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By Sam Smith | 4.22.2015 | 9:15 a.m.
One of the tenets of playoff basketball is the team that has the best player in the league generally wins. The Bulls know that well from the 1990s; nobody beat Michael Jordan. It’s not guaranteed. The Pistons in 2004 beat Shaq and Kobe. Bill Russell generally beat Wilt. And LeBron lost two of the last four years.
But LeBron also won two of those; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan won five; Larry Bird won three.
And now here come the Bulls once again, the fourth time in the last six seasons they’ll be playing LeBron James’ team in the playoffs. They have not done well.
James playing with the Cavaliers in 2010 and then the Miami Heat in 2011 and 2013 beat Derrick Rose twice and then various teammates in three playoff series, each in five games. No matter how close the Bulls want to say it was in the 2010 first round, 2011 conference finals or winning the first game in the 2013 conference semifinals, they all were 4-1 series.
So now as the Bulls prepare to begin the conference semifinals in Cleveland 6 p.m. Monday on TNT, the looming question once again is how do you beat the best player in the league.
The Bulls haven’t had much success this season, losing three of four to the Cavs as James has averaged 28.3 points, 6.3 assists and seven rebounds. The Bulls got a break as this time they are the healthier team with Kevin Love out for the playoffs with shoulder surgery. Plus, J.R. Smith is suspended for the first two games; he has proven troublesome for the Bulls with 15 of 31 threes in three games against the Bulls. Love averaged 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds against the Bulls.
On the Bulls side, Rose was the best player against the Cavaliers this season, averaging 22.7 points and 4.3 assists and shooting 39 percent on threes. The Bulls had seven players average in double figures against the Cavs, though the current healthy Bulls starting lineup never started in any games together against Cleveland. Mike Dunleavy shot threes best at 53 percent. The Bulls overall shot a 42.3 percent on threes against Cleveland. Tony Snell was his best against Cleveland averaging 11.5 points on 60 percent shooting.
But it generally comes down to the best player because the playoffs are about making the big play at the right time as Jordan did so often. The Bulls have never been able to prevent James from doing so. Can they during the next two weeks?
So I asked two Hall of Famers what they did when their teams in the playoffs and Finals had to go up against the best player in the game, the Pacers’ Reggie Miller against Jordan and later Shaq, and Isiah Thomas against Magic Johnson.
“There’s two schools of thought. Either you can game plan to try and neutralize the best player, which I’d say eight to nine times out of 10 is not going to work because they are the best player for a reason. Or you try and stop everyone else and let the best player get his 30, 35, which you assume he was going to get anyway. Then you take out the second and third best players.
“What we tried to do in both of those series, we knew there was no way of stopping Jordan and there was no stopping Shaq. We tried the hack-a-Shaq, but we did it so early anytime you committed a common foul you were sending Rick Fox, Glen Rice, Brian Shaw, Kobe, those guys to the free throw line. So not only did we give Shaq 39 free throws (18 of 39 in Game 2 Lakers win) we gave those guys five, six seven so they ended up shooting 50, 60 free throw in certain games and it didn’t work.
“The best player is always going to get his number because he is too good. I like to try and take out the second and third best players. At times against Chicago it worked. Against the Lakers it didn’t because Rice and Fox made shots and the game Shaq fouled out, the game that went to overtime we blew we should have won, Kobe stepped up. You will always have moments throughout a series you can win a game and you have to capitalize on those moments. That’s what we didn’t do. When you have an opportunity to win a game when the best player is getting his numbers and the role players or the others—I wouldn’t call Kobe a role player, he was young—when they’re having just OK games, those are the games you have to win.
“And you can’t let the best player do everything. You knew Jordan would score, but he can’t get 35 and nine assists because that means he’s getting Harper and Kukoc and those guys involved. Shaq can’t get 40 and 15 rebounds, 10 offensive. You’ve got to take one or two of the best players strengths away, which is easier said than done because they are best for a reason. Take away the other guy and then make the little plays.”
“Magic is the perfect example because Lebron is not a scorer or doesn’t have the scorers’ mentality Jordan had. But Magic was a stat sheet stuffer. The thing you wanted to do was eliminate his options. Force him to become more of a scorer than necessarily a distributor.
We focused on the second option. Like to me the key to the series will not be LeBron. It will be Kyrie Irving. Can you shut him down?
“To me, he’s their best offensive player. While James may be the stat stuffer in terms of a pure offensive player, the No. 1 thing they (Bulls) need to figure out is what they need to do with Kyrie Irving; not necessarily what are they going to do with LeBron James.
“We had to figure out what were we going to do with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. How do we take him out of the game? For us, Worthy was unstoppable. What are you going to do with Kyrie Irving out on the perimeter? He’s the guy. We let Magic and Worthy do whatever they wanted to; all our focus was on stopping Kareem. Even though he was 39 or 40, we felt if we can eliminate him then we didn’t feel Magic and Worthy and those other guys had a chance to beat us.
“We trapped--this is crazy--Kareem was 39, 40 in the ‘88, ‘89 finals, and every time he touched the basketball we were trapping him; we were trapping a 40-year-old man. Everything we did was how do we stop Abdul-Jabbar. LeBron is not going to go for 55; Kyrie Irving is capable. What are you going to do with him?”