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By Sam Smith | 5.4.2015 | 9:10 a.m.
We all know about LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as the Bulls Monday in Cleveland prepare to start their Eastern Conference semifinals against the Cavaliers. Then there’s Shawn Marion, who creaks when he walks and played one minute in the first round sweep over Boston and hasn’t scored in double figures since January 4. There’s Mike Miller, who leads the league in times we’re sure he retired and didn’t play in the first round. He’s scored in double figures in a game once since Christmas. Kendrick Perkins belies basketball’s reputation as a graceful sport. He played six minutes in the first round and last scored in double figures in January. James Jones, Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov. This is championship stuff?
Could LeBron be pining for Boobie Gibson, Drew Gooden and Sasha Pavlovic?
“They can put a guy like James Jones in there,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was saying after practice Sunday when asked about Kevin Love being out for the series. “They can put a Marion in there, Mike Miller; those are guys with a lot of experience. They’ll eventually get J.R. (Smith) back (from a two-game suspension). They have a lot of shooting. They have two guys who can break you down off the dribble. LeBron can post. Kyrie can post some. Because of Kyrie and Lebron being so dynamic, they make those other guys very effective. Mozgov is great (yes, he said that). (Tristan) Thompson. We can’t go in with the approach that Love is out so they’re shorthanded. They’re not. You look at the year Thompson and Mozgov have had since he’s been there; those are two terrific bigs, very, very talented. And they fit their team very well.”
Sure, they’re competent NBA players, but, geez. It’s not like any have All-Star game bonuses in their contracts that the NBA considers likely to make.
Michael Jordan won a lot of titles, but not when he played with Charles Davis, Sam Vincent, Dave Corzine and Jack Haley.
Yes, you want to lower expectations, especially if you are the Bulls given no one is exactly a favorite against a team with LeBron James. And Kyrie Irving is a star player in the NBA.
“Any team that has LeBron and Kyrie, you’re not shorthanded,” said Thibodeau.
OK, they’re terrific, though not ideally compatible as, say, Jordan was with Scottie Pippen.
Pippen was a natural helping hand, fitting Jordan’s game like gears meshing. Pippen defended and handled the ball, passed. LeBron is one of your more unselfish stars, but he still likes to score. A lot. He was third in the NBA this season supposedly playing a reduced role. The Cavs are a notorious isolation and hold-the-ball team, James and Irving taking turns with scoring opportunities.
They are both very good at it. But a lot of what makes it work is the way Love can shoot and spread the floor; same with Smith, the two being vital starters.
There’s little question the Cavs at full strength are a better team than the Bulls.
But minus two starters and opening up the sarcophagus for Marion, Miller, Perkins and Jones wouldn’t seem to alarm anyone but Thibodeau. Of course, Thibodeau does basically what pretty much all coaches do before the next game. After practice the Bulls had some chinchillas dressed in Bulls jerseys running around and Thibodeau remarked how difficult they looked for matchups and he didn’t see his team as favorites. OK, I made that up. But good luck getting Thibodeau to suggest he’s not playing the ’86 Celtics every game of the season. He makes Lou Holtz look overconfident.
That’s also part of the coaching credo that every coach just coached the best game everyone has ever seen and it’s amazing to be able to get a win against a coach who amazingly has been overlooked by the Basketball Hall of Fame. They also have a secret handshake, by the way.
But, c’mon, let’s get serious. If the Cavs are trotting out those relics and expecting to win the series, James and Irving better be really, really good. No, really, really, really..Well, you get the idea.
Now, they could be. They are that good.
But this is now a very different series with Love out and Smith suspended and who knows what he’ll do when he returns. After Smith’s last such violence related playoff suspension against Boston, also, in the 2013 playoffs, he came back a mess shooting 26 for 90 in the next round.
Of course, a lot will depend on the Bulls, who often show up for games as if they’ve just gotten up from naps. And really didn’t feel that refreshed.
“I wouldn’t bank (on getting Games 1 and 2) regardless of who is playing,” Pau Gasol said after Sunday’s practice. “The importance of Games 1 and 2 for any team that doesn’t have the home court advantage is still the same. We should go in there and try to get that first game, understand what it takes to do that. Whether J.R. doesn’t play or Kevin is out we can’t have those thoughts or distractions; we have to go in with an aggressive mindset and attitude and do whatever it takes to win that first game.
“It doesn’t look like he’s slowing down at all,” Gasol said about the notion that James might be tired playing big minutes. “First series (he) looked like he played at a dominant level. I’m sure he desires to beat us and move on and move forward and have another chance to win another title; we can’t rely on him being tired. He is a guy so gifted and with a competitive spirit and will go out and do what he does. Hopefully, we’ll prevent him from being as effective as he’s been.
“(We need to be) locked in, understand the importance of the moment, of each and every game and try to get on that edge so we are ready to play and take advantage of the opportunity and the challenge in front of us,” said Gasol. “We have to go back to how we felt before Game 6 (against the Bucks), or after Game 5; we couldn’t close the Bucks in Game 4, at home in Game 5. How we felt and that gave us that edge we came out with in Game 6 and we were able to play like we did. Going back to that feeling; it’s important we feel that way before the game (Monday) and not have to be in a bad position in order for us to react and have that edge. At that point it might be too late and against a better team it might not be enough.”
To summarize, quit trying to look cool and just play hard!
There should be no hesitation this time for the Bulls because it’s not like this is LeBron with Wade and Bosh. Irving’s good, but he’s no Wade. Bosh looks like Bill Russell matched against the rest of that Cavs roster. Then you can play scrubs like an old Gary Payton or Antoine Walker.
The Bulls are not going to change much; this is good and bad. Thibodeau is not much for major adjustments or changes. But his teams are so well prepared because they do the same things, which can be crucial in the heat of a playoff series.
On defense, they’ll protect out from the middle and try to “ice” the pick and roll by pushing it to the baseline for help there. It hasn’t been as effective this season since they don’t stunt as much because Gasol isn’t as active a center as Joakim Noah. Still, the Bulls defense was very good, ranking fourth in defensive field goal percentage. But the Bulls were able to score more with the addition of Gasol and growth of Jimmy Butler.
On offense, they’ll do a lot of dribble handoff and pick and roll, though Milwaukee gave them fits challenging them with smaller players.
As a result, Taj Gibson likely will have an increased role. Similarly with Kirk Hinrich as Thibodeau seemed to prefer his veterans to players like Tony Snell and Nikola Mirotic when the team needed a big game, like Game 6 in Milwaukee. Snell did play his best against Cleveland this season and defensively could be used against Irving or James. It will be one of the classic second guess situations Thibodeau will face in the series.
“Taj is always important,” said Thibodeau. “That’s the one thing you can’t overlook, what he brings to our team, his defense, his rebounding. He’s probably our best low post defender. He’s our best guy at moving his feet. Offensively, it’s hard to put a small on him. He can overpower you inside with his post game, second shots. He’s got a good 17-foot shot; it’s not like you can disregard him. You’ve got to pay attention to him. He’s critical for our team.”
And Thibodeau was effusive about Rose’s closing game in Milwaukee even as Rose had just 15 points.
“You have to remember: This is his first time in the postseason in a long time for him,” Thibodeau noted. “He feels real good, feels strong. I thought Derrick played as well as he has all year in Game 6. It wasn’t his scoring or shooting. It was his playmaking. That tells you how good he is. He had great impact on that game. The one thing is when he has the ball he’s going to have a lot of attention on him. So make the right play.”
The Bulls likely will see plenty of those small lineups with the Cavs’ injuries, but the Cavs aren’t nearly as young. Sure, experience is good. But not when they are sending you invitations to try out for the Swingin’ Seniors. Nor do the Cavs try as hard on defense. They like the look of their scoring. That’s a big issue for them. But who else scores now?
James told reporters at Cavs’ practice this weekend, “Nah, we’re not vulnerable at all.”
p>And that’s what you’d say if you had James on your side; just as the Bulls always did with Jordan.
Which is why the Bulls will or should concentrate more on Irving.
James will get his 30 or 35, everyone believes. But where does the other 65 come from? And remember that stuff about the playoffs slowing down? Not so much anymore with 11 of the 16 playoff teams averaging at least 100 points. The five who did not all are out of the playoffs. You’ve got to score in these playoffs to win. Without Love and Smith, it would seem an issue for the Cavs.
What the Cavs will do in pressure times is try to play James in the post with three or four shooters around him. When they do that you can’t drop off. Thibodeau doesn’t like the double team, anyway, so Jimmy Butler gets to work. As Butler said after the Game 5 loss against the Bucks, he’s known for his defense and should show that. It’s time.
Also, you have to make sure whomever James is guarding is aggressive trying to score. James plays the passing lanes and tries to leak out. You have to take advantage of that. The Bulls had the most success doing that with Rose in the Feb. 12 win, their only one and which also happened to be without Love. Rose kept finding James cheating off Snell, who made nine shots.
The Bulls aren’t an aggressive, trapping team. But this is the time to change that. Irving doesn’t like that and he doesn’t like being screened. Make him run through screen after screen. Bump and tag him. Again and again. He’ll drop under as he doesn’t like the physical punishment. I’d also work LeBron or Irving hard in the backcourt. Make them work taking the ball up; the Bulls have the depth edge. So use it. The early 90s title Bulls had great success with a big like Gibson, in their case Horace Grant, helping a guard in the backcourt to try to make the prime ballhandler give up the ball. It was one of Phil Jackson’s chief strategic strength, one Doug Collins also used masterfully before Jackson. You make someone else make a play or you work the primary ballhandler so hard he wears out later in games or the series. It also gives them trouble getting in an offensive rhythm.
It requires more work and effort and it’s hard. But this is a rare chance to take out the best player in the game with a basically wide open Eastern Conference otherwise.
It’s easy to say and has been difficult to do, but it’s important to get early leads. Mostly because rookie Cavs coach David Blatt plays his regulars big minutes, and if behind he’ll end up putting heavier minutes on James and Irving and the other starters and further wear them down.
Not that LeBron isn’t great, but this isn’t the Miami LeBron. He doesn’t quite take over games like he did. He needed a mid season rest. He’s not running out and dunking on you all the time. You have to make him work. He’ll get tired and it’s not a deep Cavs team.
Sure, he’s won something like 13 straight Eastern Conference playoff series and the Cavs were 20-7 after the All-Star break. They also have just one home loss since January 7. They won’t go easy; the best player in the league never does. And they’re not likely to lose a seventh game. You probably either get them quickly by surprise or not at all.
James has never lost to the Bulls in the playoffs and is averaging 27.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists as his teams are 12-3 against the Bulls in postseason.
There’s the sidebars with Noah, famously about Cleveland and LeBron’s teams being “Hollywood as hell,” Rose in the playoffs again for the first time in May in four years and whether James can be in the Finals five straight times. And if they cast Space Cowboys again, will Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and James Jones be the over-the-hill gang coming back to save the day?
Cavs (2) 53-29 and 4-0 vs Bulls (3) 50-32 and 4-2
Point Guard: Derrick Rose vs Kyrie Irving
There’s plenty of intrigue here as well with Rose last summer reduced to a backup, relief role at point guard for USA Basketball behind Irving, who went on to win MVP. They didn’t play one another much because of injuries as they didn’t meet in Irving’s 2011-12 rookie year, Rose didn’t play the following season after being hurt, and then they both scored 16 in an early season game in 2013-14 before Rose was hurt again. This season Irving averaged 21.3 on 38.6 percent shooting against the Bulls in four games and Rose averaged 22.7 on 46.3 percent shooting in three games.
Before Rose was injured, James would defend Rose at the end of games, which seems unlikely now given James’ heavy workload and the threat of Jimmy Butler. Irving has been a poor defender and Rose at times doesn’t pick up aggressively. Most believe he will against Irving, who has been the better scorer this season but also vulnerable on defense. The Cavs could play Iman Shumpert on Rose, but Irving then would have to play a much taller Mike Dunleavy who moves a lot. So he probably stays with Rose. It’s close and probably the best individual matchup to watch.
Shooting Guard: Jimmy Butler vs Iman Shumpert/J.R. Smith
Smith is suspended for the first two games after being J.R. in the Boston series. So figure Shumpert starts, though anything is possible in this series for the Cavs with the personnel losses. The conventional wisdom is Butler will play James and vice versa, but the Cavs don’t like to play James all the time against a scorer. They like for him to rest, play the lanes and get some run outs. So James could spend some time with Mike Dunleavy or Tony Snell. Butler will be the primary defender against James, which in the past has hurt his offense. But Butler is stronger now and if James plays him should go at James as much as possible.
Small Forward: Mike Dunleavy vs LeBron James
Obviously, James has the edge against any player in the NBA. As much success as he’s had in the playoffs, he had the most trouble when Tom Thibodeau was running Boston’s defense and schemes against him. Actually, in 2010 the Bulls thought one reason they might recruit James was the way he was impressed with Thibodeau’s coaching against him.
Thibodeau has made a point saying they have to throw different looks at James. The Bulls won’t double much and aren’t as good stunting and recovering these days, though they might have more success with that tactic using Taj Gibson. James averaged 28.3 in four games against the Bulls. The Bulls will take that.
Power Forward: Joakim Noah against Somebody
Here’s the big problem for the Cavs. Love wins this matchup easily and it’s a bigger edge for them in this series than any with Noah having trouble all season against shooting fours. The speculation is Tristan Thompson remains a reserve, though he could start. More likely James Jones or Shawn Marion assuming there’s enough of those iron pills for seniors available.
Center: Pau Gasol vs Timofey Mozgov
Mozgov has given Gasol some problems with physical play and averaged 13 points against the Bulls while Gasol averaged just 14 points and 10 rebounds, both below season averages, against the Cavs. But Gasol can step outside with maybe the best midrange shot on the team while Mozgov isn’t particularly nimble.
Coaching: Tom Thibodeau vs David Blatt
It’s tough to judge these, especially with someone new to the NBA but who has coached for decades overseas. James is more the coach on the floor for the Cavs that Rose should be more so for the Bulls. Thibodeau has been there a lot more, and has faced James as much as anyone.
The Bulls should have a big edge here as two reserves will be in the starting lineup for the Cavs. Cleveland’s wild card will be Dellavedova, who is an aggressive player, and Tristan Thompson, whose 12 offensive rebounds in the Bulls home opener Cavs win was one of the surprise games of the season. The Cavs actually outrebounded the Bulls in their four games and keeping Thompson off the boards will be a prime focus.
Prediction: As Thibodeau has been saying, you’re not shorthanded with James and Irving. But unless they are great—and they could be—the Bulls pretty much have the advantages everywhere else, especially until Smith returns. Bulls in 6.