Think about how much has changed in four years. Not just in the NBA, but personally in your life. Hell, 4 years ago, this blog wasn’t even created yet. I was a just a high school freshman that spent the 2011 NBA playoffs scampering around my basement shrieking at nearly every play then-MVP Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls made.
Fast forward to today, 146 articles written later, I’m still yelling at my TV screen as if I’m on the sideline with Thibs, this time in my dorm room with my roommate recording me with an app that wasn’t around 4-years ago for all the world to see. Some things change, some don’t.
Of course I’m referring to LeBron James and Derrick Rose finally meeting again in the playoffs after two straight years (2010, 2011) of dueling it out until the recent four year gap (where LeBron ruled the NBA via South Beach while Rose was in a gym rehabbing) took away potentially one of the best head-to-head superstar matchup’s in the NBA playoffs in recent memory.
And yes, it is very tempting to talk about the stars in this upcoming Eastern Conference galactic showdown, everyone else on the Bulls (and the Cavs too) will tell you it’s just another series and that will be their mindset heading into Game 1 Monday at the Quicken Loans Arena.
It won’t be. It will be personal, and for the Bulls, it will be time to settle the score.
Before we move forward, make sure this is playing in the background as you continue to read on…
After last night’s 120-66 dismantling of the young and pesky Milwaukee Bucks, the Bulls don’t have to run away from the questions about a potential matchup with Cleveland in the playoffs, a topic of conversation that has been looming since LeBron came back home.
In the words of LeBron James, “It’s about damn time.”
Toss out all four regular season meetings between these two, each team has vastly changed since. With Kevin Love out for the remainder of the season with a controversial dislocated shoulder suffered in Game 4 against Boston, it is undoubtedly a catastrophic loss for Cleveland, who will also have to weather the storm without J.R. Smith for the first two games, who is suspended.
For the Bulls, this might be the first time the tide has turned in their favor as far as the injury list is concerned. Yes, Noah has hobbled through some games, having difficulty elevating (It has troubled him all year-long) and Mirotic is still laboring through the muscle strain he suffered in Game 2 against the Bucks, but considering the past three seasons, they’re as healthy as ever.
Although it took the Bulls three more games than they would have preferred against the Bucks, it served as both a wake up call and a chance for the Bulls starting five to continue getting more playing time with one another. Remember, they had only 21 games together all season heading into the first round, rest is important, especially for a veteran team, but so is chemistry.
On the other hand the Cavs will have had an entire week of rest heading into Game 1 Monday, both a blessing and a curse. It normally takes teams a little bit of time to shake off the rust of not having played in an entire week, but for LeBron, it will do wonders. With Love gone and J.R. out for two games, LeBron will have to do everything, like in his former years in Cleveland, making the rest all the more important.
Sure, Kyrie Irving will make things easier on the offensive end for LeBron, but this is still his first playoff experience and he is heading into a series that will have the intensity of a NBA Finals. We’ve been waiting for this series since October, here are the three key matchup’s that Chicago will have to win if they want to finally beat LeBron and the Cavs.
1. Rose vs. Irving
In the three times that Rose and Irving went head-to-head, their statistics against one another are pretty similar as you might expect. Rose is averaging 22.6 ppg. 4.3 apg. and 3.0 rpg. while Irving counters with 19.3 ppg. 7.3 apg. and 3.6 rpg. It is enticing to see what Cavs coach David Blatt will do defensively with Irving. With the likely starting lineup of Irving, Shumpert, James, Marion / Jones / Miller and Mozgov, there is seemingly no place to hide Irving on defense because LeBron will be occupied in the post (we will get to this soon) leaving Rose and Irving to go one-on-one.
Rose has noticeably been attacking the rim more in the playoffs and if he continues to stay aggressive against a smaller guard in Irving, he should have his way like he did February 12th, where blowing past Irving and into the heart of the Cavs defense wasn’t a problem.
2. LeBron vs. Chicago’s Bigs
Love’s injury automatically puts James at power forward. The Cavs simply cannot have Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov in the game together or else their spacing is a complete mess and have no three-point shooting. This leaves LeBron at the four defensively, and a combination of Marion, Miller and Jones at the four offensively.
According to Brian Windhorst on the B.S. Report, LeBron doesn’t like defending in the post, in fact he hates it. It takes a toll on him and he expends valuable energy he would otherwise use offensively. And if Cleveland doesn’t want to get murdered on the boards, they’ll have to leave LeBron down there more than Blatt would like, which takes away the flexibility of being able to use LeBron on Butler or Rose, if one of them is in Heat Check mode. Also, LeBron can’t have a moment to relax defensively when he does guard Butler, who has expanded his game in eons, becoming a reliable 3-point shooter, having a respectable mid-range jumper and getting to the rim (and free throw line) at better rates.
Butler’s overall production against Milwaukee:
I’ve alluded to it in the past and above, Thibs has been rotating nine to ten guys deep throughout the playoffs. Before the injury to Love, and J.R. Smith tossing punches at Jae Crowder, realistically the Cavs had about 7 guys playing meaningful minutes, and Kendrick Perkins coming in to set illegal screens and throwing egregious flagrant fouls. Now Love is out and J.R. isn’t around for two games and all of a sudden Blatt is going to have to rely heavily on whatever is left of veterans Shawn Marion, James Jones and Mike Miller.
Thibodeau must take advantage of this luxury. He simply doesn’t have to run Butler into the ground guarding LeBron, Tony Snell is a viable defender with above-average length that can spare Butler valuable energy he can use on offense. If and when the Cavs go with the small lineup of Irving-Smith-Shumpert-LeBron-Thompson when Smith returns, Thibs can counter with a Rose-Butler-Snell-Mirotic-Gibson combination and still be bigger in the post. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hinrich plays more minutes this series to guard J.R. Smith, and Aaron Brooks must dominate Mathew Dellavedova when both backup PG’s are in the game.
The Bench Mob for the Bulls has kept them together in the past, if they want to beat Cleveland, their bench must outplay Cleveland’s every game.
No team has suffered the wrath of greatness of LeBron James more so than this core group of Chicago Bulls. Ever since ’09-10 playoffs, LeBron, whether he was in South Beach or in front of his home crowd of Cleveland, has always been the immovable road block the Bulls could never get past.
In past seasons, the Bulls were decimated by injuries across the board, going into games with that lovable under-dog mentality that ultimately never prevailed and never was going to. They still might be under-dogs heading into Game 1 Monday, but don’t be fooled, this series is what the Bulls organization has been building towards for quite sometime now.
In seemingly every way, this roster was built to take down LeBron James and the Cavaliers, who are getting a little bit of a taste of what Chicago has been suffering (injury wise) from the past three postseasons. The Bulls understand the magnitude of this series for them, they understand the finite window of opportunity and all the breaks needed to reach the Finals and ultimately win a championship.
In order to do so, they’ll have to beat LeBron James, just like old times.
This series was inevitable. Monday can’t come soon enough.