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By Sam Smith | 5.01.2015 | 10:00 a.m. CT
The Bulls will be in Cleveland the first week of May. And everyone knows what that means, 47 degrees, a cold wind off the lake, dark and dank days with heavy overcast, downtown streets torn up with construction and perhaps one or two downtown restaurants open. But no one’s complaining.
“I never thought I’d say this, but I’m very excited to go to Cleveland,” Joakim Noah said in a happy and relieved Bulls locker room after their logic defying 120-66 victory Thursday over the Milwaukee Bucks to win the first round playoff series 4-2. It now means a conference semifinals with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers starting Monday in Cleveland. And if Cleveland isn’t a vacationland, as Noah famously said during the Bulls 2010 playoff with the Cavs, the Bulls are looking forward to this visit.
“We’re finally going into this relatively healthy and we’re just very excited for the opportunity,” said Noah.
It’s the matchup much of the NBA has waited for, and for Derrick Rose a welcome visit as well. Asked about playing James in a playoff series again for the first time since the 2011 conference finals, Rose said:
“It could have been anybody. It could have been my mom I would have been happy. I’m just happy to be playing again and be on the court.”
The Cavaliers won the Central Division and three of four over the Bulls this season. But there’s some additional intrigue with Kevin Love out for the playoffs after shoulder surgery and J.R. Smith suspended for the first two games.
“It’s a little bit different when you take their range shooting four out,” said Rose. “You don’t know what they are going to do and what strategies they are going to have (without Love). Just going to take playing them. When you don’t have a player like Kevin Love that is something to worry about a little bit.”
Added Noah: “Kevin Love obviously is a great player. It’s unfortunate he got hurt; you never want that to happen to anybody. We know they have a lot of talent and are very capable. So we’re going to have to play our best basketball to beat them.”
Rose was asked about his likely matchup with backcourt rival Kyrie Irving, whom Rose backed up for USA Basketball last summer.
“Anybody that plays for USA Basketball, in the Olympics, you are going to play good basketball when you come back to the regular season,” Rose said. “He’s a great player, a great young player who demands a lot of attention when he does have the ball. That’s what we have to give him.
“Taking it like every other series,” said Rose “They are a great team; got a lot of experience on that team. Got a lot of young players willing to show people what they have. Just have to be ready for them. You know when you play against them you’ve got to get back (on defense). You’ve got to take the momentum away; should be a fun series.”
Mike Dunleavy came through with a big Game 6 in Milwaukee and knows the Bulls still need to run uphill.
“We obviously have our work cut out for us,” said Dunleavy of the Cavs. “They’ve had a great season. They’ve got plenty of rest; they’ll be ready. We have to go home and get right and head back on the road and see if we can get the series started off right.
“You’ve got to develop a game plan to stop him,” Dunleavy said of James. “Everything begins with him on any team he’s playing with. I’m sure we’ll take a look at everything, try to play him the best you can. He’s going to make tough shots, tough plays. He’s got good players around him; it will be a difficult matchup. We’re a bunch of competitors; we’ll go out there and compete and do our best.”
As for the only Bulls player with championship series experience, Pau Gasol warned: “Very tough opponent. It’s an opponent that’s going to be difficult to beat. We’ve got to get ourselves ready for it. We are going to start on the road. So we are going to have to bring our best game to that series in order to be successful.”
Let the games begin.