenarios in between. Defensive ace Iman Shumpert's and backup big man Anderson Varejao's names were out there with Love's, bandied about in deals that could deliver New Orleans' Ryan Anderson, Orlando's Channing Frye or others.

Few could blame Cleveland for backing away from Thursday's marketplace entirely, given its record, the significant move it already made in shedding coach David Blatt last month for Lue and how desperate a roster makeover might look so late in the season. Any deal involving Love -- a cornerstone of the Lebron's Back project -- would raise a white flag, at least temporarily, on the pole that was supposed to hoist a championship banner and generally just seem too soon.

Then again, Golden State is good enough to trigger such irrationality. If -- in a possible Finals rematch, except that Love didn't face the Warriors last June and Kyrie Irving got in only one game -- Draymond Green's Swiss Army knife versatility presumably enables him to thwart and stymie Love, Cleveland might as well react to that vulnerability now rather than later. If it's more perimeter shooting the Cavs need, now is the time to get it, instead of waiting till summer.

The Bulls face a different predicament altogether. Consider their gap: 11 games behind Cleveland and just one game out of ninth place. The presumptive "second-best team in the East" from preseason through the holidays, the Bulls have been in a 5-13 freefall from their 22-12 mark on Jan. 7.

Reasons abound: Injuries to Joakim Noah (season-ending), Mike Dunleavy (only now back after four lost months) and most recently Jimmy Butler (three more weeks) and Nikola Mirotic (three more weeks). Derrick Rose's erratic play -- can we still call it a comeback? -- that has been trending up for the past six weeks. A slower-than-expected learning curve in adjusting from Tom Thibodeau's defense-first style to Fred Hoiberg's pace-and-space ambitions. And maybe deeper deficiencies within the Bulls' locker room, in terms of cohesion and commitment.

That all has the Bulls at a point where they can envy Cleveland's try-to-get-better-or-not decision. This team's is potentially more convulsive: commit to a postseason run with, maybe, Rose still ramping up and Butler and Mirotic available, or throw in the towel on this season and this bunch.

If it's the latter -- and there are those who will argue that this is what a contenders' closed window looks like -- then veteran big man Pau Gasol could be absent against Cleveland tonight and playing his next game for someone else. The Bulls have talked with multiple teams about Gasol as a rent-a-player, since he has made it clear he will opt out of his Chicago contract this summer.

Sacramento, in particular, reportedly has been aggressive for his services, allegedly offering center Kostas Koufos and guard Ben McLemore for Gasol's services over what's left of the regular season and any Kings playoff taste.

And yet, there have been reports that Gasol would prefer to stay in Chicago, re-signing in July in a deal closer to his market value (say, double his current $7.4 million).

So by the time the Bulls-Cavaliers game tips off, the gaps might not all be closed but a lot of open questions at least will have been answered.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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