No J.R. Smith for the first pair of games in Cleveland. No Kevin Love for the rest of the postseason run, who I think has played his last game for the Cavaliers. The rest of the squad got some time to rest, and watch Chicago finally get their act together in game 6. The Bulls exploded in Milwaukee, blowing them out of the building by 54 points. It was the type of performance you expect out of the Bulls with the roster they have assembled, it’s just hard to patient with a team that is still getting to know each other, because it’s win or go home.
The Bulls have the advantage in the backcourt between former MVP Derrick Rose and likely Most Improved Player, Jimmy Butler. Kyrie Irving usually gets outperformed by Rose. With Smith suspended, Iman Shumpert will have to step his game up. With Love injured, Tristan Thompson has to make a bigger impact on both ends of the floor now. You can’t count out the Cavs, in fact, most still consider them the favorites to come out of the east because of LeBron James. Sure, Irving is an all-star and the best sidekick James has had, keeping in mind that Dwyane Wade started his decline when the big 3 formed in Miami.
The difference in this series, between James and the Bulls, is that the Cavs are inexperienced and Chicago is finally healthy. The unselfish and versatile front court of the Bulls also comes into this series with a big advantage. Joakim Noah was last season’s Defensive Player of the Year, and Pau Gasol just led the league in double-doubles. They just scrapped with the little brother Bucks, who showed well by being who they were all year long, a gritty defensive team that forces the most turnovers.
You can’t say that about the Cavs and I expect the Bulls offense to look better than round 1. Tom Thibodeau has a deep selection of firepower to pull off the pine. Nikola Mirotic has transition well from overseas, placing 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting. Aaron Brooks is the next backup point guard that was brought in to score points in bunches. Taj Gibson has his own highlight reel of dunks, while Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell have their moments from the perimeter.
On the flip-side, adding Timofey Mozgov was a good move that fits the talent and what coach David Blatt wants to do. It gives them a big body in the paint. The Cavs have the personnel to space the floor out for James and Irving to operate, but the Bulls defense is a much tougher challenge than the Boston Celtics were. The offense is a different animal too. As crazy as it seems with a 4x MVP and the best player on the planet, James is an underdog in my book. Coincidentally, Michael Jordan and the 90’s Bulls faced similar situations and still prevailed.
While this is just the beginning of Cleveland’s bright future and window of opportunity, Chicago’s situation is up in the air. The offseason could be filled with polar opposites: possibly moving on from Coach Thibodeau, the contract situation of Butler, or keeping the band together to defend their title from the NBA or the Eastern Conference. Chicago is longing for a championship. They are in win-now mode with a healthy Rose and Noah, emerging Butler, consistent Gasol, and a reliable bench. As soft as I think they looked against the Bucks, that was a battle between tough geographical rivals with blue-collar blueprints.
The Bulls always get up to play James, challenging him physically and mentally. This isn’t the same team he took his talents to reach 4 finals and winning half of those series with a Hall of Fame guard (Wade) and all-star forward (Chris Bosh). James’ experience, talent, and leadership could very well will Cleveland to new heights. I think an epic series in store for us to watch, one that we will remember for a while. I got the Bulls in 7, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals, although this is the real ECF in my book.
X’s and O’s: Cavs
When Mike Dunleavy Jr. is on defense, Cleveland should attack him.
Expect Shumpert to be on Rose quite a bit to relieve Irving.
Let’s see how frequent James is getting to the charity stripe.
Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson need to force the Bulls’ bigs to be active on the defensive end.
David Blatt needs a fluid rotation to get the best out of the Cavs defensively, with as much energy and activity as possible like the Bucks did.
If James or Irving get into foul trouble, it’s going to be a long game for them.
X’s and O’s: Bulls
Butler will stick James most of the time with Noah or Gibson switching on screens, where James will look to score.
If Rose is playing like a MVP, James will switch over and defend him.
Butler and Gasol should continue to get to the free throw line.
The Bulls should heavily out-rebound the Cavaliers.
Chicago is excellent at scoring out of timeouts.
They must attack James when he’s on D by penetrating, cutting, and setting screens on him.
X’s and O’s: Both Teams
Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving will get some breaks, but there is no running from each other in this series.
Chicago will rely on fouls to give by Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson, and Cleveland with Iman Shumpert and Kendrick Perkins.
Half-court basketball favors Chicago and the Cavs want to push the pace, it all comes down to the Bulls’ turnovers.
When James slides to power forward, it will be interesting to see who takes advantage in those minutes.
Both teams will force each other to score from the perimeter, so expect a couple of ugly games featuring Eastern Conference basketball.
There will be hard fouls and altercations throughout this series, the stars just can’t afford to get tossed or suspended.
Regular Season Meetings (Cavs won regular season series 3-1)
October 31: Cavs 114 – Bulls 108 (at Chicago)
January 19: Cavs 108 – Bulls 94 (at Cleveland)
February 12: Bulls 113 – Cavs 98 (at Chicago)
April 5: Cavs 99 – Bulls 94 (at Cleveland)