A few years ago, I went to a local court to play pickup basketball with a group of friends. In our first (and what turned out to be our only) game, we got matched up against a team composed of skinny high schoolers. Admittedly, we went into the contest assuming an easy victory. After all, we were older, stronger and generally more talented than that squad of young upstarts.
As it turned out, they took it to us and eked out a two-point victory (in most pickup games, you have to win by two). There were so many people waiting to play, we never got back onto the court. The loss made me and my friends so angry, we returned the next week for a rematch. Now properly motivated, we overwhelmed those kids with our size and strength, running them off the court and leaving no doubt who the better team was.
That story popped into my head while I was watching Game 4, because that’s what it looked like: A battle of men against boys.
Going into this series, the Cavaliers could probably be accused of taking the Bulls lightly. Heck, everybody was. And why not? The best team in the league versus the worst team to make the playoffs. Of course, doing so was to underestimate the resolve of a Chicago team that had many, many chances to give up over the course of the regular season. But they never did, and they brought that never-say-die spirit into the postseason.
Sometimes something as simple as a win can awaken a sleeping giant. And I’m not talking about LeBron James. Sure, he had his fifth career postseason triple-double – 37 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists — but he’s been an uncontrollable monster all series. No, I’m talking about the rest of the Cavaliers, who as a group decided it was time to put the hammer down.
And that’s what they did.
Antawn Jamison scored 24 points on 9-for-16 shooting, sometimes making a mocker of Luol Deng’s defense. Mo Williams (19 points, 6-for-10, 3-for-6 from downtown) and Anthony Parker (12 points, 4-for-7, 2-for-3 on threes) were on target from outside. And J.J. Hickson (10 points, 3-for-4 from the field, 4-for-4 from the line) gave Cleveland a boost off the bench.
But even though the Cavs finished the game with an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 60 percent, they didn’t win this one with offense. I know that sounds crazy considering they scored 75 points over the second and third quarters, but in reality they won it with defense. Cleveland upped their intensity on D, using their superior size and roughing up a Bulls team that simply doesn’t have the size to rough them back. The Cavaliers put up a wall around the rim, forcing Chicago to miss 16 of their 30 layup attempts. They also aggressively put hands into the faces of the Bulls’ shooters, who went 19-for-60 from the outside.
Derrick Rose was 3-for-10 from the outside and 9-for-20 on the night. Luol Deng went 1-for-3 on layups and 6-for-15 on jumpers (although, in his semi-defense, the officials were overlooked a few whacks on the wrist by LeBron). Kirk Hinrich — who’s shooting had been so integral in that Game 3 win — didn’t attempt a single layup and finished 3-for-13. Taj Gibson attempted four shots and converted only one of them.
Don’t even get me started about the bench.
And in the middle of this playoff apocalypse was Joakim Noah, playing with do-or-die intensity and refusing to give up. Noah crashed the boards with something akin to bloodlust, finishing with a game-high 20 rebounds, including 7 offensive boards. He earned a team-best eight free throw attempts and made seven of them. He scored 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting, making him perhaps the only Bulls player to register an offensive pulse.
During the third quarter, Jo scored 14 of Chicago’s 24 points. Near the end of the period, he scored on three straight Bulls possessions, hitting a short hook shot and two jumpers from around 15 feet out. In that quarter, Noah sprinted up and down the court like the fate of truth, justice and the American way depended on it. And no matter how tired he was — the dude was huffing and puffing like mad – Joakim never stopped hustling.
Sadly, his efforts weren’t nearly enough.
The Cavaliers are better than the Bulls. Not just a little better. A lot better. So much better it could be considered a mystery why Chicago played them so closely in Game 2 and then stole Game 3. But sometimes you see and smaller, weaker team and hold back a little, whether consciously or unconsciously. Based on the way Cleveland swatted the Bulls down in Game 4, I think it’s safe to say that was the case.
Honestly, I expect more of the same in Game 5. But I’m not disappointed. The Bulls have already surpassed expectations, and I know they’ll come out and try their best. We all knew going in that Chicago was facing a severe talent deficit. In the face of that fact, as a fan, all you want is to see your team try as hard as they can.
And they have. It’s not their fault LeBron is so otherworldly.
Update! TrueHoop Network: John Krolik of Cavs the Blog: “For the love of all that is holy, LeBron. Antawn Jamison all but said LeBron showed up to the arena looking like he wanted to pick up an armored car with his bare hands and use it to tear down the arena after dominating the game and before salting the ground where the arena once stood so that nothing could ever grow there again. I may be exaggerating somewhat, but that’s how LeBron played on Sunday.”
Update! Bonus Stats:
The following information was compiles by Jason Starrett of ESPN Stats & Information:
1. Coming into Sunday, LeBron James had struggled in the Playoffs when shooting from outside the paint. The Cavs star had made only 16 of 36 FG attempted from outside the lane, including 6-for-13 3-pointers. On Sunday, LeBron found his stroke en route to a game-high 37 points. In Game 4, LeBron was 3-for-4 (75 percent) inside the paint, 8-for-13 (61.5 percent) outside the paint, and 6-for-9 on threes.
2. During the first three games of the playoffs, the Bulls had been very efficient in the half-court against the vaunted Cavalier defense. Chicago was unable to maintain that efficiency in Game 4, when they shot 32.9 percent, committed 10 turnovers and scored only 75 points (compared to 43.5, 6 and 83 in Games 1-3).
3. Joakim Noah recorded 21 points and a career-playoff high 20 rebounds on Sunday. It was the first 20/20 recorded in the postseason since Dwight Howard accomplished the feat in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season against the Celtics.
4. Excluding free throws, LeBron James scored all but three of his points in the half-court against the Bulls. Those three points in transition came on his 34-ft heave as time expired in the third quarter.
Update! Reader speak:
The following comment was left by By The Horns reader Nicky C:
“When LeBron hit the half court shot at the end of the third…that was the moment he stuck his hand into the chest of the Bulls and ripped their heart out. You just cannot bounce back from that, and I’m not just talking about that single game.
“I was at the game, and I was foolishly/selfishly hoping for a fantastic LeBron performance AND a Bulls victory. As crushing as the Bulls L was, how can you even be mad at the Bulls? LeBron James is simply unreal. He’s unguardable. It’s scary how many tools/skills he has.
“When Lebron hit that 35-footer, the crowd went silent for a second, then a whoosh of a low ‘whoa…’ moved throughout the crowd. LeBron just stood near midcourt and glared around the stadium. It was a surreal moment. I’m still stupefied by it. On Sunday afternoon, we witnessed.”
As for the Bulls, they got to play (and lose to) the Andrew Bogut-less Milwaukee Bucks earlier this week. Then, last night, Chicago faced the Cleveland Cavaliers sans LeBron James, who sat out with “bumps and bruises.” And as if that wasn’t enough, Cleveland’s Antawn Jamison (23 points, 10-for-19, 6 rebounds, 3 steals) limped off the court after suffering a right foot contusion late in the fourth quarter. He did not return.
I mean, it’s been like a karmic reversal from the injury woes the Bulls have been dealing with all season long.
And yet they still almost lost.
This is the kind of crazy stuff that goes on at the end of the NBA’s regular season. You have teams (like the Bulls) scrambling to make the playoffs. You have teams (like the Cavs) with nothing to play for except for a little pride and the chance to prove they’re more than just the “LeBronairs.”
Cleveland was not sharp on defense. To wit, the Bulls rank 28th in Offensive Efficiency (100.5 points per 100 possessions) while the Cavaliers are 7th in Defensive Efficiency (101.2 points allowed per 100 possessions). Yet Chicago shot nearly 52 percent as a team, had an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 54.7, and finished with an Offensive Efficiency rating of 110.1.
All that despite Taj Gibson’s forgettable 1-for-9 shooting performance.
Chicago’s “Fantastic Four” were on. The Bulls got double-doubles from Derrick Rose (24 points, 10-for-19, 10 assists), Joakim Noah (17 points, 8-for-14, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks) and Luol Deng (22 points, 9-for-16, 10 boards), and Kirk Hinrich (23 points, 8-for-12) had a hot shooting night.
Did I mention they still almost lost?
Just like against the Bucks, Chicago built a double-digit lead and then lost it. Mo Williams got so hot I was ready to call 911 and send some fire trucks to the United Center. Williams drilled six three-pointers and finished with a season-high 35 points. Four of Mo’s three-pointers came in the fourth quarter, and two of them were absolute heat checks.
Said Williams: “Even without LeBron, we gave the crowd a show. They paid those high-priced tickets. I think it was worth it.”
Worth a heart attack, maybe.
Fortunately, the Bulls’ defense came through down the stretch, which is good, because their free throw shooting sure didn’t. After an ugly possession that ended with a forced three-point attempt by Rose, the Cavs rumbled downcourt in transition with a chance to take the lead. Fortunately, Gibson blocked Williams’ layup out of bounds with 26 seconds left.
Then Williams — who, as I mentioned, was in “heat check mode” – chucked up a tough turnaround jumper against aggressive defense by Hinrich. Deng hauled down the board and was immediately fouled. Naturally, he bricked both free throws.
Fortunately, Cleveland had an ugy possession of their own, with two jumpers by Anderson Varejao sandwiched around a blocked layup attempt by Jamario Moon. That sequence mercifully ended with a forced foul on Rose, who promptly shanked both foul shots. Thank goodness for Noah, who knocked the rebound away after Derrick’s second miss, which allowed time to expire.
I should probably mention that Chicago’s final two scores were a 17-footer by Noah and then a Noah tip-in off a missed layup attempt by Rose.
Yeah. Joakim came up big.
The win moved Chicago into an eighth place tie with the Raptors (although Toronto has the tiebreaker). As important as this game was, though, it won’t mean anything if the Bulls don’t come through in New Jersey tonight.
Derrick Rose injured his ankle during the preseason, and the recovery took time. The effect on his game was obvious. His explosiveness was greatly diminished. He couldn’t attack the rim the way he did during his rookie campaign. At one point, Rose said: “I told you, I’m like an old man out there. I have to wait 20, 30 minutes into practice where I’m really loosened up. I have to stretch a lot.”
Of course, sports fans are an impatient group of people. It’s all about what your favorite star has done for you lately. We don’t want to hear about injuries, or brutal schedules, or guys who are underperforming for unknown reasons. All we want is for our favorite teams to win every game, every night. When that doesn’t happen, we’re quick to blame the coaches, owners and players for being incompetent, failing or (even worse) flat-out giving up on us.
Sometimes those criticisms are fair. Sometimes they are not. As it turns out, the early disappointment in Rose’s regression from the league’s top rookie to its most notoriously slumping sophomore was premature. He has steadily improved from bad, to okay, to pretty good, to very good. Check out his splits:
You’ll notice that as Rose has gone, so have the Bulls. And last night served notice that Rose’s steady improvement isn’t a fluke or a simple hot streak. He has arrived. Rose scored a career-high 37 points, and he did it from a little bit of everywhere (except from behind the three-point line). He also grabbed 9 rebounds, dished out 6 assists and hit some truly clutch shots.
The first was a 17-foot jumper to put the Bulls up 100-99 with 1:29 left in the fourth quarter. Joakim Noah knocked down a couple free throws (which were also clutch) between a pair of three-pointers by the Wizards before Rose gathered in his own miss (which was blocked) and hit a baseline jumper to tie the game at 104-104. And while he couldn’t win the game at the end of regulation — he missed an 18-footer at the buzzer — he made up for it at the end of the second overtime by hitting a spinning, one-handed floater from 11 feet out to put the Bulls up 121-119.
Said Rose: “”I’ve been doing that move since college. If I want to go a certain way and they play me a certain way, I got to spin and I got a nice little floater. … I used to think about what move I’m going to make or whatever. I’m just letting it come to me right now.”
Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. The Bulls have now won eight of their last 11 games, which has come from two four-game winning streaks sandwiched around a three-game skid. And after the Bulls managed to score 100 points only three times in their first 28 games, they’ve now dropped 100+ points in six of their last 10, including 111.7 PPG on their current four-game winning streak.
Of course, would be easy to scoff at Chicago’s recent success. Take this four-game streak. They beat the lowly Timberwolves, smacked down a struggling Pistons team, they overcame the Kevin Garnett-less Celtics, and then outlasted an undermanned Wizards squad on the same day that Gilbert Arenas pled guilty to a felony gun charge.
Those are all fair points. But regardless of the circumstances, the Bulls still managed some feats they haven’t been capable of most of the season. They started off by easily beating a couple of teams they absolutely should have beaten (which hasn’t always been the case this year). They won a hard fought road game (in Boston) and then pulled out a nail-biter at home on the second night of back-to-backs.
Scoff at the Wizards all you want, but don’t try to tell me guys like Antawn Jamison (34 points, 18 rebounds, 5 assists) and Brendan Haywood (16 points, 7-for-11, 20 boards) weren’t busting their butts trying to win that game last night. Sometimes a wounded animal is the most dangerous foe of all. That certainly seemed to be the case last night.
The point is: it’s progress. As Rose said: “We’ve been the type of team that would let it slip at the end. … It shows how much we’re improving.”
Of course, the Bulls begin a seven-game Western Conference road trip on Monday, so these good vibes may be put on hold for a while. Historically speaking, these long road trips have usually begun and ended in disastrous fashion, at least since the end of the Michael Jordan era. But then again, they may not have to be. Rose is playing fantastic basketball and the Bulls seem to be coming together as a team. Why couldn’t they win, say, three or four of these seven games?
That’s something I wouldn’t have even considered a month ago.
It’s a win. I’m not giving it back. But the Bulls’ 101-99 victory over the Wizards — otherwise known as “The Worst Team In The Eastern Conference” — really should have come a little easier than it did. Maybe even a whole lot easier. Washington is terrible, they were missing their second-best player (Caron Butler), and the guy who should be their first-best player (Gilbert Arenas) spent the day being about as big a distraction as a guy who hasn’t played a single game since signing a $111 million contract last summer could possibly be. I’m not sure all the cloak and dagger stuff is necessary for a 16-win team, but whatever. Anything going against the Wizards should have, in theory, worked in Chicago’s favor.
The Bulls fell behind by 12 points (22-10) less than seven minutes into the game, and I immediately started flashing back to their last trip to our nation’s capital. But they fought their way back to within six (47-41) by halftime, and things really picked up in the third quarter: The Bulls got dunks (three of them) and earned 13 free throw attempts, and — thanks to a 14-o run — outscored the Wizards 33-20 over that 12-minute span to take a seven-point lead (74-67) going into the fourth.
Chicago’s strong play continued in the final quarter and they were up 11 points (88-77) with 6:09 to play. That’s when things got…interesting. Antawn Jamison — whom I identified in the game preview as a player to fear and who finished with a game-high 32 points and 12 rebounds – scored the next eight points on two layups, a free throw (which he earned by getting fouled on the second layup) and a 25-foot three-pointer. He also snatched a bad pass by Derrick Rose between those layups, and that was one of the Bulls’ six turnovers for the game. Suddenly, what had been shaping up as a runaway win became a dog fight.
The Bulls and the road really do go together like Easter morning and Lyme Disease.
Fortunately, Ben Gordon went on a mini-run. Gordon hit a 19-footer, then (after a layup by John Salmons) an 18-footer and finally an 11-foot running jumper. That was some good timing. Mind you, Ben went scoreless (0-for-4) in the first half and, in fact, sat out most of the second quarter. But he lit up the scoreboard for 21 first-half points on 7-for-10 shooting.
The final 10 seconds were pretty crazy. Kirk Hinrich got a layup off a pass from Rose with 8 ticks left on the clock to put Chicago up by four (100-96). After a timeout, Nick Young hit a 26-footer to pull the Wizards to within one (100-99) with three seconds to go. Young then fouled Gordon with two seconds left and Ben hit the first foul shot and then missed the second. Washington snared the board but they were out of timeouts, so Jamison had to heave a 40-foot prayer at the buzzer. It missed and the Bulls escaped. Whew, huh?
As coach Vinny Del Negro put it: “Of course there’s a concern, but the biggest concern is winning and losing. That’s what it comes down to. We made enough plays today to win. We were fortunate a little bit at the end, but we got the job done.”
No arguments there.
Player notes: Derrick Rose finished with 12 points (6-for-15) and a game-high 8 assists. John Salmons scored 19 (5-for-12, 8-for-8 from the line). Joakim Noah just missed a double-double (9 points, 12 boards) and blocked a game-high 4 shots (one more than the entire Wizards’ team). Brad Miller did have a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) and Kirk Hinrich scored 12 (5-for-14) and Tim Thomas added 9 (4-for-8), all off the bench.
The playoff picture: The eighth-place Bulls are now 1.5 games up on the Bobcats, two games ahead of the Bucks and 2.5 games in front of the Nets.
The Thomas shot watch: Tyrus went 4-for-10 from the field, including 3-for-4 in the paint and 1-for-6 on jumpshots. He missed from 19 feet, 18 feet (twice) and 17 feet (also twice).