How the Bulls can adjust for Game 3

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By Sam Smith | 5.8.2015 | 9:10 a.m.

I’ve considered the vibe after the Bulls split the first two games of their Eastern Conference semifinal in Cleveland and it sounds like if Nikola Mirotic and Tony Snell would have played the Cavs would have forfeited after Game 2.

Yes, here we go again as the teams alight in the United Center Friday for Game 3 with many pertinent questions in yet another pivotal playoff game.

Will future Hall of Famers Mirotic and Snell save the Bulls and will LeBron retire and retreat in fear once he sees them?

Whenever the Bulls lose—and this has pretty much been a season long theme—the answer basically is why more reserves didn’t play. It’s not that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is on shaky ground here as it’s hardly unusual to have an eight-player rotation in the playoffs. Thibodeau has that, one that looked pretty good in a 99-92 Game 1 win.

The Cavs, per force, made some changes for Game 2 starting Tristan Chamberlain, err Thompson and basically telling LeBron he didn’t have to pass so much.

“Their intensity, their ball pressure, it was strong,” noted Thibodeau. “So we’ve got to do better. LeBron is very good in a lot of different areas, the post, good on the wing, good in high post, down low pick and roll; he’s going to put maximum pressure on you. So you’ve got to try to make him work as much as you can for his points. He’s a great player. He has the ability to make even when defensed well, but I don’t think we defended at our best.”

I thought the larger problem was not only a reluctant entry into the game for the Bulls, but all the space they gave James and Kyrie Irving. They basically got running starts into the lane. I know the game plan is to lay off LeBron and have him shoot jumpers, at which he’s just a bit better than Joakim Noah shooting free throws. But you can’t in the playoffs contest with such indifference. Irving is terrific, but he doesn’t like contact. Of course, who really does. LeBron’s great, but, geez, he’s not like showering with a shark in a Hitchcock movie. Get up on him, bump him; he wears down as well. I think.

Actually, what I’d do is have Jimmy Butler defend Irving and play him physically, picking him up at least at half court; get him to give up the ball. That’s where the bench comes in. Maybe not a full serving, but I’d give Snell a shot at LeBron and tell him he’s in there for five minutes, bump him, pressure him and make him work and if he scores, so what. He doesn’t really want to that much.

LeBron’s smart. He knows the Cavs win with their three-point shooting. The Bulls broke down there badly in Game 2. There’s always that element in the playoffs of not letting those “other guys” beat you. Especially in the case of the Cavs when much of their bench is the basketball version of those 1950s cars tooling around in Havana.

It’s why you can make a case for more Mirotic and Snell. What, they can’t defend Shawn Marion and his walker? Mike Miller with his cane? James Jones with his mobility scooter?

But to be fair you win or lose with your starters.

The Bulls’ biggest question now is with Noah, who among other things is an astonishing one of 14 on free throws in the playoffs. He’s always been a good shooter despite that sideways rotation, so I doubt the Cavs intentionally foul him. But he also doesn’t seem to have much lift and isn’t finishing on offense or even much looking to try. Not so say the Cavs are playing off him, but the serving staff has been offering them drinks along with the baseline customers.

Noah’s been obviously struggling against the Cavs, two of eight shooting, averaging two points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes. Noah and the Bulls seemingly got a break with Kevin Love going out as Noah has not been able to defend shooting power forwards. But the Cavs responded in Game 2 with Tristan Thompson, which was hardly a surprise. The surprise was Mike Miller in Game 1 as Thompson had dominated the Bulls on the boards all season.

This is what’s changed about these Bulls: They aren’t primarily a defensive oriented team anymore with so many new offensive options, especially with Pau Gasol. Though Thibodeau doesn’t like to make changes, it would not be ridiculous to have something of a Gasol/Noah platoon at center so Noah can be more in a defensive position, which is his strength.

The Cavs pretty much have committed to playing small, at least as “small” goes in the NBA with James a power forward. But Taj Gibson has more maneuverability to defend smaller power forwards. Though Mirotic has often been befuddled on defense, which is Thibodeau’s primary fear as Mirotic will often screen his own players, Mirotic’s size and shooting might help offset players like Jones and Miller. Thibodeau for now has called the playing time for guys like Mirotic and Snell situational.

As for Noah, there was the usual boorishness you get in Cleveland with a couple of small incidents with fans, Noah supposedly being spit on, exchanging a view with a taunting spectator and trash talking with some Ohio State football player who apparently was telling Noah his paycheck was more than Noah’s.

But Tammy Wynette has nothing on Thibs. He’s standing by his man.

“Players go through different things, ups and downs of the game,” said Thibodeau. “If he’s not going well offensively there are so many other things he does that does help us. That’s what I want him to lock into; find another way to help, make great effort on defense, don’t allow the offense to impact your energy or concentration on defense. That goes for our entire team; not just Jo. If it’s not going your way those are the things you can control. There are going to be some nights you are not making shots, but you can still play well if you do the other things. We need our team to do that. I thought we were reckless to start the game.”

But if you are not going to punish smaller players and dominate offensively inside, it’s no shame to match to them. The Bulls can claim as much or more talent not named LeBron.

“We knew their aggression would be greater,” said Thibodeau. “Just be ready, take it game by game, win one game doesn’t win you won the series, get ready for the next one. If you feel too good about yourselves you are going to get knocked on your butt and that’s what happened. You’ve got to play tough in this league; you have to play tough every night; there is no easy way, no shortcuts, you get it done or you don’t; get out there and get the job done.”

If you are pressuring Irving with someone like Butler or even a long armed, taller Snell you can easily use Derrick Rose on Iman Shumpert. Though the Cavs may have yet another injury setback with Shumpert uncertain for Game 3 after a groin strain in Game 2 and excellent play for two games. The way Shumpert played, you’d think Smith would return as a reserve. Though he now could be back starting. Still, neither he nor Shumpert are playmakers. It’s why you need to pressure Irving. Keep him from making plays and keep all the pressure on LeBron.

I’d also refrain from too much help, which Butler curiously said after Game 2 he was relying upon. James is waiting for help to move the ball. Play him as physically as possible and without the help. Stay on the shooters. They can’t create for themselves.

Another curiosity to watch will be the free throws now that it’s been noted Rose has zero in two games and Irving 478. And by the way, what’s with that forget the Eurostep for Irving. It’s like a cha cha when he gets into the lane shuffling his feet. Anyway, Rose has attacked the basket regularly without a call. The officials aren’t looking to favor anyone, but they sometimes can be unaware. If Rose drives Friday, he’s getting free throws.

“He’s still working his way back,” Thibodeau said about Rose after Game 2. “I want him to trust the pass; he had 10 assists, the defense and the rebounding was the problem early on. We missed some shots and didn’t take care of the ball in the first quarter. You put that team in the open floor, they get some confidence going, LeBron has a big game, they start making threes. We put ourselves in a big hole.”

Yes, those starts.

The Bulls other than some exceptions like Game 6 in Milwaukee and Game 1 in Cleveland have been like the opening comedy act for a rock concert, a yawner waiting for the main event.

Thibodeau counsels pushing the ball; the players say they love pushing the ball. Then there is the start with a lot of walking it up into postups, probably too slowly, that don’t much enable the ball to swing or get reposted and make the defense move. Somebody don’t stop me!

The Bulls need a faster pace because, yes, they are the healthier team and they are the younger team. The Cavs have eight players in at least their 11th seasons (the Bulls have four), including Kendrick Perkins, who lost to both the turtle and the hare.

And then there’s LeBron’s headband, who was the only Cav who did off day interviews. He said the guy under him is making him look good.

“We’re facing a tough team,” said Thibodeau. “They’ve got a great record; they’ve got great players. We have to be ready. There are going to be ups and down. They made shots (in Game 2). We have to analyze were they challenged, were they not? I think we can do a lot better.”