Bulls look to respond in must-win game vs Cavs

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By Sam Smith | 5.14.2015 | 9:20 a.m.

Pau Gasol said he’s going to play Thursday against the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinal after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury. Taj Gibson wasn’t suspended—or facing any further penalty—after his ejection in the Game 5 loss that gave the Cavs a 3-2 series lead. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said Derrick Rose’s “nicked up” right shoulder/arm/wrist/hand was workable and not an issue. Aaron Brooks was not getting a fine for his little push in the Gibson incident.

Hey, it all sounds pretty good.

Oh, yeah, the Bulls better win Thursday.

“Right now it’s win or go home,” Gasol said in a cliché go to for elimination games. “There’s nothing left besides tomorrow’s game. Our backs are against the wall. But I like our chances, to be honest with you. I love our team. I like our resiliency. They are in a close out position, but it’s up to us to stand up to the challenge and fight for our lives. We have to win two games to advance.”

It was as positive as it could be after a light Bulls practice Wednesday, Gasol back, though he said likely in limited playing time and depending on how he endured. He said he’d begun running, but had not tried to jump yet. Which didn’t sound so encouraging. The mantra was another sports bromide, just looking toward Game 6. And then worry about a Game 7 in Cleveland.

Though the way this series has gone the worry is LeBron James.

The Bulls may be finding out what so many like the Knicks and Pacers and Cavaliers of that era discovered. You can be good enough to win a championship if not born in the wrong decade. That was Michael’s time. This is LeBron’s time and he’s been spectacular in this series.

There was the game winner in Game 4 amidst a series of amazing performances, including Tuesday’s steamroller 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks without a turnover. Jimmy Butler guarding James had 29 points and nine rebounds, an amazing game basically no one noticed.

Sometimes someone comes along who is just too good.

It could be that it’s James.

Though he’s not exactly unbeatable in a series that has been as evenly contested as any in these playoffs. The teams have the exact same number of field goals after five games. The number of free throws is almost the same and their free throw shooting is .001 apart. The Cavs have scored 12 more points over five games. The Bulls have five more rebounds. The Cavs have two more assists. The Cavs have one more turnover and were called for six more fouls. The Bulls have six more steals while the Cavs have six more blocks. Two games came down to a last shot; Game 5 saw the Bulls with a shot to take the lead with 46 seconds left.

So it’s hardly like trying to defeat a monolith.

The series, in many respects, has been there for the taking for the Bulls with Kevin Love and J.R. Smith out, Smith the first two games, and Kyrie Irving supposedly with a leg injury, though he’s moving pretty well and had 25 points in Game 5.

Still, this is about LeBron, who does virtually everything for the Cavs, far more than any player has been asked to do in these playoffs and, probably, in any playoffs for years.

James leads the Cavs in scoring, rebounding and assists. He is almost exclusively their primary ball handler. He’s averaging 12 more shots per game than any teammate. He’s leading in steals and has been called for more fouls than any teammate. See, they call fouls on him, though he hasn’t agreed with any yet. He’s shooting more free throws than anyone and only Iman Shumpert has attempted more threes, even with James bricking them up at a 12.5 percent rate. He’s the only Cav averaging more than 40 minutes per game, the true indispensible man.

There’s really no stopping James, and Butler has done as well as anyone usually can even with those amazing statistics for James. But you have to try something. James wants to pass and the Cavs’ best game is when they move the ball for three-point shooting.

The Bulls cannot allow that. The Bulls have basically done a good job defending the three-point line as even the Bulls at 36 percent are shooting better than the Cavs’ 34 percent from distance.

The Bulls have to do a better job running Irving off the three-point line. Though J.R. Smith has shot well from three and leads them at 42.9 percent, I wouldn’t worry so much about him as he’ll fall in love with the bad shot too easily. The Cavs’ best games basically have been with Irving to support James, though Irving slumped in the weekend game in the United Center, shooting five for 23.

This Cavs team simply doesn’t have enough to win without greatness from James and very goodness from Irving. Though Thibodeau Wednesday in his routine celebration of opponents had staff running for defibrillators when he declared, “Dellavedova is dangerous.” That’s three words heard about as often as, “Enjoying Chicago’s winter?”

There’s no stopping James, who came out in a jaw dropping fury in Game 5 with 24 first half points. You don’t want to help too much as he’s such a good passer. I’d change the defense a bit. James’ sweet spot is his move left. That’s where he most likes to shoot. The Bulls tend to shade left in their “ice” pick and roll defense. Their goal is to avoid middle penetration and push the play to the baseline. I’d shade James’ left hand as he doesn’t like to shoot going right. Maybe it saves a basket or two. It could be enough in this series.

Then I’d go after Irving. The Bulls have given him all sorts of space to operate. Don’t worry about Shumpert and Smith; they aren’t beating you. Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov don’t shoot. Make Irving shoot inside the three-point line. Get up on him with pressure. Make him uncomfortable, make him feel like he needs to move faster. Pick him up higher and make him work. If he really is hurt it will have an affect.

The Bulls’ defense hasn’t been as good this season, so accept that. One reason is the physical limitations with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson. So they probably shouldn‘t switch as much. The Bulls are getting beaten on mismatches more after the switches. Just play tougher defense, which should be less an issue in this sort of game.

“Now it’s all about heart, effort, will, determination, wanting it more than they do,” said Gasol.

Yes, about Pau.

His offensive play in the pick and pop was crucial in the Bulls Game 1 victory and launched a narrative of the Cavs’ strategies not up to playing the Bulls. That eased with Gasol’s hamstring issues starting in Game 2. Gasol concedes he’s not near full strength, but given the circumstances he wants to play. I’d never say a player should sit. And it is, as Gasol noted, sudden death—or sudden summer--perhaps.

But you know the Cavs will be attacking Gasol on the pick and roll, and Gasol isn’t an aggressive pick and roll defender to start. Gasol’s shooting could be a salve for those scoring droughts the Bulls have had in Games 4 and 5. Though you’d think the way the last game went that a motivated Bulls team would have enough to win at home. And then maybe a healthier Gasol for the tougher Game 7 in Cleveland? I know, probably too great a risk.

“We walked through stuff, but I was able to do some good running, able to do shooting for the first time and move OK,” said Gasol, who was listed as “probable” on the Bulls injury report. “No residual pain from yesterday; making progress. Tomorrow is the game and I’ll do everything I can to help the team. I haven’t tried to jump yet. I’ll see how it feels and reacts, do what I can out there, stay positive, do what I can these next 24 hours to get myself physically and mentally ready. I hope my presence is positive out there, just try to make good decisions and help the team win.”

Though Thibodeau complained about the Bulls giving up 106 points Tuesday, I thought the defense was acceptable. The reason was the Bulls finally pushed the ball more, played a little quicker, though still caught in a few of those interminable shot clock violations. The Bulls have the most of any playoff team. Fast starts are vital for the Bulls, and they did get one in Cleveland Tuesday with Rose pushing the ball, throwing ahead instead of dribbling out. It led to more and better shots for Mike Dunleavy, which was vital in that fourth quarter comeback that almost stole the game.

Cleveland frequently goes small, especially late in games, with Thompson at center. Perhaps that changes with Gasol. But the Bulls had better flow to their offense with their small lineup late. Of course, the second guess remains the absence of Gibson after that leg lock that looked like a kick. And a key lost late rebound.

“Still don’t understand it.” said Thibodeau. “It was a nothing play.”

Gibson’s flagrant foul wasn’t rescinded (another means a suspension with one more), but Dellavedova was assessed a technical foul.

The Bulls’ bench hasn’t been very good and Thibodeau was unusually critical Wednesday for him. “We’re giving up everything,” he said of the reserves. “You can’t give a team three or four shots. We have to play more physical. Then we’ve got to make shots. If you have open shots, you’ve got to make them.”

Reserves generally tend to play better at home and perhaps they should just be asked to come in for three minute segments and pressure and trap and then get out of there. Irving will wear down. Nothing to lose now.

Especially against that LeBron guy. Cleveland media reports the Cavs are 23-10 in closeout games with James, though most of the losses were in his early playoff appearances. The only time a James' team lost back to back closeout games was to Detroit in 2006.

“It’s been a very up and down year,” said Gasol. “We’ve had great stretches, we’ve had terrible stretches. I feel like when we have lost a couple of games in a row we have always reacted well and always play our best. We seem like we need that sense of urgency and desperation in order for us to have great focus and great intensity; right now there’s no bigger desperation and sense of urgency than we find ourselves in today. So that why I envision and expect our guys to bring it.

“We’ve been close the last two games,” noted Gasol. “Could have gone either way; unfortunately went their way. Now, playing at home we have to focus on ourselves and do whatever we can to win it. Yesterday was pretty much a one possession game and we had our chances even with LeBron having a magnificent night, So I think that has to be encouraging as far as our chances for Game 6.”