After giving the underdog Milwaukee Bucks some life with lacking late-game defense and a failure to finish through a forest of limbs, the Chicago Bulls decided to quit messing around in their Game 6 destruction of their younger counterparts. Facing another Central Division foe in a second-round matchup that they've been waiting for since July, the Bulls clearly didn't feel much like messing around Monday, either.
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Tom Thibodeau's club jumped out to a 21-7 lead behind a hail of 3-pointers and never looked back, leading wire-to-wire in a 99-92 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, taking a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven series and stealing home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference semifinals. As the great Marv Albert related on the TNT telecast, this marks the first time in 85 home playoff games that LeBron James' team never held a lead.
Derrick Rose led with way with 25 points on 11-for-26 shooting, adding five rebounds, five assists and a steal in 38 1/2 turnover-free minutes. He paired beautifully in the pick-and-pop game with Pau Gasol, who added 21 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocks in 35 minutes. With All-Star shooting guard Jimmy Butler going to work (20 points on 7-for-16 shooting, six assists, five rebounds, three steals) while shadowing LeBron, it was Chicago, not Cleveland, who had the biggest Big 3 on Monday.
The Cavaliers, of course, entered the series without the third member of their star troika, as power forward Kevin Love will miss the remainder of the postseason after undergoing surgery to repair the dislocated left shoulder he suffered during Game 4 of Cleveland's first-round sweep of the Boston Celtics. They also came into the game without starting shooting guard J.R. Smith, who's suspended for the first two games of this series after hitting Boston's Jae Crowder in the face.
Cleveland still has a pair of All-World creators in James and Kyrie Irving; as Thibodeau said, no team employing those two guys is ever really short-handed. But they were missing two starters who averaged more than 31 minutes and 11 shots per game during the regular season, so Cavs head coach David Blatt had to look to his bench for alternatives. He chose to go small, with James playing power forward alongside veteran Mike Miller (who didn't log a second of playing time in the Celtics series) and Iman Shumpert in Smith's place, with Irving at the point and Timofey Mozgov at center.
Irving (a game-high 30 points on 10-for-23 shooting, six assists) and Shumpert (22 points, 4-for-10 from 3-point range) did their part, and James turned in a stat line (19 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists, three steals) that looked better than it played. But the new starting five didn't share a single second of floor time this season, and it looked like it, and Chicago jumped on it.
The combination of cross-matching — LeBron opened up guarding Joakim Noah, who was defending Shumpert on the other end — and a lack of familiarity and comfort with one another defensively bit Cleveland early. Chicago routinely generated good, clean looks by running Cavaliers defenders through multiple screens. They found mismatches and exploited the 35-year-old Miller's inability to hold up, as Bulls small forward Mike Dunleavy Jr. — having ducked a suspension of his own after going unpenalized for his role in a couple of Game 6 skirmishes that resulted in the ejection of Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo — scored 13 points in the first quarter to help stake Chicago to an early double-digit lead.
The Bulls moved the ball, assisting on eight of 11 first-quarter baskets, and opened up 5-for-6 from 3-point land. Combine that with Irving (1-for-6 from the field in the first) and James (just four shots in the opening frame) struggling to find open space and rhythm, and Shumpert (2-for-7 from the floor) failing to make the most of his early chances, and Chicago led 27-15 after 12 minutes. The 15 points marked a new season-low in first-quarter scoring for the Cavs.
After Miller had offered three rebounds and little else in his start, Blatt opened the second quarter with James alongside reserve power forward Tristan Thompson, veteran wings Shawn Marion and James Jones, and backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova — another lineup that hadn't seen a second of floor time all year. The Bulls again took advantage, pushing their lead to 16 behind six quick points from (of all people!) Kirk Hinrich.
Cleveland came storming back, though. Irving thawed out in a hurry, scoring 10 points in 91 seconds to get the Cavs within six midway through the quarter and giving us a taste of the kind of "can you top this?" battle with Rose that we'd crossed our fingers and hoped we'd see from two of the game's most explosive and creative point men:
The Bulls kept Cleveland at arm's length, taking a 49-44 lead into half, but a 9-4 Cavs run to open the second half had things knotted up at 53 and the crowd at the Q in full throat.
For a second there, you got the feeling that this could be it — that Chicago might get discouraged after getting walked down, that the Cavs would be energized by being level despite a quiet LeBron night and getting nothing from Love's replacements, and that the Bulls might start feeling like they'd just blown their best chance at getting a split.
Then the Bulls just punched the Cavaliers right in the mouth. Chicago started leaning hard on the Rose-Gasol high pick-and-roll, and Cleveland just couldn't handle it.
Rose dribbles right off a Gasol screen, draws two defenders and pitches back to Gasol at the top of the key. He fires a bullet to Butler in the left corner, a step ahead of Shumpert, tasked with zoning up on the backside of the play; Butler drills his corner 3 to put Chicago back on top. Rose dribbles right off a Gasol screen, crosses over and snakes back to his left, finds himself with plenty of room at the left elbow, drills a pull-up jumper, and the lead's five.
And when Cleveland did stall the pick-and-roll, with LeBron picking up Rose on the switch and hounding him across the court? Well, sometimes it's better to be lucky and good than just plain good:
Irving's attempt to answer Rose's prayer came in the form of a cross-court delivery to James above the arc. It never got there.
Butler's steal and dunk put Chicago back up by 10, and the Bulls weren't done.
They just kept coming with that two-man game, finding paydirt time (a rolling Gasol's putback of a missed Rose jumper) and time (Gasol hitting an open 18-footer after Rose rejected the screen to drive, drew two defenders and kicked to Dunleavy in the near corner, who redirected back up top to the big man) and time (another left elbow jumper by Rose) and time (Gasol from the left elbow on a pocket-pass from Rose) and time (Gasol from the left baseline off a great pitch-back by Rose) again. Chicago answered Cleveland's push with a 15-0 run, and Gasol, Rose and Butler combined to outscore the Cavs 27-26 in the third quarter, propelling the Bulls to an 11-point lead heading into the fourth.
An Irving-led 10-2 run to start the fourth had Cleveland back within three with just under nine minutes left in the game, and the Cavs were within a deuce after a pair of Shumpert free throws with 5:21 remaining. Again, though, the Bulls showed poise, loading up to snuff out the 1-4 Kyrie-LeBron pick-and-roll to which the Cavs seemed to turn on every trip — Cleveland scored just six points over the final 5:21 on 3-for-11 shooting.
As Cleveland scuffled, Chicago kept coming. Rose blew past Irving off the bounce, penetrated into the teeth of the defense and made a tremendous pass out to Butler for an open 3 that put the Bulls up 92-86 with 4:30 left. A minute later, he'd again draw a double off the high screen before pitching back to Gasol for a wide-open top-of-the-key jumper that increased the lead to eight.
And with 30 seconds left and the Cavs down four in desperate need of a stop, Butler made the kind of late-game play over tough defense that made him a deserved All-Star this season:
Irving and Dellavedova missed Hail Mary 3s, Chicago made just enough free throws, and just like that, the Cavaliers' home-court advantage was gone.
Bulls fans got a scare in the closing seconds, as Rose appeared to injure his shoulder trying to fight his way through a so-called "elevator" screen set by Shumpert and Thompson:
He winced in pain and headed to the bench, but in his post-game interview, he sloughed it off.
"It was just a stinger. I didn't know you could get one in basketball," he said with a laugh. "Just a stinger, my first one, something I wasn't used to. They said I'm fine, so I should be all right."
But Love still won't be, and Smith will still be sidelined in Game 2. Blatt did the right thing in saying that Cleveland had no excuses and lost the game not because of who was missing but rather because of a poor start by those who were present, but he also said he'd consider making another starting lineup change before Wednesday.
Anything that might lighten the playmaking load on James and Irving would be beneficial. So would a tactical course-correction away from giving Gasol scads of open jumpers. And if those changes dovetailed with a better overall effort from James — who needed 22 shots to score his 19 points, who turned the ball over six times, including twice in the final three minutes, and whose early-game performance seemed closer to "chill mode" than you'd prefer come Round 2 — I'd bet Blatt wouldn't mind that.
We knew Cleveland was going to have to bring it in this series, especially without Smith to start and Love for the long haul, because — for once — the Bulls have the healthier, deeper, better balanced team. They're spoiling for a fight, willing to eat your best shot to throw two of their own, and on Monday, they didn't look particularly concerned about how much the Cavs could put on their haymakers.
"If we just play the way we're supposed to play, it doesn't matter what team we're going against," Butler said after the game, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. "I think we can win."
It's time to find out whether this shuffle-up-and-deal version of the Cavs can muster the same sense of self by Wednesday. If they can't, they face the very real prospect of heading to United Center in an 0-2 hole.
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