Historically speaking, Game 1 blowouts aren’t necessarily indicative of how a series will proceed.
Just ask the Bulls. They defeated the Miami Heat by 21 points in Game 1 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals and then went on to lose the next four games. Whether a team loses by one point or one hundred, it’s still only one loss.
That said, this particular loss was pretty discouraging.
The Bulls got a big offensive game out of Carlos Boozer (25 points, 12-for-20, 8 rebounds, 4 assists) and Nate Robinson (17 points, 8-for-12, 1 assist) provided some scoring punch off the bench.
Unfortunately, too many other Bulls came up shooting blanks.
Joakim Noah — who had been listed as doubtful for Game 1 and possibly even iffy for the entire series — hobbled out for the starting tip. But his unexpected appearance wasn’t exactly the second coming of Willis Reed. Noah played 13:27 ineffective minutes, finishing with 4 points on 2-for-6 shooting and 5 rebounds. He looked rusty. He looked hurt. And his performance raised the inevitable question: should he be playing at all?
Said Buls coach Tom Thibodeau: ”The thing is he hasn’t practiced so he’s going to be rusty, but I’d rather have him out there. Whatever he can give us is a plus. We didn’t play well. It wasn’t Jo, it was our team. So he’s a big plus for our team, so we’d like to have him out there. We’ve got to play better. Everyone has to play better.”
That “everybody” certainly includes poor Luol Deng (6 points, 3-for-11, 3 assists, 2 rebounds), who looked and played like he’d aged in dog years during the regular season. Maybe that’s the price to be paid for leading the league in minutes per game for two seasons in a row. And Gerald Wallace — who had a terrible season by his standards and even admitted recently that “my confidence is totally gone” — thoroughly outplayed Deng by scoring 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting.
Said Deng: ”He’s a good player. He had a good night tonight, but it’s one of those things. I play hard, I battle, so I’m just looking at it as I had a bad game tonight. We lost one, but we’ll bounce back next game.”
Let’s hope so.
Adding to Chicago’s misery was the fact that Kirk Hinrich was held without a field goal and finished with the team’s worst plus-minus score (-19) in the 28 minutes he played before leaving the game with a leg injury. And as it turns out, his performance was historically bad.
Kirk Hinrich had 2 points and 2 assists in 28 minutes. His 4 combined points and assists are the fewest by any Bulls starting point guard that played at least 25 minutes in an NBA playoff game in the last 15 seasons. Coincidentally, the next 2 players on this list are Kirk Hinrich as well. It’s safe to say the Bulls need Derrick Rose back.
Well, of course the Bulls need Rose back, but unfortunately Thibodeau has all but ruled out any possibility that may happen: ”He’s most likely out but you never know. The playoffs are stretched out, too, so you have to factor that in. So who knows another week from now where he is? You always want to leave that possibility open.”
Nope. Superman won’t be flying to the rescue. Not this season anyway.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine how Rose’s return could revive a previously rock-solid defense that got absolutely blistered. The Nets shot 55.8 percent from the field, scored 56 points in the paint and committed only 8 turnovers. And if all that doesn’t flabber your gast, then this will: Brooklyn scored at the mind-boggling rate of 125 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball-Reference).
And here’s how truly awful Chicago’s interior defense was: the Nets were 20-for-24 (83.4 percent) at the rim and 8-for-12 (66.7 percent) from 3-9 feet. Basically, if they got anywhere close to the basket, they scored.
Thanks to a miserable 7-for-23 shooting effort and a 9-2 Brooklyn run to end the first quarter, the Bulls were already behind 25-14 heading into the second. And that’s when the hammer really came down: Brooklyn shot 16-for-20 during the second quarter and went into halftime with a 60-35 lead.
Believe it or not, the Bulls actually shot really well in the third and fourth quarters — 11-for-19 and 10-for-16 respectively — and even outscored Brooklyn 27-17 over the final 12 minutes. Unfortunately, the game had been decided long before that.
Said Thibodeau: ”It was the end of the first [quarter] and they hit us with a haymaker, got us back on our heels. So end of the first, second quarter, poor defense, poor intensity, poor energy on offense. You can’t win like that.”
Added Noah: ”We played so poorly. We didn’t play well offensively. We didn’t execute; playoffs is all about executing. We didn’t execute the defensive game plan, we didn’t execute the offensive game plan. We’ll watch film and we’ll definitely come out with a better effort on Monday.”
Noah is probably right. That’s been this team’s modus operandi during the Tom Thibodeau era. They rarely drop two games in a row and they almost always have a big bounce back after a loss.
And let’s face it, the Nets will almost certainly regress to the mean. Sure, Deron Williams (22 points, 9-for-15, 7 assists) and Brook Lopez (22 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists) will probably get theirs, but will Wallace have another efficient game? Will Joe Johnson (16 points, 7-for-13, 4 assists)? Or how about Andray Blatche (12 points, 6-for-11, 3 rebounds) and C.J. Watson (14 points, 6-for-8, 1 assist)?
It’s also a safe bet that — after watching film and getting an earful from Thibodeau — Chicago’s interior defense won’t be nearly as passive as it was last night.
That said, there are still some big questions. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reports that Hinrich will likely play in Game 2. And Noah said “Hell yeah, I’ll be out there” when asked if he would be available on Monday. But there’s no telling how effective either man will be. And they are absolutely critical if the Bulls have any hope of slowing Williams and defending Brooklyn’s forays into the paint.
But this is the playoffs. Anything can happen. And we all know these Bulls won’t give up.
Game 1 in Brooklyn: Saturday at 7 p.m.
Game 2 in Brooklyn: Monday at 7 p.m.
Game 3 in Chicago: Thursday, April 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 4 in Chicago on Saturday, April 27 at 1 p.m.
Game 5* in Brooklyn on Monday, April 29 (TBD)
Game 6* in Chicago on Thursday, May 2 (TBD)
Game 7* in Brooklyn on Saturday, May 4 (TBD)
The Bulls won the season series 3-1. Here’s a breakdown of those f our games:
December 15, 2012: Bulls win 83-83 in Chicago behind Marco Belinelli (19 points) and Joakim Noah (12 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocked shots). Kirk Hinrich missed the game with a knee injury, which meant a big game for Deron Williams (24 points, 10-for-13 from the free throw line, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block). Still, the Bulls got key stops down the stretch, and rookie Marquis Teague (20 minutes, 8 points, 4-for-6, 2 assists) forced Williams into a tough miss in the closing seconds. Said Teague: ”I was just trying to contain him, just keep him in front of me. It’s hard to keep a player like that from scoring.”
It’s probably worth noting that the Nets were playing their fourth game in five nights and were coming off a double-overtime game against the Pistons the night before. It’s also worth noting that Brook Lopez (18 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocked shots) played just 25 minutes in his second game back after missing seven games with a right foot injury.
The Bulls held Brooklyn to 38 percent shooting and outscored them 42-30 in the paint, but the Nets outrebounded the Bulls 41-33.
February 1: Nets win 93-89 in Brooklyn behind Brook Lopez (20 points, 9-for-16, 4 rebounds) and strong play off the bench from MarShon Brooks (13 points, 3 assists, 2 steals) and Andray Blatche (11 points, 5-for-7, 3 rebounds). The Bulls — who were without Carlos Boozer (hamstring), Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis) and Kirk Hinrich (right elbow) — actually had a four-point lead going after three quarters but then shot 8-for-18 and got outscored 30-22 in the fourth. In fact, Chicago’s fourth quarter points were matched by Brooks and Blatche alone. Said Joe Johnson: ”MarShon and Blatche, man, carried us in that fourth quarter.”
The always short-handed Bulls got 18 points a piece from Luol Deng and Marco Belinelli plus a double-double from Nate Robinson (12 points and 11 assists) and a near double-double from Taj Gibson (16 points and 9 rebounds).
The Nets shot 52 percent and outscored the Bulls 56-44 in the paint. Brooklyn also won the rebounding battle 40-29. Meanwhile, Chicago was 1-for-14 from three-point range.
March 2: Bulls win 96-85 in Chicago behind the frontcourt dominance of Joakim Noah (21 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks, 2 steals) and Carlos Boozer (20 points, 8 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 assists, 1 blocked shot). As usual, the Bulls were two men down — Rip Hamilton (back spasms) and Taj Gibson (knee) — and Luol Deng was still recovering from getting elbowed in the mouth by Philadelphia’s Spencer Hawes two days prior…a blow that left with internal bleeding in the mouth (Deng went on to say his “whole bottom jaw is out of line” and that he may eventually need root canals to repair the damage).
Brook Lopez scored 14 points in the first quarter and finished with 22 points on 9-for-16 shooting. However, thanks to Kirk Hinrich’s pesky defense, Deron Williams (14 points, 4-for-12, 6 assists) had a very average game. Note that Joe Johnson (11 points, 5-for-10, 5 turnovers) was playing in his second game back after missing three games with a foot injury.
The Bulls shot 52 percent while the Nets committed 21 turnovers for 24 points going the other way.
April 4: The Bulls win 92-90 in Brooklyn behind a monster game from Carlos Boozer (29 points, 12-for-22, 18 rebounds) and strong performances from Luol Deng (18 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists) and Jimmy Butler (16 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 block). This win was especially impressive considering the Bulls pulled it off on the road without Joakim Noah (plantar faciitis), Marco Belinelli (abdominal strain), Rip Hamilton (back spasms) and Taj Gibson (knee injury). All that and Kirk Hinrich fouled out with 3:38 remaining.
Said Nate Robinson (12 points, 4-for-8, 5 assists): “For us, it’s big. Kirk fouled out. You got Marco out. Rip out. D-Rose out. Taj out. Guys are just stepping up, man, and that’s what teams do. You got Jo out and [Nazr Mohammed] stepping in for him. These guys are coming in and it’s like old school wrestling. Tag team. You know when one guy goes in, tag him, the other guy go out. Back and forth. We just got to keep playing and keep doing that, we’ll be OK.”
On defense, the Bulls got lit up by Deron Williams (30 points, 9-for-16, 10 assists) and Brook Lopez (28 points, 10-for-19, 5 rebounds). Of course, Lopez scored 18 of those points on 8-for-9 shooting in the first quarter then scored only 10 on 2-for-10 shooting over the final three quarters. Lopez also turned goat in the final minute by turning the ball over, getting a layup attempt stuffed and then missing a baseline jumper in the closing seconds that would have forced overtime. Joe Johnson (12 points, 4-for-11, 2 steals) was playing his first game back after missing five games with a sore left heel.
The Bulls dominated the boards (46-30) and scored 21 points off 16 Brooklyn turnovers. The Nets kept things even by going to the line 30 times.
In terms of production by position, the Nets usually win the point guard and center match-ups thanks to the play of Deron Williams (18.9 PPG, 7.7 APG, 20.3 PER) and Brook Lopez (19.4 PPG, 52% shooting, 24.7 PER). This will put a lot of pressure on Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah on defense. This means that Noah’s plantar faciitis could be a huge factor in this series. Lopez averaged 22 points on 53 percent shooting in four games against the Bulls this season…and that can’t be allowed to continue.
Williams had that one big game against the Bulls, but his overall numbers against Chicago’s D were pretty humble (19.8 PPG, 42% shooting, 6.8 APG, 3.2 TO). Still, Williams was on fire in April, averaging 24.6 points and 8.4 assists while shooting 52 percent over that eight-game stretch.
As for the Bulls, their biggest upsides in terms of production by position were at the small forward and power forward positions. And Carlos Boozer certainly had his way with the Nets, averaging 21.3 points and 10.7 rebounds while shooting 54 percent against them. And note that Boozer missed Chicago’s only loss to the Nets with a hamstring injury.
Unfortunately, Deng didn’t have quite as much success. In the four-game series, Deng averaged 15.3 points on 39 percent shooting to go with 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
Still, assuming a reasonably healthy roster, the Bulls have a major size advantage over the Nets. With Boozer, Deng, Gibson, Noah and Mohammed, Chicago will need to bully Brooklyn inside and dominate the rebounding battle. The Bulls will have to be especially mindful of their defensive backboards because the Nets are a premier offensive rebounding team.
Assuming the Bulls frontcourt can impose its will while slowing down Lopez, that leaves Bulls coach Tom Thibodea with the task for designing defensive schemes to neutralize Williams. Considering the job he’s done on superstars like Kobe Bryant in the past, I’d be willing to bet Thibs (with help from Hinrich and possibly even Jimmy Butler) comes up with something.
If Thibodeau’s schemes focus on stopping Lopez and Williams, then guys like Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace are going to have to really pick up their games, which didn’t happen against the Bulls in the regular season.
Not to overlook last night’s game against the Cavaliers — which the Bulls won 107-75 despite resting Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver — but the regular season is over.
The Bulls (50-16) once again compiled the league’s best record. San Antonio again has the second-best record (the Spurs are also 50-16, but Chicago beat them in their only head-to-head meeting, giving the Bulls the tiebreaker).
Mind you, both teams dealt with injuries to key players but managed to plug-and-play their way to the top seeds in their respective conferences. The Bulls and Spurs have been built around high-character players, brilliant coaches, and excellent systems. In many ways, these teams mirror each other in terms of drive, follow-through, and success.
Of course, the Bulls would like to emulate San Antonio’s championship success of the past decade as well.
The road to that elusive seventh championship begins on Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Congratulations to Philly’s Evan Turner. He got what he wanted. I think he may end up getting more than he bargained for.
So…what in the world happened? Philly’s season began so promising then semi-collapsed to the point where there was some question about whether they’d make the playoffs at all.
Earlier this month, former Sixers beat writer and current ESPN.com contributor Kate Fagan suggested the team might be turning on coach Doug Collins. Or, at the very least, tuning him out.
Since around early March, guys on the team have struggled with Doug Collins’ coaching style. Look, we all knew at the beginning of last year, when Collins took over this young team, that he had a history of turning around young squads. And we also knew that he had (sometimes as early as the second season) a history of over-coaching, at which point his players tend to become frustrated and tune him out. The Sixers have been struggling with this for at least a month, if not longer. This has led to heated interactions, sometimes even in the middle of games. On more than one occasion, players have let Collins know — during a game — that they’re sick of the relentless nitpicking. This incessant nagging (or even the perception of it) leads to fractured relationships. The Sixers have reached the point where, at least some of them, have addressed this issue with Collins.
The lockout-shortened season is contributing to the problem, because it’s game after game after game. There is no time to get in the gym and practice. By all accounts from within the Sixers, this season has not been fun — it’s been a struggle. A long, frustrating struggle. You’re seeing poor play because of this behind-the-scenes struggle. Obviously, Collins’ coaching style is a huge issue within the locker room. As players become frustrated and annoyed with the micromanaging, it becomes more difficult to make the necessary in-game changes. It’s the basketball version of crying wolf. If you’re always correcting something out of nervousness and habit, players are less likely to respond when the correction is important.
I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Collins has lost the team, and there’s evidence to suggest Philly might have tanked their last game to avoid playing the Miami Heat, but clearly this is a situation that could work against the Sixers. Although, to be honest, I’m willing to bet that tuning Collins out was more of a regular season problem. I believe the team will refocus for the playoffs. This year at least.
But other than internal strife, what else precipitated the Sixers’ fall from grace this season?
Negative momentum like that isn’t necessarily a harbinger of playoff doom (to the contrary, late-season form is often overrated by analysts when predicting which teams will rise or fall in the playoffs), but it is troubling that the Sixers’ biggest decline down the stretch has been on defense, which had been the team’s biggest strength.
Over the past month, Philly’s D has gone from being the NBA’s best — a distinction the Sixers had held practically all season long — to merely its third-best, courtesy of allowing 106.9 points per 100 possessions since March 30 (compared to the 97.7 mark the Sixers had on the season beforehand). You can’t blame that performance on scheduling, since just two of Philadelphia’s last nine opponents ranked in the league’s top half offensively.
Philadelphia was just demonstrably worse at stopping opponents from scoring, and this period of uncharacteristically pedestrian defense coincided with a stretch when the Sixers won just three times in 11 games — a tailspin that at one point had them flirting with missing the playoffs.
If the Sixers aren’t dominating defensively, they have practically no chance of succeeding in the postseason. Philly’s offense, a weak point all season relative to the team’s previously stellar defense, slipped to 18th in the latest efficiency rankings. As a team, the Sixers settle for too many long jump shots and struggle to score in the clutch, which seems to justify what everyone’s biggest concern about them was this whole time: that they don’t have a traditional star scorer who can be isolated in crucial situations.
Paine is correct. Philly’s D became demonstrably worse as the season progressed. However, I’m guessing that trend may right itself as the playoffs begin. After all, defense is less about raw talent than it is about the system implemented by the coach combined with the focus and determination of the players. It’s possible the defense started to deteriorate because, as Fagan supposed, the team was beginning to tire of Collins’ relentless drive. But teams in a tailspin can sometimes hit the “reset” button. And if the Sixers’ defense returns to form, it could give the Bulls problems.
But, believe you me, the Bulls defense is sure going to give Philly’s offense problems. In fact, you could argue that the Sixers’ offense has enough problems of its own.
The Sixers have five players who average in double figures: Lou Williams (14.9), Jrue Holiday (13.5), Thaddeus Young (12.8), Andre Iguodala (12.4) and Elton Brand (11.0). It’s nice to have a diverse set of offensive weapons…but, as Paine noted, they do not have a single dominant scorer. Or even a semi-dominant scorer.
And the foundation of their offense is fundamentally flawed. According to Hoopdata, Philly ranks dead last in free throw attempts (18.2) and shot attempts at the rim (21.1). Meanwhile, they rank first overall in shot attempts from 10-15 feet (11.9) and second (to the worst-NBA-team-ever Charlotte Bobcats) in shot attempts from 16-23 feet (24.5). They shoot the three-ball pretty well — ranking eighth in the league at 36.2 percent — but rank 25th in three-point attempts per game (14.6).
Further, according to Basketball-Reference, the Sixers finished the season ranked 23rd in points per game (93.6) and 20th in Offensive Rating (103.9 points scored per 100 possessions). So, basically, Philly doesn’t have a go-to scorer and depends primarily on long, contested, two-point jump shots to score points.
And they don’t do that particularly well from an efficiency standpoint.
Oh, and did I happen to mention that the Bulls completed their season ranked first in opponents points per game (88.2) and second in Defensive Rating (98.3 points given up per 100 possessions).
Memo to Evan Turner: Are you absolutely certain this is what you wanted?
I understand the Bulls have a few question marks of their own. The biggest of which are: Is Derrick Rose completely healthy and can he shake off the rust to regain his MVP form from last season?
Only time will answer the questions about Rose. But the Bulls proved they were capable of competing with elite teams even without their superstar. They have an amazing defense and home court advantage. The Sixers are defiant and scrappy. But, if the Bulls play the way they’re capable of playing, I can’t see this series lasting more than five or (at the absolute most) six games.
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.”
Derrick Rose versus LeBron James, one-on-one. Wow.
The Bulls snuck into the NBA playoffs on the final day of the regular season. Given the number of injuries and the amount of drama they went through during that 82-game gulag, that accomplishment was nothing short of amazing. However, their efforts merely earned them the right to face soon-to-be-MVP LeBron James and his league-best Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.
That seemed like the postseason equivalent of a summary execution.
According to the script, the Bulls were supposed to roll over and die. Like bugs. After all, these playoffs are supposed to be the coronation of King James. That certainly appeared to be the case in Game 2, when the Bulls seemingly played as well as they could possibly play but were almost single-handedly beaten by a hot-shooting LeBron.
After a nearly perfect first half, the Bulls led by 11 points (56-45). With 7:52 left in the third quarter, Chicago pushed that lead to 21 (68-47) on a jumper by Taj Gibson. It was unbelievable. I was ready to pinch myself or slap some cold water in my face to make sure I hadn’t dozed off. But this was way beyond my wildest dreams.
Then the Cavaliers made their run.
Anthony Parker tricked Kirk Hinrich into fouling him on a three-point attempt and hit two of three at the line. LeBron endured 23 seconds of fantastic defense by Luol Deng before drilling a three-pointer as the shot clock expired. Mo Williams hit a free throw (thanks to a technical foul on Taj Gibson), a 21-footer, and then a three-pointer of his own. Then Anderson Varejao hit a couple free throws to cut the lead to single digits.
Suddenly, a blowout turned into a dogfight.
During the fourth quarter, LeBron very nearly took over the game. He scored 13 of his game-high 39 points and dished out 5 of his game-best 8 assists. At one point, James blew by Hinrich — who was face-guarding him for some crazy reason — for a dunk and a foul…which happened to be Noah’s fifth. Without Joakim in the game, the Cavaliers started to feast on the offensive boards like a pack of hungry jackals.
It seemed like there was no way the Bulls could hold them off.
But they did. Somehow or other, they did. Mind you, the final half minute nearly gave me an ulcer. Seriously, I’ll probably die five years earlier than I should have because of this game. The Bulls were leading 104-96 when Williams knocked down another triple. The Cavs were forced to foul Hinrich, who inexplicably bricked both free throws, which was especially stunning considering how hot his shooting was (see below). At the other end, Williams missed a three, but Cleveland came away with the offensive rebound, after which LeBron hit a three.
Now the Bulls led 104-102 with 10 seconds left.
The Cavaliers fouled Derrick Rose, who missed his first free throw and hit the second.
Now the Bulls led 105-103.
After a Cleveland timeout, some fantastic Bulls defense forced a pass to Varejao, the Cavs’ worst foul shooter. Deng immediately fouled him. Andy made the first but missed the second. Brad Miller came away with the rebound — thanks in part to a critical no-call on Noah (see below) — and was fouled. Brad put in both freebies.
Now the Bulls led 107-103 with six seconds left.
After a timeout, Williams hit a gut-check three-pointer. Oh, man.
Now the Bulls led 107-106 with three seconds left.
The Cavaliers fouled Deng, who hit his first free throw but (of course) missed his second. Count ‘em: Four missed free throws by the Bulls down the stretch. All I can say is, thank God for Pepto-Bismol.
Now the Bulls led 108-106. Fortunately, the Cavs had no timeouts left. Even more fortunately, Anthony Parker rebounded Luol’s missed foul shot and had no time to find Lebron. Parker’s 42-foot fling was off the mark.
As Johnny “Red” Kerr might have said: Bulls win! Bulls win!
What a game.
Let’s make a list of the Chicago players who stepped up, shall we? First off, there was Derrick Rose, who scored a team-high 31 points (13-for-26) to go along with a team-best 7 assists. D-Rose made several tough shots — actually, they all seemed like tough shots — including at least three of his patented one-handed push shots. Derrick was beyond huge.
To me, his biggest play happened with 2:46 left in fourth quarter. The Cavaliers had been trapping Rose on pick and rolls for most of the second half, and then they sicced LeBron on him. Mind you, James is perhaps the most amazing physical specimen in NBA history. Nobody — not even Michael Jordan — has had his combination of explosive speed and sheer muscular power. But with the game on the line, even the mighty LeBron couldn’t stay in front of Rose, who slid past the presumed MVP and pulled up for a midrange jumper that put the Bulls up 98-92.
And let’s not forget about Captain Kirk, who netted 27 points by going 9-for-12 from the field and 4-for-4 from beyond the arc. There’s no way the Bulls would have won this game without Hinrich. He was absolutely indispensible. It’s always this way with Kirk, isn’t it? He’ll be quiet for a few games and everybody gets down on him, but he never stops playing, never quits competing.
Then there was Noah, who was limited to 33 minutes due to foul trouble but still finished with a game-high 15 rebounds to go along with 10 points, 5 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. And if the NBA gave out hockey assists — that is, passes that lead to an assist — Jo would have had several of those as well. Speaking of invisible stats, Noah also knocked the ball away from LeBron with just under a minute left in the fourth. Deng was credited with the steal, but it was Joakim’s active hands that made the play.
It’s also worth noting that the Bulls did their best work with Noah in the game. Hence his game-high plus-minus score of +13. The next best was Rose at +6. Lebron was +5.
I should also give some props to Deng, who scored 20 (9-for-16), two of which came on a very difficult reverse layup after he had gone behind his back to beat LeBron off the dribble. And even though James scored 39, Deng made him work hard for many of those points. Standing up to the best player on the planet is never an easy or enviable task, but Luol did it.
In fact, with 1:17 left and the Bulls lead down to 102-92, LeBron drove hard at Deng, drew a whistle, and banked in a short jumper. Unfortunately for James, that tweet he earned was an offensive foul.
Said ‘Bron: ”I saw him backpedaling. Me as a driver, I’m watching the defender’s feet. I’m seeing if he’s stationed or is still moving. To me, I felt like he was still backpedaling, and as soon as I saw him backpedaling, that’s when I decided to take off. They called a charge. I haven’t seen the replay, but I know exactly what I’ve seen on the court with the defender right in front of me.”
It was a tough call, no question. But James put his head down and drove his shoulder right into Deng. That kind of move is perfectly legal for NFL running backs. Not so much for NBA players. It doesn’t matter that Luol was still moving. You can’t run over somebody.
Said Noah: “I think one of the refs was about to call a block and then he looked at the other ref because he wasn’t sure, and the other ref — thank God — called a charge. That was a huge play for us. I’m really happy that play went our way. I think I’m kind of biased, but to me, I thought it was a charge the whole time.”
At this point — after this crazy win — who am I to question Joakim Noah? Or the hearts of the Chicago Bulls. They’re giving the best team in the league everything they could ask for.
I hope all the free-agents-to-be are watching.
Joakim Noah, quote machine: Noah committed some silly fouls. This included, as Tony C. pointed out, “a dazzlingly stupid late foul on a LeBron dunk” in the fourth quarter when he already had four fouls. And Jo knew it.
Said Noah: “Stupid, stupid fouls.”
Of course, as Tony C. also pointed out: “VDN should not have allowed Noah to play several defensive sets guarding Lebron at the top of the key: that was a foul waiting to happen.”
Deng versus the King:
Here’s Luol’s sweet, sweet move on LeBron:
Noah versus the King:
Here’s that critical no-call on Joakim:
The Cavaliers had too much. Too much talent. Too much size. Too much LeBron James. And the Bulls, on the other hand, didn’t have enough.
The final score looks somewhat respectable. The fact that Chicago whittled a 22-point third quarter deficit (68-46) down to only seven (82-75) with 5:35 left in the fourth seems a little hopeful. But the reality is, the Cavs controlled the game and did pretty much whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to do it.
Just ask Joakim Noah, who was taken to playoff school by Shaq:
Not a bad for a 38-year-old who hasn’t seen a single second of NBA action since February 25.
Shaq — who finished with 12 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks in 25 minutes — said: “That’s the patented move I’ve been doing for years. That’s the ‘Diesel Truck with No Brakes.’ When I get into that mood people get out of the way because they know I’m in the cab and I don’t have any brakes.”
Replied Noah: I kind of knew he was going to do it at first, so I tried to take it away. Then he waited and waited until a good time. He just knows how to use that 350 pounds.”
Cleveland won the battle of the boards (50-38, including 13 offensive rebounds), the battle of the paint (42-36) and the battle of the stars, as LeBron (24 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks) played better than Derrick Rose (28 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists).
Rose had an…interesting game. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Rose became the first Bulls player with 25/5/10 in the playoffs since Michael Jordan did it on June 2, 1993. That’s pretty sweet. What’s sour is that it took Derrick 28 field goal attempts to reach his game-high point total. And that his co-game-high assist total was accompanied by a career playoff worst 7 turnovers.
This after he had 7 total turnovers in the three games he played against Cleveland this season.
In the end, what it came down to was this: The Cavaliers were a game-best +19 with James on the floor, while the Bulls were a game-worst -14 with Rose in the game.
I’m not trying to say that plus-minus scores are the ulimate measure of a player’s success. But neither are points, rebounds and assists. And the reality is, the Cavs were at their nearly unstoppable best when LeBron was running the show. Fortunately for the Bulls, Rose isn’t about to give up…no matter what the numbers say.
Said Rose: “It’s going to be a fun series. This is something I live for. I think about it every day, every minute of the day, playing against the best team in the NBA, one of the best players in the NBA. I can say I’m blessed to even be here, and it’s a dream come true. I’m loving that we’re playing against him.”
I’m not sure Luol Deng feels the same way.
However, I’m glad Derrick is maintaining an upbeat attitude. Part of carrying your team is leading by example, both physically and mentally. Rose is trying to do that.
Will it matter this year? It seems unlikely. Cleveland has so much talent. What’s more intimidating is the amount of motivation they have to use that talent.
Make no mistake, things got a little chippy in Game 1. Noah and Anderson Varejao were getting rough with each other. LeBron mixed it up with Brad Miller and exchanged words with Deng. And of course Miller ended up with a bloody face courtesy of a Shaq elbow.
Said Brad: “Just taking an elbow to the damn chin and bleeding. My foul. … It’s not the first one I’ve gotten from him. He’s still Shaq, but I tell all these guys all the time, you should have seen what he was like a few years ago. Every possession underneath, it was bang, bang.”
Rose agreed: “Definitely. We have to be totally opposite from last game. We weren’t aggressive on the defensive end. We have to have some type of swagger or nastiness about ourselves. We have to come out and start hitting people first — no ‘and ones’ and things like that.”
The Bulls certainly can’t out-talent the Cavaliers. But who knows? Maybe they can outfight them…at least for a game or two.
Noah on Cleveland: From the Associated Press: “I don’t know about Cleveland, man, there’s nothing going on,” Noah said when asked how he might spend the remainder of a chilly, cloudy day downtown. “It’s bad.”
Here’s a fun little tidbit from ESPN Stats and Information: “The Bulls were one of six teams to hold LeBron James to under 26 points per game in the regular season. One reason for LeBron’s low scoring output is the Bulls’ ability to defend him in isolation situations. LeBron was one of the league’s best isolation players in the regular season, running 661 isolation plays (2nd-most in the NBA) and averaging 0.97 points per play (11th highest in the NBA this season, minimum 150 plays). Despite LeBron’s success, he struggled against the Bulls this season, shooting 8-23 on isolations in three games. This did not improve [in Game 1].”
For the record, in Game 1, ‘Bron went 1-for-7 and committed a turnover on isos.
On Saturday, the Bulls open their first round playoff series against the Cavaliers in Cleveland.
Think about that. Say those words out loud. The Bulls are in the playoffs.
Feels kind of weird, doesn’t it? There were so many times early in the season and especally over the last month when a postseason berth seemed improbable…even nearly impossible. Especially when you consider all the things that went wrong — injuries, tantrums, trades, more injuries, infighting, etc. — as detailed in yesterday’s post.
But the team stuck together through all that adversity. And yet, going into these playoffs, Bulls fans have very few certainties. Those certainties, or semi-certainties, include:
1. Unless something miraculous happens, the Cavaliers — led by MVP-to-be LeBron James, who yesterday said, “It’s a different monster they’re going to be playing on Saturday” — will most likely make very short work of the Bulls. Cleveland is the best team in the league (based on wins and losses). Chicago is the worst team in the playoffs (again based on wins and losses). I probably don’t need to tell you how those situations usually end.
2. Unless something even more miraculous happens, Vinny Del Negro probably won’t be coaching the Bulls next season. Whatever the truth is — Vinny dismissed the report that he initiated physical contact with team VP John Paxson as “100 percent false” — Del Negro and Paxson seem to have irreconcilable differences. Those usually lead to a divorce of some kind. And let’s be honest, Vinny has been on shaky ground practically since Day 1.
In some ways, it’s a little unfair. As Jeff Van Gundy pointed out, the Bulls have overachieved under Del Negro. And as John Jackson of the Chicago Sun-Times noted, Vinny deserves a lot of credit for that. But although Del Negro hasn’t been as terrible as some of his critics have made him out to be, he’s a long way from being able to coach a potential contender. My guess is that Chicago management sees this team as a contender-in-waiting, assuming they pull off a major free agent acquisition this summer.
And if that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine Vinny returning. Even if whatever did or didn’t happen between him and Paxson never, uhm, happened.
3. This is the end of the Bulls as we know them.
I’m not trying to be dramatic. It’s just a fact. The only players under contract for next season are Derrick Rose, James Johnson, Joakim Noah, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. And if the Bulls could dump, say, Hinrich’s contract to improve their cap situation going into this summer’s free agent market, they’d probably do it.
Rose and Noah are the foundation of the team. Beyond that, anything is possible. The Bulls are going to be rebuilt over the summer. In the end, this season has been about developing Derrick, Joakim, and even Taj.
To that extent, the season was a success. Rose blossomed into an All-Star, Noah wasn’t far behind, and Gibson showed enough promise to convince the team to ditch Tyrus Thomas. And now those three players get to add some playoff experience to their growing resumes.
But where the team goes from here — after their playoff run ends — is anybody’s guess. But I’m done guessing for now. I just want to enjoy the playoffs…however long they last.
Think the Bulls’ emotional and spiritual leader is going to roll over and die in the face of LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers?
Said/screamed Noah: “We’re going to the playoffs. All this [expletive] and we’re going to the playoffs. Let’s go shock the world. … Now we’re playing the Cleveland Cavaliers. Everybody thinks we’re going to get our [behinds] whupped. And you know what, we’re going to try and shock the world. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s pretty cool I think.”
Just in case you needed an extra reminder that the Bulls have a pretty special kid on their hands, here’s a sweet little mix of Derrick Rose’s playoff highlights. Watching this got me seriously excited for next season. When does training camp start?