Monday May 11th, 2015

First Derrick Rose hit one, then LeBron James hit one, and in the meantime J.R. Smith hit no one, and now the Bulls and Cavaliers are heading back to Cleveland all square at two games apiece. One weekend in Chicago yielded chippy play, series-swinging injuries, MVPs doing MVP things and the promise that fans will be treated to at least one East playoff series with premium-level intrigue. 

On the heels of James’ vindicating last-second statement in the Cavaliers' Game 4 win, Cleveland took a bit of momentum home with it Tuesday. If the Bulls lose this series, Game 4 will be the one that keeps them up at night. There are still games to be played, but Sunday’s clash was very much in Chicago's grasp as it entered the final quarter up by seven. The Bulls were shooting better from the field, turning it over less, and riding Rose’s hot hand (on just one day of rest, mind you). 

And then all of the goodwill slipped away. A three-minute stretch in the fourth quarter turned the tide after the Bulls committed three turnovers in five possessions and added a flailing, missed layup from Joakim Noah for good measure. J.R. Smith buried one jumper after another on the other end, helping Cleveland build its confidence and tie the game at 68-68 with 9:09 to play. The much-maligned Smith, who was suspended for the first two games of the series, scored 11 points in the final period and went a perfect 4-of-4 from the field. He played so well, in fact, that he might have convinced David Blatt to draw up a play for the ex-Knick on the final possession, not his four-time MVP teammate.

After LeBron's buzzer beater, there's no denying who controls the Cavs

But James "scratched" Blatt's final play in Game 4 and erased the Cavaliers' game-long shooting woes with a sprint to the corner and a flick of the wrist. The breaks the Bulls had caught, and the big plays they’d made were wiped away. Forget that Blatt’s phantom desperation timeout went unnoticed—Chicago’s offense stalled late, it leaned on Rose and Butler to bail them out, and LeBron made them pay. 

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Until the fourth quarter, the Bulls held the upper hand. The game was a grind, but they’d done what they needed to. This was eminently winnable. Kyrie Irving, perhaps the most talented self-proclaimed decoy in history, hobbled his way to another dud of a performance (12 points on 2-of-10 shooting). The Cavs averaged just 0.53 points on 16 James isolation plays, according to Sports VU, and LeBron shot 10-of-30 on the game. With Butler hounding him, James shot just 4-of-18, as the Bulls star continued his master class in man-to-man defense. Cleveland hit a postseason-low five three-pointers, and the Bulls were getting by without Pau Gasol, who strained his hamstring in Game 3.

“I don’t think there’s any stealing going on anywhere,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said afterwards, refuting the belief that Cleveland had nabbed a victory it shouldn’t have. In a series this evenly matched, he was right—but the breaks were all there, and the Bulls should be kicking themselves after such a criminally frustrating ending.

“We lost the game for sure, but I love our mentality,” Rose said at the podium with his son PJ perched on his knee, perhaps deflecting some of the harder questions, though his 31 points certainly absolved him of some blame. “The way the guys are talking in the locker room, we know we had the opportunity to put them away and we couldn’t. We have a lot of veterans that know whenever we’re in that situation again, we just have to work on it and repair ourselves.”

The Bulls played Sunday's loss cool, as a playoff-tested team should, but the fact is, they'll likely never have an easier path to the Finals than the one they have right now. With Kevin Love's injury and Smith's suspension, Chicago could easily be up 3-1 on the short-handed Cavaliers. Now it faces a best-of-three series sans home-court advantage. Questions and X-factors remain on both sides, but maybe none greater than the status of Irving's foot and how much the All-Star can give his ailing team.

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In Games 3 and 4, Irving was utterly ineffective at the rim, without a single make within 10 feet (though he shot 8-of-8 from the line in Game 4) and shooting 21.7% from the floor. He averaged just 2.8 assists in the first four games against Chicago, with none on Friday and two on Sunday. Whether it's an inability or an unwillingness to play distributor, Irving has placed an insane workload on his running mate.

“With my point guard a little hobbled right now, my other All-Star out for the season,” James explained, “I want to be efficient. That’s not happening in this series right now. I try to do all the other things…I gotta do whatever it takes.”

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Though no player is better equipped to shoulder that load, James’ usage rate is up from 32.4% during the season to an astronomical 40.1% against the Bulls. He’s shooting just 37.7% from the field (compared to 48.8% during the season) and his turnovers have spiked from 3.1 to 5.8. He rarely gets catch-and-shoot looks (just 9.6% of his regular season shots) and with Butler dogging him, his effectiveness outside the rim area has dropped across the board. 

With Iman Shumpert’s contributions down the past two games and Smith functioning solely as a shooter, the burden falls on Irving to create. At this stage of his career, a sudden burst of playmaking panache might be a big ask, and certainly his point guard role has been in name only. “You gotta pick and choose your spots, especially on the offensive end,” Irving said at his locker after the game. “I just try to use the pass and space out, use myself as a decoy the best I can. If I get an open look, I’m still gonna shoot it.” 

If he expects the Bulls' defense to have to account for him, Irving is going to have to add something. “Sometimes I am my own demise,” Irving said at his locker after the game. “I could easily sit out, I’d rather will it out and give it a chance than watch my brothers compete without me.” The Cavs can ill-afford to trim their rotation any further, but Irving’s bravado has begun to wear a bit thin. He must take some pressure off of James, who may not have enough to lead Cleveland out of this alone.

On the other side, it’s Gasol’s hamstring providing the complications. Though his slow feet create defensive problems for the Bulls, the option to dump it down low to the big Spaniard on broken-down possessions is invaluable, particularly when the offense sputters for long stretches, as it did in Game 4 (the Cavs went on a 16-0 run during the second quarter). His injury throws new variables into the series equation. We have a sense of what Cleveland can do going forward as there are few personnel adjustments they can make, but Chicago’s depth allows for myriad scenarios.

Give Tom Thibodeau some credit—he’s been more flexible with his rotation the past two games. On Sunday, Thibs played Tony Snell over decaying favorite Kirk Hinrich in the second half. And though Gasol’s injury has necessitated it, Thibs has also been willing to go small against the Cavs. In Game 3, a fourth-quarter lineup with Taj Gibson at center helped tip the scales. Sunday, he was forced to lean on Joakim Noah as the bigger Timofey Mozgov replaced Thompson in the middle of Cleveland’s small-ball lineup and provided a game-changing boost.

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If Gasol sits again in Game 5, Chicago will need more from its role players—Rose and Butler, the only two Bulls in double figures Sunday, combined for 50 of 84 total points. The rest of the team shot 27% from the field, with Mike Dunleavy and Nikola Mirotic going a combined 1-of-7 from three. 

“There were too many duds on offensive possessions, we’ve had issues with that all year,” Dunleavy said. “The ball kind of slows down, we get stagnant, we become easier to guard. A game in the 80’s, that’s not good for us.”

Low-scoring games were Chicago's bread and butter for years, but it can't afford to muck up the game in its current state and hope to advance.

On Tuesday, the Bulls' resolve will clash with the Cavaliers' newfound confidence. The showdown will result in one team having its back against the wall and facing elimination.

“We can win in Cleveland,” Noah said. “We’ve done it before. It’s going to be great.”

The first part of Noah's statement is true, as evidenced by Game 1. The last part is guaranteed, as evidenced by the last four.

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