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By Sam Smith | 5.12.2015 | 11:40 p.m.
On the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena Tuesday morning the Bulls were going through their light, so called shootaround practice, walking through some plays and taking shots preparing for the 6 p.m. conference semifinal game with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Behind the players down a dark hallway, Pau Gasol peddled furiously on a stationary bicycle.
It was perhaps a metaphor for the Bulls facing this—break out the playoff clichés—pivotal Game 5, which is vital though not quite backs to the wall, but close to circling the wagons and having another nail in their coffin. Close to 80 percent of the Game 5 winners have won series while the Cavs have done so eight of nine times when going ahead 3-2.
The Bulls, in some respects, seem to be peddling fast but not really getting anywhere, or certainly as far as they need to go.
“I would say it starts with me, pushing the ball, getting everyone to run with me, getting everybody to their spots a little bit quicker,” said Derrick Rose. “So when we are down here we’re not holding the ball too long and going against the shot clock.
“I think that’s why we had that lapse in the last game where we didn’t score for like six minutes,” Rose added. “We shot a lot of jump shots but we didn’t run; it was like we were walking the ball up and shooting jump shots. We didn’t attack. That’s how we got the lead. I need to play the way I’ve normally been playing. As a team, we have to come out take their best punch early, deal with it, and try to take away their momentum and the crowd.”
In some respects, this has been a Bulls team playing down to a wounded Cavaliers team with starting guards Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert both slowed with leg injuries. Yet, the Bulls repeatedly have walked into offense, let the shot clock run down while then having to force up shots.
It was a theme in the Milwaukee first round series, but perhaps then more understandable with a young, fast, aggressive Milwaukee defense. This is a plodding, slow Cavs defense with injured players not able to move quickly. Yet, the Bulls repeatedly have played like they are running in place, walking the ball up the court with set plays instead of getting into offense quickly, then moving the ball to make the defense move to get better shots.
Mike Dunleavy and Nikola Mirotic were a combined two of 16 shooting in the two-point Game 4 loss. Swinging the ball to the weak side for better shots seemingly would have enhanced their percentages, especially at home. Yet, they were frequently put into late clock situations. The Bulls insist that needs to change.
Especially if Gasol cannot play.
Gasol was riding the bicycle to try to loosen up his strained hamstring. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Gasol remained a game time decision. It’s a difficult call considering another tweak could put Gasol out for a long stretch. And given this isn’t an elimination game is it worth the risk? But if he’s OK, then why not play?
“We’ll see what he can do in shootaround,” Thibodeau told media before the session. ”Just (told by trainers) that he’s feeling a little better. But he obviously has to be able to go through shootaround and feel good enough, warm up tonight and we’ll see where he is. Pau knows his body well. He’s been around a long time and (we) trust how he feels.”
There’s that (cliché alert!) double-edged sword element to the return of Gasol, which is important to the Bulls because the team that has won the rebounding has won each game. Gasol has been the Bulls best defensive rebounder. Plus, without him in Game 4, Timofey Mozgov had by far his best game. Without Gasol, the Bulls play Joakim Noah back at center, where Noah is more effective, especially with help defense. That help defense has been excellent against LeBron James, who is shooting 37.7 percent against the Bulls and 10.5 percent on threes. But Noah’s offense is limited to the point only Rose and Jimmy Butler scored in double figures for the Bulls in Game 4.
“I think we’ve been doing a good job with holding our own and playing the way we normally know how to play,” said Rose. “But when you’re missing Pau and Taj (Gibson) is just getting in a groove; we’ve got find ways to get Taj the ball a little more as a team. We’ve just got to knock down some more open shots. But I think we’re taking the right shots at the right time.”
With Gasol out, the Bulls needed to give Gibson more of those pick and pop opportunities that Gasol gets. Gibson doesn’t have quite the shooting range of Gasol. But Gibson is a good shooter. The Bulls also didn’t do a good enough job finding Kyrie Irving as the Cavs have put Irving on weak offensive players so Irving can be on the court for offense. The Bulls probably need to exploit that more.
“You want to utilize that,” agreed Butler. “I think the guy is really tough for going out there and competing while he’s hurt, and I’ve got a lot of respect for him; he’s a very good player. But this is playoff basketball and any type of edge you can get, utilize it.
“I think Pau is a pick-and-pop guy that can spread the floor a little bit,” Butler added. “We miss his rebounding and the way he passes out of the post, and, of course, he commands a few double teams. I think Pau’s been a key part of our success all season, but if he’s not with us then somebody is going to have to step up and fill that void.’’
Butler has been a defensive marvel in this series, averaging 42.3 minutes per game while constantly playing James as effective as anyone has.
“Very impressive,” Rose agreed. “Seems like he doesn’t get tired. We know the challenge he has, the task. We’re behind him. We know it’s hard sticking people one-on-one in this league.”
But Butler says he just has to do more.
“At times. I think I can still do better,” Butler said. “I think I can be better in a lot of areas on both ends of the floor. But it’s not just guarding him. I have to go on offense and produce more, be more efficient. I don’t think I’ve been efficient all series long. So I’ve got to turn that around. The first step is in this shootaround, and then in tonight’s game.
“I think I could show better on some whenever he’s setting a screen,” said Butler. “Get back to him quicker when he’s coming off screens. I think he gets a lot of open shots that he does normally make, but he’s off a little bit right now. I don’t want him to get in a rhythm and start making those shots. He’s just missing shots. You’re not going to make shots every night, to tell you the truth. I’ve got to do a better job of being there, better job of keeping him out of the paint. Getting to him in transition. There’s a lot of things I can do better.’’
No one’s looking at it that way with Butler playing an excellent series while also averaging 19.3 points, five rebounds and 3.3 steals.
But Game 5 is a crucible of sorts: The Bulls can win and go home to close the series Thursday. The Cavs can win and then have two to get one with a potential Game 7 back in Cleveland Sunday. The Bulls hope to be going as fast as they can and actually be getting somewhere.
“He’s (Gasol) huge for our team,” said Rose. “If he’s not prepared or just not ready yet, we’ve just got to make sure everybody is on the same page as far as how hard we’ve got to come out and play. Because they’re going to give us their best shot tonight.”