Turns out that LeBron James fella is a man of his word.
After filling up the stat sheet but never seeming fully engaged during a Game 1 loss to cede home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Cleveland Cavaliers superstar told reporters he planned to take a more aggressive offensive approach in Game 2. He backed up his talk on Wednesday night, attacking the basket — and the defense of newly minted Most Improved Player Jimmy Butler — early and often.
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The four-time MVP scored 33 points on 13-for-29 shooting to go with eight rebounds and five assists, pacing the Cavs to a 106-91 win over the visiting Bulls that knotted up their best-of-seven second-round series at one game apiece. After Chicago took control from the opening tip in Game 1, the Cavs returned the favor on Wednesday, beginning the game with a 13-2 blitz and opening up an 18-point lead less than eight minutes in, never trailing for a second and leading by double-figures for the final 42-plus minutes as they evened the series.
Cleveland got hot starts from an attacking James, who shot more free throws in the first six minutes than he did in all of Game 1, and from swingman Iman Shumpert, who continued his hot 3-point shooting by making his first three triple tries. The two wings combined outscore Chicago by themselves in the first quarter, 24-18, with poor Chicago shooting (6-for-18 from the floor) and playmaking (seven turnovers leading to 13 Cavs points) spotting the Cavs a 20-point lead heading into the second quarter. It was an early hole out of which the Bulls would never dig.
Thibodeau: "The story of the game was the first quarter. They smashed us. We gotta respond better."
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) May 7, 2015
After veteran Mike Miller offered precious little in place of the injured Kevin Love in Game 1, Cavaliers coach David Blatt moved reserve power forward Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup on Wednesday, and the move paid off swimmingly, as the energetic and active Thompson made an immediate defensive impact on Pau Gasol, helping hold the Chicago big man to 11 points on 3-for-8 shooting with just four rebounds in 28 1/2 minutes. Thompson's persistence on the offensive glass drew loads of Chicago attention:
... but the Bulls still couldn't keep him off the boards. The Ontario native pulled down 12 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass, as Cleveland outscored Chicago by 20 points in his 34 1/2 minutes of floor time.
Starting Thompson on Gasol helped the Cavs eliminate the cross-match issues that plagued them so often in Game 1, allowing each Cleveland player to just guard his position and let the chips fall where they may. This time around, Monday stars Gasol, Butler and Derrick Rose couldn't exploit the Cavalier defense, opening up 1-for-11 from the floor.
And while Cleveland expected to have trouble spacing the floor without Love and shooting guard J.R. Smith, who was serving the second game of his suspension for clocking Jae Crowder of the Boston Celtics during Round 1, the Cavs made more concerted efforts to provide enough off-ball action to keep Bulls defenders from loading up on LeBron's isolation attempts:
The Bulls began to pry the lid off the bucket in the second quarter, finding the directions to Respectable Street thanks in part to some stalwart two-way play from reserve big man Taj Gibson. But the Cavs kept Chicago at arm's length throughout, getting contributions from reserves James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova and continuing to exploit the lack of both on-ball pressure by the Bulls defense and suitable help on the back end, resulting in plays like this LeBron drive past Butler for a monster slam:
After scoring 19 points on 22 shots in Game 1, James had 22 points on 18 shots by halftime of Game 2. Rose, for his part, opened just 3-for-12 from the floor and finished 6-for-20, scoring 14 points in the loss.
He added 10 assists and seven rebounds in his 37 minutes, but the poor offensive showing continued a recent trend that's seen the point guard — who, lest we forget, missed six weeks and 20 games after the All-Star break following surgery to repair the torn medial meniscus in his right knee — perform far better after having received multiple days of rest than on back-to-backs or with just one day off between games.
Rose's statistical splits back up the eye test here, but the man himself isn't buying the dumb data:
"I can't think about that. ... That's something you all made up or something." Derrick Rose on his "days of rest" stats
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 7, 2015
Chicago made one real push to get back into things, ripping off a 14-0 run early in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 11 as Rose, Butler and Gasol finally started to knock down shots against Cleveland's starting unit. But then Gasol missed a bunny that would've gotten the Bulls within single digits, LeBron rammed the ball right down Chicago's throat for a layup that pushed the lead back to 13, and veteran shooter Jones — inserted for the not-offering-much Mozgov at the six-minute mark — canned a couple of left-corner 3s created by LeBron drawing help while operating out of the post, keeping Cleveland up by 15. Chicago never seriously threatened again after that. (To the extent that you can call getting a lead down to 11 "threatening" in the first place.)
It was a dynamic and dominant response to the Cavaliers' Game 1 shortcomings. It also pointed out Chicago's.
When Gasol's roasting opponents with open midrange jumpers and pairing beautifully with Rose in the pick-and-pop, you can overlook the fact that he's essentially a statue on defense. When Noah's stifling dribble penetration and keeping offensive rebounders off the glass, you can forgive the fact that he's 1-for-14 from the free throw line and can't take advantage of being defended by guys like Jones and Mike Miller. When neither are performing the tasks they need to, you wonder why Thibodeau doesn't give a longer look to exciting rookie Nikola Mirotic, whose shooting and playmaking might offer a spark for a Chicago club that shot just 40.5 percent from the field and 7-for-22 from 3-point range in Game 2.
Thibodeau, ever the worker, will go back to his drawing board in search of answers to quell the penetration of James and Kyrie Irving, who added 21 points on 5-for-9 shooting and a 10-for-12 mark at the charity stripe in 34 minutes. He'll look for ways to tighten up the Bulls' defense of the 3-point arc, where Cleveland shot 12-for-26 on Wednesday, with the veteran Jones making five of his nine tries — the most he's made in a game since November 2013 — and Shumpert hitting four of his seven. (And if Shumpert shows any ill effects after suffering a strained left groin during the third quarter, you can bet Thibs will look to exploit any limitations in the versatile swingman's lateral movement.)
The Bulls will review their mistakes and set about correcting them, still feeling confident in their position after scoring a split on the road and stealing home-court advantage with two games coming up at the Madhouse on Madison this weekend. But you'd be hard-pressed to blame them for feeling a little less confident after seeing James respond to their series-opening shot with a haymaker of his own. Headband or no headband, an engaged and aggressive LeBron's not the kind of houseguest you want knocking on your door this time of year.
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