Welcome to the fourth chapter of “LeBron James vs. the Bulls in the playoffs,” where dull moments have been few and far between.
Matchup: (2) Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29) vs. (3) Chicago Bulls (50-32)
Regular-Season Series: Cleveland 3-1
Efficiency Rankings: Cleveland (Off. rating: 4, Def. rating: 20, Net rating: 7)
Chicago (Off. rating: 10, Def. rating: 11, Net rating: 9)
Playoff Performance: Cleveland swept (8) Boston 4-0; Chicago defeated (6) Milwaukee 4-2
James’s free agency moves have made this a bit of a non-traditional rivalry, but it’s one of the NBA’s best nonetheless. Remember a 25-year-old James hanging 40 points in Game 2 and a 37/12/11 triple double on the Bulls, led by first-time All-Star Derrick Rose, just a few months before The Decision in 2010? Remember when James, now with the Heat, frustrated Rose, the newly-minted MVP, in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals? Remember when Joakim Noah dubbed dubbing Miami “Hollywood as Hell” after that series loss? Remember when James guided the Heat past a Rose-less Bulls team in 2013, in a series that saw Jimmy Butler play all 48 minutes in three of the five games, including his breakout performance in Game 1? Remember when crazed Heat fan Filomena Tobias stuck her middle finger directly in Noah’s face when he was ejected from that series?
[daily_cut.NBA]All told, James is a perfect 3-0 in playoff series against Chicago, and he needed just five games to prevail each time. Maintaining that record won’t be easy. Indeed, the 2015 Bulls look like the best group James has encountered in the postseason. The 2010 version was too young. The 2011 version lacked firepower around Rose. The 2013 version was just trying to get by without its injured star. This year’s model has Rose back in the lineup, an ascendant Butler, and offseason addition Pau Gasol adding All-Star ability and championship credibility to a deep frontline that includes Noah, Taj Gibson and Rookie of the Year runner-up Nikola Mirotic. Chicago enters the series with its best overall health in years, and its rotation is stacked with veterans who have been anticipating this showdown with their Central Division rivals since James announced his return to Cleveland last summer. "I never thought I'd say this, but I'm very excited to go to Cleveland," Noah quipped this week, according to CSNChicago.com, lobbing the first volley.
The Bulls will benefit from two key breaks. First, Cavaliers forward Kevin Love was lost for the playoffs after he dislocated his left shoulder in Game 4 of a first-round series against the Celtics. For what it’s worth, James had Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade alongside him in the 2011 and 2013 series against Chicago, so losing a “Big 3” member here represents new territory in this matchup. Second, Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith will miss the first two games of the series due to a suspension for striking Celtics forward Jae Crowder in the face during Game 4. That loss means Cleveland will try to hold serve at home without two of its top four scorers and two of its most important floor-spacers.
With all due respect to the other side of the East’s bracket, this has been the showdown everyone has been waiting for all season. Back in October, SI.com named the renewed rivalry between the Cavaliers and the Bulls one of the top reasons to watch the NBA this season, and the intrigue should still be there despite the loss of Love and the fact that these two teams are meeting in the second round rather than the conference finals.
As James guns for his fifth straight Finals trip, he surely realizes that he is facing a Chicago team fueled by its previous postseason losses. Can the Bulls, powered by a renovated roster and years of pent-up angst, finally topple him?
The Case For The Cavaliers
Cleveland’s hopes rest in James’s hands more than ever after Love’s injury. That’s still a very comfortable spot to be, especially during a season that has seen a long list of East stars (Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Chris Bosh) go down with injuries. Indeed, the gap between James and the second-best all-around player in the conference right now (candidates include Butler, Wizards guard John Wall and Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving) is as wide as it’s been in at least five years.
Following a somewhat slow start to the season and an unprecedented two-week absence in late-December and early-January, James has kicked into high gear down the stretch. The midseason arrivals of Timofey Mozgov, Smith and Iman Shumpert improved Cleveland’s defense and depth, and James guided the group to an East-leading 20-7 record after the All-Star break. Along the way, the Cavaliers passed the Bulls in the Central Division standings and posted the East’s top offense down the stretch. James, 30, worked his way back into the MVP conversation by posting a 26 Player Efficiency Rating and a strong 9.8-plus net rating, and he did whatever he wanted against Boston, averaging 27 points, 9 rebounds and 6.5 assists against the Celtics. That positive momentum and the balance that helped drive it are in jeopardy without Love, but James—in his uniquely versatile, imposing, and high-IQ manner—remains a solid foundation for coach David Blatt.
Irving will be called upon for more offense in Love’s absence, and he seems up to the task. The three-time All-Star performed very well in his postseason debut, averaging 23.3 points, 5 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 48 percent on his threes against Boston, and he looks fully settled in his “riding shotgun” roll. Irving averaged 21.3 points and 6.5 assists against Chicago in the regular season, and he represents a persistent problem for the Bulls’ defense whenever he’s on the court.
Blatt will have his hands full in this series. He will likely turn to smaller lineups that can open up the floor for James and Irving, which requires playing past-their-prime veterans like Mike Miller and James Jones (they played less than 1,400 minutes combined this season). He will also count on Tristan Thompson to continue pounding the offensive glass, an area where he found plenty of success against a smaller Boston team and where he should be able to make a meaningful impact against Chicago’s bigger frontline too. More than anything, he will keep riding James, who will enjoy a full week of rest after playing 43 minutes per game during the first round. “I’ve got a lot of energy and I’m getting bored,” James joked to reporters on Wednesday. “I’m ready to play. This is very challenging for my patience.”
The Case For The Bulls
Big picture, Chicago should enter the series feeling like this is its best shot yet to beat James. That starts with Rose, who is playing in the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and faring pretty well. Although his first-round play against Milwaukee was a bit inconsistent, Rose averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists, and he looked particularly aggressive and slippery off the dribble in Games 1 and 3. Cleveland has put its offense before its defense all season long, and Rose should create some headaches.
Butler, a strong candidate for Most Improved Player, adds a dimension that was missing in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals. In that series, James swallowed up Rose and Chicago’s offense fell apart. Now, Butler is a legitimate 20 points per game scoring threat, and he punished Milwaukee by averaging 24.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in the first round. During the series, microphones caught Butler telling coach Tom Thibodeau that he couldn’t be guarded and that he was too big for his man, a sign of a newly-developed alpha dog confidence that will be critical to a team-oriented approach in countering James’s impact.
With Noah suffering through a so-so season and an unimpressive first round, Thibodeau will need Gasol, who didn’t play particularly well against Cleveland during the regular season (14 points on 36.1 FG% in four games), to turn it up as a scorer and play-maker to compensate for his defensive limitations. The Cavaliers can’t really afford foul trouble for Mozgov, and Gasol will need to pressure him directly and indirectly in hopes of testing the Cavaliers’ interior depth.
The Bulls took longer than expected to eliminate the Bucks, but at least they did so in impressive fashion with a 54-point blowout in Game 6. On the whole, this hasn’t been an easy season—Rose, Butler and Noah have all dealt with injuries, Thibodeau’s uncertain future has been the subject of numerous rumors—but they’re still right where they wanted to be, and they’ve been gifted the absence of Love and Smith (to start). The formula for a Bulls victory involves Butler and Rose doing their best to counter the powerful James/Irving tandem, thereby opening the door for Gasol, Gibson, Noah and Mirotic to outclass and grind down Cleveland’s supporting pieces. If Chicago can consistently muck up the middle, it has a very real chance at achieving that formula. However, if Blatt and James succeed in unlocking space without Love, Chicago’s offense will be hard-pressed to keep up.
The X-Factor: Nikola Mirotic
The back-breaking adjustment that killed James’s Heat in the 2014 Finals came when the Spurs moved versatile power forward Boris Diaw into the starting lineup. The downsizing move allowed San Antonio to match Miami space-for-space, while also adding an extra playmaker capable of exploiting the Heat’s defensive weak links.
The Bulls are fond of playing two traditional bigs. Thibodau’s most-used four/five combinations in the first round were Gasol/Noah and Gasol/Gibson, as they were throughout the regular season, but there may come a point in the series where that approach requires adjustment. If Cleveland proceeds with a small-ball approach as expected, the 6'10" Mirotic’s comfort on the perimeter could be of real value. Although he’s not really a multi-dimensional offensive threat like Diaw, Mirotic is a polished, crafty scorer capable of playing inside and outside. If and when Thibodeau uses him as a power forward rather than a small forward, his perimeter presence should pull one of Cleveland’s defenders away from the hoop, creating more room for Rose and Butler off the dribble. Theoretically, Mirotic is also skilled and confident enough to make the Cavaliers pay if they try to hide a one-way player on him.
Mirotic’s “X-factor” status is increased by a knee injury that kept him out of Game 3 against Milwaukee. He failed to make much of an impact in Games 4 through 6, and his status is something to keep an eye on, particularly early in this series. Thibodeau will need to have all options available to him if the Bulls are going to spring the upset. There’s a fine line for Chicago between playing its preferred, traditional style and getting “stuck big” against a more dynamic opponent.
Telling Stat: 75 minutes
The main narrative around Love this season was one of disappointment: he didn’t make the All-Star team, his numbers (16.4 points, 9.7 rebounds) were diminished from his MVP-like production in Minnesota, his defensive deficiencies were regularly laid bare, and questions circled about his chemistry with James and his long-term future in Cleveland.
The flip side to all of that was his dependability. Love played in 75 games and logged more minutes than every Cavaliers player except Irving, he appeared in 13 of Blatt’s 15 most-used five-man lineups, and Cleveland’s offense was substantially better when he was on the court (109.5 rating) than when he was off (104.5).
To reinforce Love’s importance, consider that he was a member of every Cavaliers lineup that logged more than 75 minutes together this season. That’s a low bar, and Cleveland’s most-used lineup that didn’t include Love (Irving, Smith, James, Thompson and Mozgov) won’t even be available until at least Game 3.
Blatt approaches these unchartered waters with some slim pickings when it comes to his available replacements. Thompson has been a plus contributor all season long, thanks in large part to his energy on the glass, but he represents a totally different look spacing-wise compared to Love, as more than 90% of his shots come from within 10 feet. Meanwhile, the available floor-spacers have barely played with Cleveland’s remaining starters (Miller played just five minutes all season with Irving/Smith/James/Mozgov, while Jones has played 20 minutes with that quartet). One possible solution would be to play Shumpert more, but he hasn’t shot the three very well since arriving in Cleveland (33.8%), and he too hasn’t logged much time alongside the first unit’s core.
In addition to Love’s shooting and rebounding, Cleveland will also miss his reliable presence. Although the remaining Cavaliers won’t exactly need to wear name tags to recognize each other, they will be forced to improvise throughout this series, especially in Game 1 as they settle into new lineups and again in Game 3 when Smith returns.
The Pick: Cavaliers in 7
Prior to Love’s injury, Cleveland looked poised for a charmed romp through the East, and the degree of difficulty has increased, unquestionably, with his loss. Still, James has won 13 consecutive series against Eastern Conference foes. He also has weathered injuries to key teammates in previous postseasons, he has a credible second scorer in Irving alongside him, and there are enough complementary pieces here, especially once Smith returns, that this series shouldn’t devolve into a one-man war. Even if it does, it’s hard to bet against him when Chicago has been very good, but not quite great, in recent months.