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.
Okay, so let me get this straight: After struggling to beat the Michael Redd-less Milwaukee Bucks at home, the Bulls traveled to Cleveland and beat a healthy Cavaliers team that went 40-2 at home last season and features reigning MVP LeBron James and former MVP (and self-proclaimed Most Dominant Ever) Shaquille O’Neal. And, on the final play of the game, the referees swallowed their whistles when LeBron bull-charged his way to the hoop before running into Joakim Noah and losing the ball out of bounds. Really?!
Luol Deng and Noah provided the end-of-game defense on James. Of that last play, Noah said: “I didn’t feel like it was even close to being a foul. I wasn’t worried because there was no contact at all.”
I have to call shenanigans on that, Joakim. There was plenty of contact, much of it initiated by LeBron in the hopes of drawing the foul. But, after allowing James to partially knock Deng out of his way with a shoulder block, the officials overlooked a little body-to-body contact between the MVP and Chicago’s wild-haired center. Game over.
And what a game it was. It was a classic case of winning ugly…and I’m still not sure how the Bulls did it. If you check out the Four Factors of Winning — Effective Field Goal Percentage, Turnover Percentage, Offensive Rebounding Percentage and Free Throw Rate — Chicago actually lost this one:
I guess some the stats don't tell you everything...
And yet, despite the stats, Chicago won. It’s a mind-scrambler. The Bulls — who still haven’t shot as least 42 percent for a game this season — hit a mere 40.9 percent of their field goals, including 22-for-66 on jumpers and 3-for-10 on threes. On the bright side, they went 12-for-19 on layups. But, clearly, their shooting was nothing to write home about. Unless there’s somebody at home you don’t like.
Did the Bulls win this game on defense? Sort of, although they were aided and abbetted by some U-G-L-Y offensive by the Cavs. Cleveland shot 40.7 percent as a team. And, despite the fact that Shaq was 7-for-13 from the field, he may have been Chicago’s best defender. Why? Because the Big Space-Taker consistently clogged the paint, effectively cutting off the full-steam-ahead drives that are LeBron’s bread and butter on the offensive end. NBA historians might remember this is the same problem that dogged the late 1960s, early 1970s Los Angeles Lakers teams that featured Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. Note that the Lakers didn’t win a title until one of those guys departed (in this case Baylor, who retired right before the 1971-72 Lakers went on a 33-game winning streak).
A Total Team Effort:
While the Cavaliers were out-of-sync for most of the game, everybody on the Bulls chipped in. Deng shot poorly (6-for-16), but he led the team in scoring (15 points), added 7 rebounds, and played fantastic defense on LeBron (with help from Shaq and, later, Noah). Derrick Rose had his first double-double of the season (14 points, 11 assists), and he was on fire in the fourth quarter (10 points — including a pretty sweet floater with 1:44 left — and 5 assists). John Salmons scored 14. Noah led the team in rebounds (11). Rookie Taj Gibson, who still started at power forward despite Tyrus Thomas’ return, almost had a double-double of his own (11 points, 7 boards). Brad Miller (10 points, 2 steals) and Kirk Hinrich (9 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and one gash on the chin courtesy of LeBron) made big contributions off the bench. (And the slow-as-mud Miller beat the Cavs frontcourt off the dribble several times down the stretch.) A seemingly still-sick Thomas even logged 12 minutes, contributing 6 points, a rebound and a block.
And that’s the only way the Bulls are going to win this season: if everybody pitches in, every game, every night. As good as Rose is, he’s no LeBron. Chicago cannot be a one-man team.
Overlooked Stat of the Game, Part I:
The Cavaliers have Shaq in the middle. The Bulls have Joakim Noah. And yet, Chicago outscored Cleveland 38-36 in points in the paint. Again, many thanks to Shaq for helping deny LeBron several chances to take it strong to the cup.
Overlooked Stat of the Game, Part II:
In the final 1:02 — with the Cavaliers trailing by one point — Mo Williams got two shots (a missed three-pointer and a missed 10-footer) and LeBron got one (the final missed layup). Do the Cavaliers want Williams getting the crunch-time shots? Absolutely not. Do the Bulls? Absolutely.
LeBron’s Take on the Final Play:
“It’s a call you think you may get,” James said. “I felt a push from Deng and some contact over the top from Noah. Enough to put me on the free throw line? Yes. But that’s a judgment call for the officials.”
Noah’s Take on the Final No-Call:
TrueHoop Network: John Krolik of Cavs: the Blog: “As for the last play, there were 4 seconds left, and he went to his highest-percentage play: damn the torpedoes and make a hard, decisive drive. The real issue was that Noah was there waiting for him because we’d parked 320 pounds of a guy who can’t shoot or screen directly under the rim, and Hinrich made a nice rotation down to cut off that pass. Shaq shouldn’t be out there in those scenarios. Period. And no, there was no foul on that play-Noah was in perfect position, and LeBron tried to crash into him out of desperation. Not a pretty play, but at least it happens on November 5th. Get the bad ones done early, I suppose. Yeah, there’s the ticket.”
The Phoenix Suns want to dump Shaq. Or, more accurately, they want to rid themselves Shaq’s super-sized contract (worth $20 million in 2009-10). Times are tough, and, like many teams, they’d like to save a little money. Initially, the predominant rumor was Shaq to Cleveland. In return, Phoenix would receive the corpse of Ben Wallace, pine jockey Sasha Pavlovic and $10 million in salary and luxury tax savings. Then the Suns announced they wanted actual player value in return for The Big Tweeter, and new potential suitors emerged: The Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Hornets, Portland Trail Blazers and New York Knicks.
Oh, and the Chicago Bulls.
According to Bob Young of the Arizona Republic: “There also were rumors that O’Neal might be headed to Chicago in exchange for Luol Deng, Tim Thomas and at least one other player. The Bulls would want O’Neal so they could dump his contract at the end of next season and create cap space in 2010 to go after Dwyane Wade or some other member of that epic free-agent class. It seems unlikely, but Deng would appear to fit into the Suns style. And we can’t dismiss anything from Chicago, considering the relationships that Suns General Manager Steve Kerr has with Bulls General Manager John Paxson and coach Vinny Del Negro.”
Well, uh, wow. Like Young, I think this scenario seems pretty unlikely. League sources indicate that Shaq might be looking for a two-year contract extension in concert with any trade. That’s not going to happen in Chicago. (And if it did, I would celebrate by walking in front of a moving bus.) Still…the trade would be interesting. It would get Luol’s contract — which runs through 2014 and would cost the Bulls more than $60 million — off the books. Chicago would address their one glaring need — a big man who can score inside. Joakim Noah could move over to power forward (a better position for him). And O’Neal’s giant contract would expire in time for The Summer of LeBron’s Free Agency. Not that we’d get LeBron, mind you, but Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and various other players would be available.
Once concern I’d have would be the “and at least one other player” part. The Bulls really can’t afford to do a three-for-one swap, assuming all three are regular rotation players. Maybe the Suns would be willing to take a draft pick in return (preferably the 26th pick)? Jerome James maybe? (Ha!) It’s all speculation at this point. Stay tuned.
Phil Jackson won six NBA championships during his nine years as head coach of the Chicago Bulls. And yet many of his critics were always quick to point out — often with an almost sadistic glee — that his success was due as much (or more so) to luck than his coaching acumen. And by “luck” what they actually meant was “Michael Jordan.” (Or, in some cases, “Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.”)
Then Phil went to L.A. and immediately won another three championships in a row, bringing his total to nine, which tied him with the legendary Red Auerbach for most NBA titles won by a head coach. Rather than validating Phil in the eyes of his critics, it actually intensified the cynicism. At that point, the “luck” assessment was expanded to something along the lines of, “Yeah, well, anybody could win a championship with MJ and Scottie or Shaq and Kobe.”
It was like no coach had won with superstars before.
Now Phil has won a record-setting 10th NBA title. I think it’s safe to say all the winning is no fluke. Yes, Phil had an all-timer (Kobe Bryant), but Pau Gasol is no Shaq and Lamar Odom is certainly no Scottie Pippen. In fact, this is probably the worst squad — talent-wise — of Jackson’s 10 championship teams. But that fact won’t keep the ring off Phil’s finger.
So, what’s the secret of his success? Said Kobe: “I think it’s his ability to bring people together. The biggest thing that he does so well is he continues to coach the group, continues to coach unity and chemistry and togetherness. And that’s the biggest thing, because when you’re together you can withstand adversity. If you’re not, you can easily break apart and become a team of individuals. That’s his biggest characteristic of what he does well.”
Added Derek Fisher: “He doesn’t try to control you as a coach. He empowers you to be who you are. And if you want to be the best, and if you believe in your team and if you believe you can win a title, then this is what can happen. He doesn’t put himself in the way. He lets us do it. And this is the result.”
Now, the greatness that began here in the Windy City is locked in, historically speaking. So congratulations to Phil Jackson. I only wish that he could have coached all 10 of his titles here in Chicago.
One of the great constants of Shaq’s career — right up there with his habit of giving himself nicknames — has been an ongoing reluctance to say nice things about other big men. This is mostly because Shaq sees himself as “the CEO of centers in this league” and, as the reigning shogun, “the rest of the guys must go through the ninjas before they get to me.” Basically, he’s like the final boss of Ninja Gaiden.
So given that fact, I was mildly surprised that, while discussing a handful of other NBA centers, Shaq had a few reasonabaly kind words to say about his old sparring partner: “An undersized, but respectable center. He’s more like a Tim Duncan-type forward. He can step out and shoot the jumper. He will foul you hard and will not back down.” That’s how ginormous Shaq is: He considers a seven-foot, 260-pound man to be “undersized.” (For comparison’s sake, Dwight Howard is listed at 6’11″ and 265 pounds.)
But all kidding aside, that’s pretty high praise from Shaq. And it’s right on the money: Brad’s a skilled guy who plays hard and won’t back down. Not a bad guy to have coming off the bench (even if his contract is a wee bit bloated).
Allow me to state up front that I fully expected the Bulls to lose in Phoenix last night. In fact, I was so certain of the outcome that I wrote my lead-in for this post while on my way to T.G.I. Fridays to watch the game. Here, I’ll share it with you: “On Thursday night, the Suns lost a hotly contested game to their arch-nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs. They were bound to be angry. So, against that backdrop, the beating they administered to the Bulls really wasn’t that surprising. I mean, let me put it this way: If you were the Riddler, would you want to face Batman right after he got his butt kicked by the Joker? No, I didn’t think so.”
Good call, huh? I’m suddenly glad I didn’t place any bets on the Super Bowl. So what in the name of Lincoln’s wart happened? I suppose it’s possible I cast a wholly unintentional (though ultimately rewarding) stat curse on the Suns. But still, a 122-111 Bulls win was way outside the realm of my wildest imagination. Seriously, I would have been less surprised if Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster had gotten married by the Phoenix Gorilla during an elaborate but tasteful halftime ceremony.
Here’s the story: The Bulls scored a season-high in points while shooting 50 percent from the field, 47 percent from three-point range, and 90 percent from the line. They won the rebounding battle 42-35 (including 12 offensive boards, which led to a 14-2 advantage in second-chance points in the first half alone). They also forced 14 turnovers, which resulted in 19 extra points. Meanwhile, they committed only 9 turnovers (for 7 points) themselves. So, basically, they did everything a team needs to do to win on the road. Or at home. Or on the moon. Hustle. Execution. Success. In short, everything we’ve come to NOT expect from the 2008-09 Chicago Bulls. Go figure.
Just like in their game against the Kings, several Bulls got a chance to pad their stats. Ben Gordon and Derrick Rose both scored 26 points. Luol Deng had a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds). The Chicago reserves put up 39 points, led by Kirk Hinrich (15), Thabo Sefolosha (11) and Andres Nocioni (11). And Araron Gray added his obligatory 2 points and 4 fouls. So good times all around.
Rose, though, was semi-phenomenal…running, dunking, and hitting little floaters over The Big All-Star that Mke McGraw has dubbed the “Shaq in the box.” Sure, Rose hurt his foot and sat out the final 6:41, but his play impressed. And regarding his running one-handers over Shaq, Rose said: “I used to do that in Memphis. Shaq is a big person to shoot over, then there’s Amare (Stoudemire). I’m good with floaters, so that’s why I shot it. Last year, watching (college teammates) Chris Douglas-Roberts do it, I just got used to it.” Hey, whatever works, Derrick. And everything was working for the Bulls last night.
Make no mistake: This win was an historic event. For starters, it marked the first time that the Bulls have won three in a row since April 6, 2007. It was also the first time since 1996-97 that Chicago has swept the season series from Phoenix. After losing their season-high fifth straight game at Minnesota, the Bulls have won three straight games by more than 17 points per contest…all on the road. I know. It makes no sense. Speaking of which: The Bulls have won nine of their last 10 games against teams that are above .500. That’s quite an accomplishment for a group that’s only 21-27 this season.
Meanwhile, the Suns are on the bad side of history. They’ve lost two straight and seven of their last 10 games. They’ve dropped three in a row at home for the first time this season. Worse yet, the loss gave them their first losing month since April 2004. And it’s sort of a mystery as to what happened to them. I mean, Phoenix shot 52 percent as a team. Leandro Barbosa scored a season-high 32 points. Steve Nash had 15 points and 10 assists. Shaq contributed 18 and 8 before fouling out. Grant Hill chipped in with 19 points, 5 boards and 5 assists.
But in the end, the Suns simply got out-worked by a Bulls team that wanted it more than they did. And Phoenix coach Terry Porter was left to ponder his team’s low-energy output: “We talked about coming out and having energy and setting a tone, but we just didn’t do it. At times, we just allowed those guys to keep building confidence, confidence and confidence. It was a disappointing loss for us.”
One team’s disappointment is another team’s success. Regardless of what happens in the next three games of this seven-game road trip, the Bulls just might have the chance to turn a season dubbed a “disaster” and “embarrassing” into something special.