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By Sam Smith | 5.3.2015 | 9:10 a.m.
The conference semifinals playoff series starting Monday in Cleveland between the Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers has been much anticipated, if not really expected to be seriously contested. Oh, sure there was all the discussion about a Bulls and Cavs/LeBron rivalry, Joakim Noah and Cleveland and the Vacation Club, Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving, what a healthy Bulls team could do.
But truly with the off season LeBron-inspired addition of Kevin Love for a new Big Three and the in season remake with J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, the Cavs seemed to be just smirking their way to the Finals. They pounded the Bulls in January after obtaining their new guys and then in April in Chicago had the Bulls talking confidently after only losing by five. It looked like so many of those old, alleged rivalries for the 90s Bulls, allowing you to get just close enough at times to see how good they are.
But that’s all changed.
Love is out for the playoffs after a shoulder injury in the opening round Cavs sweep over the Celtics; Smith added a two-game suspension for a wild punch in that Game 4. Suddenly, it’s a healthy and deep Bulls team against a Cavs team talking about playing Shawn Marion, who rarely played the last half of the season and other relics like Mike Miller and James Jones. Though playing just four first round games, it’s James and Irving coming into this series the only double digit Cavs scorers in the first round and both averaging more than 40 minutes. It’s a Cavs team with the least productive bench in the league having to put those reserves in the starting lineup.
Anyone seen Joe Harris? You may this week.
“I don’t think with their guys out it changes anything on how they are going to defend us,” said Mike Dunleavy, who learned Saturday he would get an upgrade to a flagrant 1 from the Milwaukee game but no suspension. “Obviously, we have what we have; we’ve got Derrick, Jimmy (Butler), guys who can shoot, Pau (Gasol) inside. We do a lot of things and they are going to have to deal with it. As we are going to have to deal with their stuff. I don’t think who they have in the lineup and who they don’t have changes much defensively.
“Now that I think about it, yeah the irony is there,” Dunleavy said about a healthy Bulls this time. “The storyline has flipped; we certainly have sympathy, empathy because we’ve been in that situation before. We have empathy for them, but they are a really good team. They lose a great power forward, but they probably fill in with the best power forward in the game when he plays it.”
So there’s the rub.
While the Cavaliers change up and use James at power forward for matchup confusion, now the Cavaliers are looking at perhaps necessary small lineups without Love. And without Smith for two games, the Cavs lose tremendous floor spacing advantages as Love and Smith are their best floor spacing spot up three point shooters. It doesn’t mean the Cavs cannot win, and they still are favored by odds makers to be in the NBA Finals. But it changes this series drastically.
How will the matchups go?
Small Cavs trying to take advantage of bigger Bulls like the Bucks did, challenging Noah and Taj Gibson with smaller players? Tristan Thompson at power forward? But he doesn’t shoot. And then what’s left on the Cavs bench? LeBron banging inside? Expecting scoring from players prepared to retire like Miller and Marion who barely have played in months? The Cavs were outrebounding the Bulls this season. Can they anymore? Do the Bulls now pressure Irving so that James is alone passing to Jones, Miller and Marion or trying to score 50 on his own? It will be a constant tangle of bodies trying to get back in transition on every play.
“He (James) played the four a lot the last game we played them in Cleveland,” said Taj Gibson. “He was guarding me a lot. I see them doing a lot of different matchups, but I do expect him to play the four. We know they're going to play an up tempo game, we know that LeBron's really going to dominate the ball a lot at the point. Just have to be ready. It changes a lot (without Love), but at the same time other guys are going to shine. They've got a lot of guys that are real educated in playoff basketball. They've got Shawn Marion, guys who are willing to step in. It's an awkward feeling (someone else shorthanded). Every year we've been having a lot of injuries. We've had guys down. But we mostly haven't made excuses. We went out there and we never gave any ifs, ands or buts. However the basketball gods have it, we have to take advantage and play to the best of our ability.”
That, obviously, will make the opening games crucial, especially with Smith due back for Game 3 in Chicago. You always can rebound in a seven-game series from losing one home game. It’s difficult to lose two. Though this is a difficult Bulls team to figure out. The Milwaukee series was something of the epitome of the Bulls season, lackluster efforts at times, poor starts and then spectacular, take-your-breath-away runs.
“You’d get paid a lot of money if you could figure that out (whether you’ll see a Bucks Game 5 Bulls team or Game 6),” said Dunleavy. “Obviously we’ve been up and down this year for myriad reasons. But the main thing is we advanced from the first round, we played great in Game 6. We’re hopeful we can keep that going. If we don’t, we can look back and say, ‘Hey, what do we do to make that happen? Let’s see if we can do it again.’
“I thought our focus, our preparation, our awareness, our intensity, all those intangibles you talk about were there (in the Game 6 record margin win),” said Dunleavy. “They’re not the easiest things to have every night. That’s the challenge when you play 82 games, even when you play in the playoffs. In a six, seven-game series you have some slippage. So for us the big thing is to try to avoid that mental slippage. You are going to have nights where you miss shots. But if you can be dialed in, always get stops defensively, be alert, be aware you can really prevent unnecessary losses.
“Game (6) it was everything on both sides of the ball,” said Dunleavy. “We were into the ball, pressuring defensively, activity, the talk was great and then when we got into the open court we made plays, executed in the half court offense. We literally did everything the way we wanted to and scripted it. How you repeat that? There’s no magic recipe other than to be dialed in and have that right mindset.
“We’ve got to get off to a good start,” Dunleavy added. “The odds always are in your favor when you win Game 1 or Game 2, get a road victory to start the series. We know it’s important, but we also know LeBron historically plays really well on the road and thrives in those situations. So getting off to a good start for us is very important.”
And so it does come back to the constant in the playoffs. Can you beat LeBron? The Spurs are out. Will their back to back Finals’ rival be next?
“Like Thibs said, ‘To get deep in the playoffs you have to go through Cleveland,’” said Gibson. “You can't sidestep them or go around them. It's a man's game, the best of the best, the best teams get to the ultimate goal to win the championship.”