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By Sam Smith | 5.7.2015 | 9:10 a.m.
The signs were there it was going to be a bad day for the Bulls.
The song of the first bird outside the windows at the Bulls downtown Cleveland hotel was a vulture.
“I just had a bad feeling, seeing how we were moving around during the game, moving around before the game,” said Taj Gibson. “Just had a bad feeling. Too lax.”
James Jones was outplaying Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler; reserve-turned-starter Tristan Thompson was outrebounding Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah combined. Supportive Bulls fans greeting the Bulls arriving at the Quicken Loans arena were giving the players gift bags. Filled with deodorant sticks.
Yes, the Bulls stunk Wednesday in losing 106-91 to the Cavaliers, trailing by 22 points in the first quarter of a game in which the Bulls had a double digit deficit for the last 42 minutes. The series now is tied 1-1 with Game 3 Friday in the United Center.
Milwaukee Bucks players were calling in to say, “See, now you know what it feels like.”
“The story of the game was the first quarter,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. “They smashed us. We knew the aggression would be better and we didn’t respond to it. Gave them everything, 38 points in the first quarter, too big of a cushion. Tried to work our way back into the game; had maybe one crack at it.”
That was a Rose-led third quarter 14-0 run in which he scored or assisted on every basket. That made it 72-61, a Bulls high point. But LeBron James, with an overwhelming 33 points, eight rebounds and five assists, powered in for three scores around two more Jones threes and the Bulls didn’t get within 15 again until the last minute.
“The way we came out was like a nonchalant kind of attitude,” admitted Rose, who had 14 points and 10 assists. “The intensity wasn’t there right from the beginning and we let them get where they wanted to go.
They really jumped on us and it changed the whole game. So we’ve just got to make sure we come out and just try to be aggressive from the beginning and see how it goes.
“With this team we’ve been like that the entire year,” Rose acknowledged. “We haven’t put a finger on it yet. Being in the playoffs you have to answer that bell right away. So we’re going to look at film, have a strategy and game plan and see how things go from there. But it’s something we’ve got to change right away. The only thing we can do now is learn from it, go back to Chicago, where I know our fans are waiting, the city’s just waiting for us to come back there and it should be another exciting game; hopefully we play some defense this time.”
Oh, but what a lost opportunity.
The Cavs were staggering at home after the Game 1 loss, still without the suspended J.R. Smith, who will return in Game 3, having to change their starting lineup again with their veterans’ poor in Game 1, as vulnerable as any LeBron James team, certainly any the Bulls have played.
But this is not your older brother or sister’s Bulls.
You remember them, gritty and determined if not quite talented enough. You knew you were going to get a furious effort from them no matter the circumstances, next man up and more than enough to win and all that.
Well, no more.
Yes, the Bulls had a strong close to the first round series with the Bucks, but not before being pushed near the brink by a bunch of overachieving role players. And, yes, the Bulls went into Cleveland Monday and controlled the entire game, responded to every Cavaliers’ challenge with better plays.
But then with a chance to stand on their necks and drop a second home loss on the Cavs and leave them straining to even remain in the playoffs, the Bulls instead extended the Cavs a helping hand to lift them off the ground. Where exactly do nice guys finish, Leo?
“We came out sluggish, we weren’t guarding, we were trying to outscore them,” said Butler, who had 18 points but was five of 14 while Rose was six of 20. “We’ve been saying we can’t do that all year. It’s easily correctable but we’ve got to guard; starts with me. Once again like I always say I’m the one that has set the tone on defense and I didn’t do it today. Their intensity was so much higher than ours. From the jump. Can’t happen; we missed shots and we didn’t guard. Dug ourselves a huge hole and couldn’t get out of it.”
It’s the confusing element about this Bulls team that, if anything, has been consistent in their inconsistency. We’ve seen this all season, 16 losses to sub-.500 teams, miserable performances followed by brilliance, though rarely sustained. Never much great defense, though much better offense. But more than anything the words belie the actions. They talk about excellence and dominating, and then when the opportunity is there it’s a run of indifference.
They try; they don’t seem to try that hard.
There are all sorts of clichés about it, like killer instinct, a dog eat dog mentality, though I am uncomfortable with the images. Perhaps the Bulls are as well.
Where’s the drive, the intensity, the commitment?
You’re not going to sweep a team with LeBron James, not even one missing Smith and Kevin Love. But compete. Make it a game. Make them play you until the end. Don’t find out who Joe Harris is.
Instead, the Bulls didn’t so much.
Give them a shot going over every screen, a tag as it’s called. The Bulls were most gentlemanly. Get up on them, take away their air space, as Pat Riley liked to say. Don’t allow them to be comfortable. The Bulls did. They let Kyrie Irving with 21 points maneuver and LeBron catch deep in the post. Meet them higher, pressure them, make them give up the ball, make them work. It’s a long game, though not the way the Bulls played it Wednesday. It’s a long series. Or should be. Take something out of them. Those extra six minutes having to fight you off in the fourth quarter even if you lose can have an effect next week in Game 6 or Game 7.
Not the way the Bulls allowed Irving and James to waltz around like on a dance floor and find Jones for five threes, Iman Shumpert for four more and even Matthew Dellavedova for a pair. That’s what beats you against the Cavs. Not LeBron. Just make him work. He can get 35 any time he wants to.
James said after the Game 1 loss he’d be more aggressive. He wore his headband for the first time in two months in a theatrical flourish that likely will be analyzed for weeks on ESPN. But he won’t beat you. Well, not alone.
“It was in my locker and I decided to give it a go,” James said of the head wrap. “It was time for it to make a comeback.”
Another No. 45 is no No. 23?
“I don’t care about any headband,” said Butler. “He can play with or without a headband. He’s a great player headband or not. He outplayed me tonight.”
No shame in that as James does it to most everyone. And it was hardly unexpected.
“We’re a little banged up, short handed. So I have to be aggressive,” said James “I have to kind of change my approach and be ultra aggressive. Kyrie wanted me to be ultra aggressive, which I’m not accustomed to doing, especially taking that many shots. I’ve never been a high volume shooter. But I have to respond to my teammates. What my teammates want me to do, I try to succeed at doing.”
But it was Shumpert who beat the Bulls and Jones and Thompson; you shut off the threes, you shut down Cleveland. The Cavs, however, were 12 of 26 on threes. They also outrebounded the Bulls 45-37 while basically playing “small” with Thompson their big man with shooters. Yet, Thompson had six offensive rebounds, more than Noah and Gasol combined. Gasol had just 11 points and four rebounds as Cleveland played him more aggressively with Thompson instead of lumbering Timofey Mozgov. That blew up the Bulls successful pick and pop game from Game 1. But you can’t stay big if you bigs can’t score.
Noah with two more free throw misses for an inexplicable one of 14 in the playoffs continues his desperate and confusing offensive slump. The rule is if you play big you have to take advantage of them playing small. After all, you’re not getting outside to their shooters. But like against the Bucks, the Bulls failed to take advantage. And now the Cavs get back another long distance shooter in Smith in position to play lineups with Shumpert (assuming he is OK after a groin strain), Smith, Irving, James and Thompson.
You meet those lineups with force, pressure them up court, don’t let them get comfortable, make them feel you, as the saying goes. The Cavs instead felt very good with the polite Bulls as house guests. Hardly a saucer was disturbed. Sure, the Bulls are high character people. But do they have to be so nice in the playoffs, too?
“I knew we were in trouble as soon as they jumped on us,” said Gibson, who was five of five for 11 points in 20 minutes and needs more playing time. “I had a bad feeling. Each quarter we kept chopping it down, chopping it down, wearing out of energy just trying to get back (the Bulls outscored the Cavs in each of the last three quarters). And every time we chopped it down they made another strong push. In the playoffs, you try to keep it close so every time they hit you with a punch you hit them right back. Playoff are about different punches and being able to counter and they hit us with a knockout blow early. We couldn’t really adapt and it was real frustrating.
“We went up on LeBron 1-0 and become too lax,” said Gibson. “We had a chance to go up 2-0, put a foot on their neck and we failed.”
It wasn’t much of a game, except for the giddy home crowd, because the Cavs took it from the start. They beat the Bulls to loose balls and rebounds, moved the ball an extra pass or two every time for wide open threes, drove the ball hard at the Bulls, basically everything you do in the playoffs while the Bulls came out with that mid-January mentality.
It’s not a reason, but Rose even with 20 shots and attacking the basket didn’t get a free throw attempt for the third straight game.
“I can’t think about that,” Rose said. “I don’t even want to talk about that (Kyrie’s 21 free throws). I’m playing; if they’re not calling it they’re just not calling it. I can’t be worried about that.”
But it was curious; even some odd calls where one time Rose jumped next to Irving on a three, landed astride him and was called for a three-point shot foul. Thibodeau paused for about 20 seconds when asked about it with the league censorship and fine police on alert.
“I guess he’s got to go harder,” Thibodeau finally said. “I don’t know. Looks like there’s a lot of contact to me, but obviously others don’t see it that way.”
There’s also this Big Lie going around mostly being promoted by the national broadcast that Rose is poor on one day off compared to two. The playoff stats show him averaging 24 points on two days and 14 on one. Though that’s a very small sample. For the entire season, his one and two-day rest scoring averages are basically identical.
Rose was baffled as he answered, his foot shaking. But it’s further evidence of his lifestyle change that he was the first player in NBA history to take a stem machine for physical therapy to his post game media session. No he was not nervous.
“I think that’s something you all made up or something,” Rose said of the rest day differences. “I can’t think about that at all; when I go out there I try to play my hardest and that’s about it.”
Butler was hard on himself for James getting away like he did, though James does that. Butler probably didn’t play as aggressively and physically as he could have, which may not have made a scoring difference. But you at least have to make James work. The Bulls barely did. The league is expected to announce Thursday Butler won the Most Improved Player award. He was asked about that after the game and said it doesn’t mean much and won’t because his focus remains on winning four games in this series and moving beyond.
“I have to man up and take the challenge,” Butler said. “LeBron was aggressive, but I wasn’t aggressive enough. I was counting too much on help being there, which is on me. I will be better. I can’t get too much worse. If we don’t get to four games in this series the award is good for nothing.
“I do have to outplay guys; end of story,” Butler said about it being even James. “I have to produce; that’s my job on this team, to guard, score some baskets. I didn’t do a great job of that tonight. It was too easy for him. He got to the rim too easily; lots of layups, reckless fouling. He did what he said he was going to do.”
Did I mention the Cavs led 13-2 four minutes in, 24-6 eight minute in and 38-18 after the first quarter?
So much for jumping on them when they are down. No injuries this time. Everyone is healthy; certainly healthier than the Cavs. No excuses now. Really, without Smith and Love is there anyone on that team who can make your rotation? Thompson maybe off the bench; maybe Shumpert. You can’t win them all; you may not even win enough. But compete.
Well, it is a playoff series and the Bulls, after all, won on the road. Just win at home now and you go to the conference finals. But might have to try a bit harder.
“LeBron did a great job with playing hard right from the beginning, attacking the lanes, changing the pace of the game,” said Rose. “For the leader of the team that’s what you are supposed to; you’ve got to take your hat off to him. Everybody on the team followed right behind him.
“We played the young Milwaukee team in the first series and they changed their lineups almost every game,” noted Rose. “It’s all about being prepared and making sure everyone is on the right track. Tonight they really jumped on us and it changed the whole game. So we’ve just got to make sure we come out and just try to be aggressive from the beginning and see how it goes.”