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By Sam Smith | 5.5.2015 | 9:10 a.m.
The Bulls Monday didn’t slay the giant, though their 99-92 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal was complete, efficient and impressive.
Derrick Rose had 25 points, five rebounds and five assists, Pau Gasol added 21 points and 10 rebounds, 13 points in the third quarter when the Cavaliers rallied back from a 16-point deficit, and Jimmy Butler added 20 points and a clinching, driving bank shot with 30.6 seconds left.
The wire-to-wire victory gave the Bulls a 1-0 lead in the series with Game 2 in Cleveland Wednesday.
But it takes four whacks to slay a giant in these things, a giant who has stolen the Bulls championship hopes and dreams the last five years, twice even after losing the first game of a playoff series. Maybe it’s different this time, and perhaps he’s not quite the fearsome giant.
“It’s not a point about looking in the past or talking about the past,” said Rose, who had a late scare with a shoulder “stinger” that apparently proved no problem. “The teammates I have on my team right now, like I said, I’m grateful. I’m so fortunate to be playing with them. I think we can be a dangerous team.
“The way I used to play back in the day is totally different than the way I play now,” added Rose. “I can’t think about the past or even put in my head (losing playoff series after being ahead 1-0). I can only have positive thoughts; just trying to lead my team in a positive way. You can’t think of how many times he beat us in the past; it’s over. We’re in the present now.”
And that present began to look much clearer after the victory as it was LeBron James with the crucial mistakes down the stretch after pushing through 42 minutes with a roster of castoff teammates other than Kyrie Irving, who was terrific with 30 points. James had a modest 19 points (nine of 22 shooting shadowed by Butler), 15 rebounds and nine assists. But it was James traveling with 3:40 left and the Bulls leading 92-86; James forced into Bulls defensive coverage, leaping in the air and throwing right to Rose for a turnover with 2:09 left and the Bulls leading 94-88; and James unable to finish at the basket with Gasol big in front of him with 51.9 seconds left and the Bulls leading 94-90.
Butler with a team best nine fourth quarter points then banked in his step back to effectively conclude an impressive evening for the Bulls.
Fe Fi Fo Fum;
Do we sense the end of a team supposed to be awesome?
No one’s writing off the Cavs yet since, yes, the Bulls have happily had these 1-0 leads before. And this, after all, is LeBron James, best player in the solar system, no the cosmos, no the universe, no the galaxies, no. Best on the planet? Is that all?
We’ve celebrated James plenty, and he’s still plenty good.
But Butler Monday was pretty much his match in 44 minutes—basically jumping off the bench to reenter the game every time James did—and coming up with perhaps the defensive play of the game with a chase down stop against Irving with 6:52 left and the Bulls hanging onto an 86-82 lead.
It was first Rose with a step back 20 footer after Butler’s fabulous effort and then Butler with a drive and converting one of two free throws and then a three pointer with 4:30 remaining to give the Bulls that 92-86 lead that helped them have enough to stave off any late James threats.
“I know when I ran him down he missed a layup,” Butler said of the play on which he actually remained fuzzy with the frenzied back and forth. “I don’t even think about what happens. I just wanted him to miss that layup, hawk him down and contest it. He just so happened to miss it and I guess I went down and hit a three.
“That’s what I’m supposed to do,” Butler said. “I’m supposed to guard and run people down. Contest some layups and shots; that’s part of basketball and it just so happened that play happened tonight.
“I think I did well (defensively against James),” Butler said under media prodding. “His name may be more well known, but I’m also here to compete. Made him work for everything. But I think my teammates did a great job of contesting his shots at the rim. Just making him work hard for every basket, every rebound and assist he got.”
And perhaps it has an effect as this series goes on and J.R. Smith returns for Game 3 in the United Center, though Kevin Love will miss the series with a shoulder injury.
“We can’t get too high on this win,” warned Joakim Noah. “We’ve been in this situation before where we won a big Game 1. When you are in this situation you can’t exhale; you know they are going to play better next game. They’re going to make their adjustments and we have to make ours and stay humble.”
But there seems something different about James.
Though James was clucking after the game about guarding everyone on the Bulls with his breath of talent, it seemed sort of a deception. What the Cavs really were doing was hiding James on defense. He wasn’t taking the challenge of someone like Butler, which he should have. The Cavs’ strategy, like it was with James in Miami, was to try to create offense with turnovers and run outs. The Bulls, however, did a good job and committed just 10 turnovers. The Cavs had two fast break points.
James mostly guarded the least likely Bulls scorer on the floor, often Noah or Kirk Hinrich, the latter who even blew by James one time for a three-point play. There were a series of fluky matchups with the Cavs’ injuries and Cleveland starting Mike Miller, who rarely played this season. That didn’t work and neither did cameos from Shawn Marion and James Jones.
So perhaps it wasn’t surprising the Cavs were in effect saying, at least until Smith returns, they can’t wear out James. Even when he switched on occasion to the Bulls top scorers, it wasn’t a big issue, like when Rose rocketed in a three-pointer over James in the Bulls 15-0 run after the Cavs had tied the game at 53 early in the third quarter.
“We all have to be better,” said James, who is a stand up guy with media and fans. “I have to be better. I wasn’t that good tonight.”
That not very good included six of the nine Cavs turnovers, though James is their primary ball handler and passer given Irving is a scorer first. A very good one, but he’s not getting guys many shots. So unlike in Miami, James has to do an awful lot. And you wondered if those late missteps, including the head scratching turnover when he jumped in the air to pass (a Rose favorite) was a result of some fatigue as well. It seemed apparent in James’ defensive assignments the Cavs may have been trying to space out James’ responsibilities. Though falling behind at home and without that third scorer, though Iman Shumpert had 22 points, you wonder if the load will be too much even for the great James.
Because this is a different Bulls team with Gasol playing that Chris Bosh role James knew so well, the big man stepping outside and making head shaking jump shot after head shaking jump shot, which Gasol did in that third quarter with 13 points that saved the game for the Bulls. That’s when it looked like the Cavs had recovered from their long rest.
That was one excuse, the Cavs off a week after their first round sweep. Too much rest, out of rhythm, and all that. That being the rest is bad if you lose, good if you win.
“Pau, he’s very experienced and free throw jump shots are like a layup to him,” said Rose, whose drives set up the passes for the Gasol jumpers. “Even if he misses a few he’ll come down and knock in five in a row. It’s a good play, it’s an easy play. It’s a layup.”
It even produced an unusual response as the Cavs’ big men, principally Timofey Mozgov, were unable to get out to Gasol. And every time Gasol sprung open a gasp and nervous whisper went through the arena. Him, again?
“Derrick was aggressive off the pick and roll,” said Gasol. “They left me open a lot of times. I was able to knock down the jumper and when they rotated it from the wing, swung it to Jimmy or Mike (Dunleavy) or whoever was out there. We kept running it because it definitely was working for us. High pick and roll is a play a lot of teams run; with Derrick’s ability and my ability to make plays for each other and make plays for others we were very effective tonight and let’s see if we can continue to be as effective.”
There’s no reason why the Bulls cannot continue to be effective, though certainly with no guarantees. But this isn’t Rose trying to storm the citadel on every possession. There’s Gasol outside and Butler and Dunleavy, the latter who was big in the fast 21-7 start with 13 first quarter points on five of five shooting. Dunleavy got just one shot attempt after the first quarter. So as the Cavs adjust to that pick and pop, the Bulls should be able to counter with more looks for shooters like Dunleavy as the Bulls shot 50 percent overall and 55.6 percent on threes at 10 for 18.
“Dunleavy, he’s been hot,” agreed Noah. “We’ve just got to search him out as much as possible; the more they hedge out on him its going to give other guys opportunities. No question, we have a lot of talent offensively. The ball movement is getting better and better. It was great against Milwaukee (in Game 6), really good tonight. We’ve got to keep that up.”
Though it’s hardly a flawless Bulls team since they did have a 16-point second quarter lead that was 49-44 Bulls by halftime.
That was due to Irving cutting up the Bulls defense for 10 straight second quarter points to rally the Cavaliers back into the game with plenty of time to change the outcome. The Bulls did a poor job of putting pressure on Irving, allowing him to come out of the backcourt unencumbered and get a run going to the basket. It led to Irving with nine free throws.
Though Irving is a good ball handler, with the Cavs having so few scoring options without Love and Smith, the Bulls were fortunate to escape allowing Irving such a big game. Also, Noah reverted to not trying to score and even missed a point blank layup on a beautiful Rose pick and roll pass in the third quarter. The Cavs were taking advantage of Noah’s disinclination to become involved in the offense, like the Bucks did. Noah played about 29 minutes and it will be interesting to see if Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau stays with him as the Cavs ignore him on offense. Thibodeau has pretty much signaled he’s going with an eight-player rotation with Hinrich, Taj Gibson and Aaron Brooks off the bench. But Thibodeau was correct to get Gasol back in for Noah with about seven minutes left and the Bulls leading 86-82. They needed the offensive threat.
The Bulls staggered some to the close with Rose holding onto the ball too much as they tried to run the clock out. The Bulls pick and roll defense does suffer some with Gasol in for Noah by giving deeper penetration to Irving. But Gasol’s scoring is vital and an element that made the difference for the Bulls in Game 1.
As well as Butler’s relentless defense on James playing 44 minutes and being his strongest on offense in the fourth quarter. Butler really continues to amaze. Probably the best No. 30 draft pick in NBA history.
“He’s definitely not backing down,” Noah said about Butler. “That’s not who he is; he hasn’t since he got to the league. That hasn’t changed one bit; he’s just a more experienced and better basketball player. He’s been playing at a high level for a while now. I love his competitive spirit; he’s bringing it.”
The Bulls did to start the game, jumping on the Cavs 10-2 with those Dunleavy threes. Rose even added a pair.
“We got off to a good start. That was our main focus,” said Dunleavy. “When we get off to good starts we seem to have success in these games. That was big for us. We held strong to get a nice cushion for ourselves to start, which was good. We’re going to hang in there. That’s our group, that’s how we are. I thought our mindset, our focus was good and that’s what happened.”
The Cavs surged back behind Irving in the second quarter while the Cavs defensive plan, as it is now with most teams, was to trap Rose off the pick and roll. But Rose was excellent making reads to shooters and finding lanes to pressure the defense.
“He’s definitely playing all out; it’s huge for us,” Noah said about Rose. “Just to see him out there competing like this; it’s what it’s all about.”
The Cavs got that quick start in the third quarter, but then it was the Bulls swinging the ball for threes, Rose and Gasol in the pick and pop, Gasol all over with an offensive rebound for a three-point play, Rose with a tough jumper falling left, that Rose three over James and Gasol with some good post defense on Mozgov with Butler harassing James. The 15-0 run made it 68-53 Bulls; they led 81-70 after three and then made the big plays in the fourth every time the Cavs got within one score: A Rose 20 footer, a Butler drive and then three pointer, a Gibson offensive rebound and free throws.
“I didn’t know it was a 15-0 run,” Rose admitted. “When you are in the game you are just focusing on the game and how to get easy baskets and change the momentum. Keep your poise whenever they take off and score the ball in bunches. We were making our run; it was all about getting guys in the right spots, reading how they were playing me, how they were playing everyone and trying to make it easy on everyone.”
Rose really is a savant about the game, and it’s apparent when you hear him talk about it.
“When it’s the first game you’ve got see what they are going to do with pick and roll, what they are going to do with hawk action, with post ups, who they are double teaming off,” Rose said. “You’re reading the first game and tonight we made the adjustments during the game and guys hit their shots.
“I’m appreciative of everything, the sport, just working out every day, getting back on the floor, my fans, just every aspect of basketball,” said Rose. “It’s allowing me to not just change my family life but my friends’ and I owe so much to the sport. I look at it like art, with how many hours I stay in the gym, how many hours I stay with recovery, helping my body on off days, getting rest, ice, contrasts with the hot and cold; it’s an honor to be here. Just trying to roll with it.”
Hopefully to live happily ever after.