Bulls playoff hopes continue as Cavs come to town

Now LeBron James says he wants to play! Geez, just the Bulls luck. The guys who came up with this unique plan to relax and rest their way to another championship seem to have gotten a wakeup call. It looks like it came with a 29-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs earlier this week, the Cavs ninth in 15 this month, fourth loss in the last six. Suddenly, the Cavs are looking at the Bulls Thursday on TNT as their newest must win.

Just what the Bulls needed hanging onto hopes for the playoffs with eight games remaining.

“Haven’t won back to back games in a long time,” noted Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “Can’t be satisfied (with the impressive Sunday win in Milwaukee). Have to understand why we played like (that), why we had a great performance like we did and build off it with good focus and solid practices to (be) ready for the number one team in our conference.”

Well, tied for No. 1, but that’s still a long way up from where the Bulls sit, 12 and a half games back in ninth place in the Eastern Conference.

Though there’s hope not only in the Bulls position, a game and a half behind Miami and Indiana, but in the way the Bulls have started to play. OK, not every game given the debacle against the Philadelphia 76ers. Remember, they’re fighting for eighth. Though it was good for program sales in the United Center since hardly anyone knew who those guys were.

But slowly, the Bulls are starting to resemble the kind of team we were hearing about six months ago, pushing the ball, sharing the ball, getting the ball to go through that orange iron circle.

The Bulls in the last six games have averaged 28 assists per game. Jimmy Butler has had double figure assists in four of those eight games, averaging 9.5 assists in that turning point stretch since the loss in Boston. Butler now working with Rajon Rondo seems one of the better pairings the Bulls have had this season, and perhaps it’s no surprise that Nikola Mirotic also is in his best stretch shooting the ball with both players moving the ball more often.

In the last eight games, the Bulls have scored at least 100 points six times, averaging 107.6 points per game. That’s more than five points per game above their season average. And perhaps the Bulls awakened some on the boards with the 49-34 pounding of the Bucks. The Bulls suffered in rebounding since the trade of Taj Gibson, and had been outrebounded four straight games and nine of the last 11 before Sunday.

The Bulls had made at least 10 three pointers just 11 times all season through that Boston game March 12. In the eight games since, they have been in double figures in threes made six of the last eight games. They’ve averaged 10.5 made threes in the last eight games. They’d been averaging fewer than seven made per game before that.

So in many ways, the Bulls have actually been playing the type of basketball the Bulls have talked about playing. But is it too late now?

They are a game and a half behind Miami and now slumping Indiana for eighth (or seventh). The Bulls, however, have the tiebreaker with a 2-1 record over Miami. They split with Indiana 2-2, but for now have the edge with the better division and conference record.

Miami’s been rolling led by their faster pace with Goran Dragic now free to push the ball. Though they have a potentially difficult close with Washington twice, Toronto and Cleveland the last week. It would seem with the competition in the East, seeding and position might not be decided until the last games. So teams may not pull their starters, as often happens late in the regular season when positions are locked in.

The Bulls close with four teams out of the playoffs, though that’s often problematic since those players are playing for jobs. Nobody wants to rest. The Pacers have a difficult upcoming week with the Raptors twice. The Bulls are the longer shot since they are on the outside, but things can change quickly.

And now come the Cavs with Tyronn Lue, who has been talking for weeks about resting his best players these last few weeks to prepare for the playoffs. But James and Kyrie Irving seem to have recognized games do matter, especially with the Cavs 6-9 this month and—get this—the league’s worst defense, yes 30th, this month in the points per 100 possessions analysis.

Yes, they’re No. 30!

There’s been plenty of analysis about this, but, hey, pick me! Pick me! I know.

It’s nice to add all those keen shooters around James like Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and Kevin Love (though Korver is out against the Bulls). But none of them can stay in front of a steamroller. OK, you may not want to. But it is slow moving. Sure, they’ve had injuries with Love and J.R. Smith out, though they’ve been worse since they’ve been back. Their starters are a minus-26 combined the last five games per 100 possessions. Thursday will be the Cavs’ sixth road game in the last seven, though they’ve had two days off. The Bulls will have had three.

Maybe Steph Curry doesn’t guard anyone, but the Warriors’ other shooters do. The Cavs’ don’t.

So Lue, coaching the team that for a long time seemed to be most inspired by The Napping House children’s book, told Cleveland media that James says he needs to play to be playoff ready. Yikes! Who does that these days? Which is interesting since the narrative a few weeks ago—before Boston overtook them briefly—was that rest was needed to be playoff ready. James actually seems anxious to challenge the Bulls and their TNT home game domination of 19 straight wins. This is not particularly good news for the Bulls. Even with a 3-0 Bulls record over the Cavs this week.

That James guy is really, really good. And he seems able to do some really good stuff when he’s motivated.

Irving also said he’s mad and he’s not going to take it anymore.

And LeBron stopper Tony Snell is in Milwaukee.

Yes, it’s suddenly a big one for both teams and, astonishingly, all the players who can play saying they actually want to play in a nationally televised game. Release the confetti and balloons at league headquarters.

“We have to understand what makes us successful,” says Hoiberg. “(If) we’re committed to moving the ball and we’re committed to following the game plan and executing and put them at spots on the floor that they’re not as successful, (we will have success). It’s all the little things that we have to do that add up to give ourselves a chance to win. Our guys did a really good job of that (against the Bucks). Now we have to find a way to figure out why this happened and bounce back with a great effort against Cleveland on Thursday.”

The season may depend on it. Of course, then Saturday against Atlanta might, or Sunday in New Orleans.