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Breaking down Bulls and Cavs matchups
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So maybe it’s not for the NBA championship of October after all. That’s what the NBA and ESPN obviously had in mind when the Bulls and Cavs were scheduled for Oct. 31, Chicago’s home opener.
But it’s not exactly working out as anticipated because of that common opponents thing: The Bulls led the Knicks in New York Wednesday by 35 points and eventually won 104-80. The Knicks then in the second of a back to back in Cleveland’s opener Thursday amidst a raucous celebration for the return home of LeBron James defeated the Cavs 95-90 as James had almost as many turnovers (eight) as the Cavs bench scored points (12).
So maybe it isn’t quite the statement game/measuring stick/conference finals preview. Or maybe it is as James’ Heat started 2010-11 with a record of 9-8 amidst calls for coach Erik Spoelstra to be fired and James’ sudden unhappiness with the Miami organization. Two championships and four Finals appearances later, James has returned to Cleveland and the Central Division. And forever to deny the Bulls their chance at an NBA championship?
Of course, in analyzing the Cavs for media after practice Thursday, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau likened them somewhere between the 1960’s Celtics and the 1927 baseball Yankees. He even talked up Matthew Dellavedova, whoever that is. Then you had to love this as the Knicks Thursday using 12 players and only Carmelo Anthony more than 30 minutes held off Cleveland down the stretch as James and Kyrie Irving played 43 minutes and Kevin Love and Dion Waiters just under 40. Reserves rarely played for rookie coach David Blatt, who made Thibodeau look like he inspired Gregg Popovich to go easy on his players’ minutes.
So can the Cavs start 0-2? LeBron’s new Cavs with his promise to Cleveland that this time, really, there’s going to be something to celebrate? It’s Bulls/Cavs for one of just the four times they’ll meet this season. And not again until Martin Luther King Day in late January. Yes, this is the big one! C’mon, no really. C’mon, get nervous.
Point Guard: Derrick Rose vs. Kyrie Irving. Irving led the Cavs Thursday with 22 points and seven assists, though he added four of the 19 turnovers. Against the smothering Knicks’ defense? Rose had a huge game in preseason against Irving, even turning him like a merry-go-round on one move. Not lost on anyone was that Rose had to back up Irving for USA Basketball and Irving was named MVP for the gold medal USA team. Rose was skewered for shooting one of 19 on threes. Rose had a restful first game Wednesday, not playing in the fourth quarter in the Bulls’ domination. Rose’s speed has usually been too much for Irving.
Shooting Guard: Kirk Hinrich vs. Dion Waiters. Hinrich figures to get the start for the injured Jimmy Butler. And though the Bulls and Butler held out a slight hope of playing, it would seem no sense to rush with a benign schedule coming up with Minnesota, Orlando, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Boston. Hinrich had a good opener with a dozen points and frustrating Iman Shumpert. Waiters is now starting and a shooter in the Ben Gordon mold, though not quite as explosive as Gordon once was. James was busy in Game 1 trying to get others going. It didn’t work out that well. Hinrich’s defense also will prove a bother to Waiters, another of the non-defending Cavs’ starters.
Small Forward: Mike Dunleavy vs. LeBron James. There was talk after Dunleavy shut down Anthony Wednesday that James, like so many NBA players, would come down with a case of Dunleavy-itis to avoid the tentacled Bulls defender. Who knows? Maybe there was. Dunleavy did a nice job staying with Anthony and the Bulls big guys covered up the sun behind Dunleavy so Anthony didn’t get many good looks at the basket. Dunleavy gets James now. Of course, Dunleavy would say James now has to guard him. James said all preseason it’s a process for a Cavs team with new pieces and coach and he appears correct. Plus they are small and don’t protect the rim very well, which may be a larger issue.
Power Forward: Joakim Noah vs. Kevin Love. The issue here is the best center in the NBA last season is now a power forward, and not exactly in a great situation having to defend a guy who most likes to be 28 feet from the basket on offense. Love was mentioned as a potential Bull in trade, though just vaguely and nothing much ever came of it before he was traded from Minnesota to Noah’s favorite vacation destination. Love’s a bit of the statistics driven star as his numbers affect viewers of the game more than his impact affects the game. He had 19 points and 14 rebounds in the opener and you often wondered where he was. Heck of an outlet passer, though. Noah has come into the season adjusting as well, both to more perimeter play and less involvement with the offense. But he’s the good teammate. “It’s really exciting,” he told reporters Thursday after practice. “A lot of excitement right now. I just like our mindset. We’re focused. We’re in a good place. We’re playing against a very good team, so we’re excited. I’ve said excited like five times already. It’s just a great time of year. It's as good as it gets. Just being able to play in that (United Center) building is very special, especially in a season opener like that at home, playing in a big game in front of the fans here in Chicago. It's always special.” Noah had three points and six rebounds in 20 minutes Wednesday.
Center: Pau Gasol vs. Anderson Varejao. If the Cavs have a personnel weakness it’s here, where they are small and don’t protect the basket that well. Varejao is about to get a $30 million extension, thus showing it’s good to have LeBron as a friend. He runs around a lot, Noah-esque, though he doesn’t have quite the impact. He really doesn’t have a true backup, though they have Brendan Haywood around somewhere. Gasol had a big start with 21 points and 11 rebounds and if not a fearsome defender is frustrating to try to get past at the rim. He’s over seven foot with long arms and a smooth athlete.
Bench: Who were those guys in New York? The Bulls reserves were the stars of Seventh Avenue Wednesday when Taj Gibson, Aaron Brooks and Doug McDermott combined outscored the entire Knicks starting lineup. Suddenly after an uneven preseason, the Bulls’ bench is mobbed with nickname requests. The Cavs got almost nothing from their bench against the Knicks, though they didn’t get to play much. Shawn Marion and Mike Miller combined for 13 minutes and were scoreless as they made their debut as assisted living facility spokesmen.
Coaching: Tom Thibodeau vs. David Blatt. The Cavs coach comes from overseas with a reputation as an offensive innovator and the Cavs had 64 points through three quarters. They pushed the pace in preseason, though not so much Thursday. They figure to try Friday, though it’s the rebounding thing as it’s tough to run without them and the equally small Knicks got more. Not to diminish Blatt, but Thibodeau probably knows what he had for breakfast and how that affects his play calls.
Pick: Yes, I did a playoff matchup for the second game of the regular season. I need to settle down as well.