How They Got Here
Cleveland: It should have been a typical first round series. Hell, had the thing taken place in 1995, we wouldn’t be “here” at all. Boston would have been out in three. Game 4 never would have happened.
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The Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics engaged in a routine, one-sided blowout sweep that featured a championship contender going up against a young upstart that truly shouldn’t have even made it into the playoff bracket. Most prognosticators seemed to agree that Boston shouldn’t have taken a single game, and though the C’s made it close early in Game 1, the series was neither compelling nor all that threatening to Cleveland’s championship chances.
Boston did well to not be totally blown out of the water, but the single-digit losses in Games 2, 3 and 4 weren’t really telling. Cleveland owned this series, toying with a game Boston club while biding its time until an over-.500 opponent could show up.
It was that Game 4, however, that changed everything. And had this matchup existed back in the days of the best-of-five series’, Cleveland would already be penning in play-dates for June.
In what was a lousy basketball play, Celtics center Kelly Olynyk managed to separate Cav forward Kevin Love’s shoulder on a loose ball foul. The move sent Love out for four-to-six months, and with just six weeks left in Cleveland’s expected basketball season, the foul knocked the first-year Cavalier out for the season.
In a lame attempt to stand ground, J.R. Smith flagrantly fouled Celtics swingman Jae Crowder later in Game 4, and Smith is lucky to be only suspended for the first two games of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Cavaliers had spent 85 and one-half games preparing for an expected post season showdown with the Chicago Bulls, and in the space of one needless afternoon they had to watch as its enviable basketball core took a few hits to the bow.
Chicago: Chicago fans can relate. Crying Time is over, however.
The Bulls, working with the league’s best record and top seed, missed out on a chance to avenge the team’s 2011 playoff loss to LeBron James’ Miami Heat in 2012 when MVP guard Derrick Rose tore his left ACL in Game 1 of the 2012 playoffs. Two seasons stuck in purgatory followed, while the team used tape and timing in its attempts to work its way through an 82-game 2014-15 regular season in one piece.
Somehow, it worked. The team will enter Game 1 of this series with its starting lineup intact, with Rose healthy and with a 54-point thrashing of the Milwaukee Bucks to build upon.
Of course, the Bulls shouldn’t have had to go to six games in order to down Milwaukee. The Bucks are a game outfit, lousy with long arms and defensive-minded movers, but Chicago slept through too many offensive possessions in a series that could have ended in a sweep. In spite of the ridiculous Game 6 margin, Chicago’s too-close margin of victory in Game 3 and relative unease in the two contests that followed should give the team pause.
Whether that matters moving forward is up for the Bulls to decide. They made it to Cleveland healthy, one of the rare October goals that we get to talk up in May, poised for a pairing that seems like it was scheduled in a different era.
None of this truly matters. We’ve spent days trying to convince ourselves that it does, talking ourselves into the idea that our work from the winter wasn’t sweated out in vain, but things are different now.
Chicago will field its sublime starting five for the first time against Cleveland, a trait they couldn’t fall behind in four regular season meetings. Cleveland took three of those four meetings, and it will line up without Kevin Love for the entire series and J.R. Smith out for the first two contests. It may take until Cleveland’s 89th game, if that, to truly see this matchup in full.
The teams met on Halloween night for the first time in the regular season, in a nationally-televised affair that reminded the world that LeBron James was pretty damned dominant while introducing the same world to the idea that the Bulls can really give games away – Chicago fell in overtime by a 114-108 score, as Derrick Rose sprained both his ankles in the loss.
The Cavs were just beginning to turn their season around on Jan. 19 when an injured Bulls team (working without Joakim Noah and Mike Dunleavy) watched as Cleveland’s ball movement whipped the Cavs into a 108-94 win, with new addition J.R. Smith hitting 6-9 three-pointers. Chicago returned to cobble together one of the more satisfying wins of its season on Feb. 12, downing the Cavs by a 113-98 score at home, with Rose notching 30 points. He may have done as much while playing on a re-torn meniscus.
Smith kept up his sweet (and often) shooting ways in the final game of the regular season series, nailing 8-17 three-pointers (that’s 8-17 from the floor as well, mind you) in Cleveland’s 99-94 win. The Bulls were without Rose in that contest, as he recovered from knee surgery.
Likely Starting Lineups
Losing Kevin Love for the season is an absolute shame, awkward basketball plays are often going to lead to nasty injuries, but you hate to see these sorts of things go down in April and May.
The Cavaliers have a stealth Sixth Man of the Year award candidate in Tristan Thompson in place, and there are several reasons to leave Thompson on the bench in this series. He started 15 regular season games and doesn’t exactly prefer coming off the pine, but if Thompson could reprise his role even with Love out the Cavs could at least pretend that everything is the same and that LeBron James could still rule the world as a stretch power forward.
Thompson will probably start alongside James, Kyrie Irving, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, however. Depth is not one of Cleveland’s strengths, but all manner of James-led lineups did exceedingly well offensively during the regular season, and Thompson could absolutely own the offensive glass against a Bulls lineup that remains averse to defensive rebounding.
Even when he was healthy, at his Defensive Player of the Year-peak, Joakim Noah was not a pitch-perfect defensive rebounder. And even though Pau Gasol racked up endless double-doubles during the regular season, he is not a good defensive rebounder in traffic. Both will start for Chicago alongside Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jimmy Butler, and Derrick Rose. If you’re scoring at home, this is the first time Chicago’s expected starting lineup will take on the Cleveland Cavaliers this season.
If, in missing Love and Smith, you could call the Cavaliers “the Cleveland Cavaliers.”
Matchups to Watch
LeBron James vs. Everyone
We’re not being flip. James absolutely locked down Derrick Rose during Derrick’s MVP season in 2011, switching over to the Bulls guard late in games as James’ Heat managed a five-game knockdown of the top-seeded Chicago squad. That option remains in place, as the sometimes-there Rose plays in his first May since 2011.
From there, James could also flip over to handle a borderline inert Joakim Noah if need be. Noah is not the threat he was last season. Teams play off of him on the perimeter, mindful of his expert passing and well aware that he rarely takes the same corkscrew jumpers he used to make with regularity. Noah is not to be trusted with the ball around the hoop, he’s missed 23 of his last 35 free throws, and James can absolutely roam when Cleveland goes to small lineups, secure in the knowledge that Joakim Noah can’t hurt him. Sigh.
Offensively, James should be allowed to bully his way through Jimmy Butler and Tony Snell, and center Pau Gasol will offer little resistance at the rim despite those two blocks that always make it into the box score.
This has to be James’ series. Kyrie Irving might be the most important player on the floor against the Atlanta Hawks or Washington Wizards or whomever the West wants to spit out, but this is LeBron’s time to take over. Cleveland’s season depends on it.
Derrick Rose vs. the Clock
The Bulls run a simplistic offense that doesn’t take advantage of the superior passing of Pau Gasol, it doesn’t relate to the sort of movement that made winners out of San Antonio and Golden State (and made a loser out of Milwaukee), and it too often fails the significant offensive talent that is both on paper and on the court. That’s a failing of the Chicago Bulls coaching staff.
Derrick Rose could do something about that if he would push his team into faster sets in the half court. Rose doesn’t have to be the All-Encompassing Scoring Point guard, gobbling up both assists and points a la Stephon Marbury, he just has to make sure the ball enters the three-point line (via, shout out to Tex Winter, a pass, drive, or shot) faster than it has been. Too often in the regular season and first round the second Bull to touch the ball in a possession would be getting a taste with half of the shot clock expired, and the Bulls cannot afford to work without sweated brows against a Cleveland defense that only improved from terrible to mediocre in the regular season.
Chicago vs. the Corner Three
Thompson may start, and the Bulls may field two seven-footers with two more potentially game-tilting big men left to come off of the bench, but the Cavs can’t help but go small in this series. Mike Miller may have been put out to pasture, but once J.R. Smith returns the Cavs will field James and James Jones at forwards for stretches, with Iman Shumpert and Smith whipping around the perimeter.
Jones infamously tossed up an ohfer in Game 4 of the Celtics series, but if he can spring free while Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson hobble around, the Cavs will have an advantage. Cleveland will miss Love, to be sure, but they might be replacing him with more accurate three-point shooters that are more aligned with the offensive system that David Blatt has conjured up – one that repeatedly made Kevin Love an afterthought.
Nikola Mirotic vs. Tom Thibodeau
Mirotic, who came up second in Rookie of the Year voting, played just 15 minutes a game in the regular season against Cleveland. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau routinely played Mirotic at small forward against Milwaukee, ignoring ungodly amounts of evidence that suggested – nay, screamed – that this was not a smart basketball thing to do.
The idea of tossing out a late-third quarter lineup that features Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic is a warming one. All three have various offensive and defensive traits that suggest that the bumps in one’s head could fill in the holes in another’s. It didn’t work against Milwaukee in the first round, however, and it probably won’t work even against a lacking defensive team in Cleveland. Mirotic has to be able to work his outside-in routine against Tristan Thompson, he needs minutes in the front court, and Bull helpers Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy have to prove able to rebound competently in what Thibodeau would conclude to be a “small” lineup.
How Cleveland Can Win
It’s simply stated, but basketball is often a simple game with just five to a side and one guy destroying all. LeBron James has to burrow his way into repeated paint finishes both in the half court and in transition. Chicago will tempt him into endless mid-range jumpers, and while he can win a game or four on pull-ups, these are the things that don’t sustain. He has to stay active, he has to be a scorer, and he can’t play the martyr.
Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith can win a game or two for Cleveland. Timofey Mozgov can slip and slide his way to opportunistic finishes and put-backs. Shumpert could thrive in transition. Fine. Whatever. This is what LeBron James came back to Cleveland to do.
How Chicago Can Win
The Bulls have to play bigger than the sum of its parts.
Tom Thibodeau, whether he wants to believe it or not, has an offensive-minded team now. He needs to coach like it, and the Bulls need to play like it. The ball needs to move, the sets can’t be predictable, and the players need to be trusted. Similarly, the Bulls need to trust themselves as the work their way into possessions – Rose needs to freelance, Jimmy Butler gets to call his own post-up shots, Gasol can pretend he’s in the Triangle again, and if Joakim Noah can make a winner out of that ridiculous spinning jumper on two legs, then he’s more than capable of tossing that mess in on one.
Chicago was built for this. It’s been four damn years and they’re right back where they want to be. This team and this city have given up far too much to give up now. This is it, men. This is it.
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: 10 out of 10.
Either the Atlanta Hawks or the Washington Wizards will play in the Eastern Conference finals. Your entertainment value is on this side of the bracket.
This was everyone’s pick back in October.
This is the one.
Prediction: Bulls in seven. In Cleveland.
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