The Bulls nearly played a perfect game last night.
No, they didn’t shoot the ball well — 44 percent as a team, including 4-for-13 from three-point range — but they’ve been a limited offensive team all season. (And in some ways, “limited” is being generous.) However, the Bulls scrapped hard enough to make their fans proud.
Chicago reversed the script from Game 1 by taking care of the ball (only 4 turnovers), sharing the ball (25 assists), controlling the offensive boards (13-5), thriving off second-chance points (19), running out in transition (18 fast break points) and outscoring Cleveland 56-38 in the paint.
You think Joakim Noah was fired up for the game? Jo had game-highs in offensive rebounds (7) and total rebounds (13), not to mention a team-high 25 points on 10-for-18 from the field and 5-for-5 from the free throw line. Noah hit eight layups and two dunks. The dude was flat out awesome.
Derrick Rose had a co-game-high 8 assists to go along with his 23 points (although it took him 24 shots to score those points). Flip Murray scored 14 huge points off the Chicago bench. Taj Gibson almost had a double-double (11 points, 7 boards). And Luol Deng — despite his aches and pains — added 20 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and a blocked shot.
Make no mistake: Deng brought it last night. There were a few times when Luol ripped down a rebound like the fate of civilization depended on it. And there was another very telling sequence near the end of the first half. Deng had what looked like an easy layup swatted by LeBron. After James missed a three-pointer on the other end, Luol grabbed the rebound, sprinted down court and threw down what was, for him, a pretty viscious jam.
Considering his injury history, it’s somewhat understandable when Bulls fans question Deng’s desire. But they shouldn’t. He wants it. He’s not always healthy enough to make it happen, but he wants it. I have no doubt about that.
The bottom line is: The Bulls played very good basketball. And on most nights, the effort they gave would have been enough to beat almost any team in the league, including the Cavaliers.
Unfortunately, LeBron James ruined everything.
LeBron scored a game-high 40 points, including 15 in the pivotal fourth quarter. But what was most demoralizing is how he scored those points. You expect James to be magnificent around the basket, and he was, dunking the ball once and hitting all six of his layup attempts. This included a statement dunk on poor James Johnson and a spectacular up-and-under scooping layup on Noah.
After the game, LeBron conceded his dunk over Johnson was among his all-time best: “It definitely ranks up there. It’s one of the best ones.”
But like I said, you expect that.
What you — and, certainly, the Bulls — don’t expect is for LeBron to sizzle from the outside. During the regular season, James shot only 33 percent from downtown and had an Effective Field Goal Percentage of 43 percent on jump shots. Most people correctly believe the LeBron is the best player in the world, but if there’s a weakness in his game, it’s his outside shooting.
Of course, people said the same thing about Michael Jordan in 1992, and we all know how that turned out. I think Clyde Drexler is still recovering from that revelation.
Anyway, LeBron went 9-for-16 from outside and 2-for-4 from beyond the arc, including one ridiculous trey right in Noah’s face. It was so ridiculous, in fact, that Joakim returned to the scene of the crime after the game to investigate the distance from which James took the shot.
Said Noah: “That’s a long way. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
I’m not sure what else the Bulls could have done. What do you do about a hurricane? How do you stop an earthquake? You can’t exactly defend against an act of God, you know?
As for LeBron, he didn’t pull off any Jordan-like shrugs — although he did do a little dance after hitting that three on Noah — but he did address Chicago’s strategy of trying to force him to shoot: “They were telling me I can’t make jump shots. They asked me to shoot a jumper so I did that. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.”
Of course, like I was telling a friend after the game, superstars don’t really decide big games. I mean, LeBron is LeBron. He’s going to score his points, grab his rebounds, dish out his assists. Many times, it’s the role players who swing the outcome.
For example, it’s Jud Buechler shocking the world by going 2-for-2 from downtown in seven minutes off the bench during an intense elimination game. Or, in this case, it was Jamario Moon drilling three back-breaking three-pointers during the fourth quarter. Those threes doomed the Bulls as much as anything James did. I bet Vinny Del Negro is going to be seeing those shots in his dreams.
But there’s a bright side in all this. Despite their limiations, despite their underdog status (or perhaps because of it), the Bulls competed. They didn’t just make the game respectable. They competed. And if they play this way in the United Center, where hopefully LeBron won’t find the rims quite as friendly, maybe they can do what Noah said and shot the world.
Noah on Cleveland…again:
It’s safe to say Joakim’s not-so-fuzzy feelings about “The Mistake On The Lake” haven’t changed.
Joakim Noah, quote machine, Part I:
“We were real focused at the beginning and we played with poise,” Noah said. “It just came down to them hitting big shot after big shot. LeBron’s pretty good. He’s actually a very good player.”
Yeah. I’d say LeBron’s pretty good.
Joakim Noah, quote machine, Part II:
This one might explain Jo’s reluctance to shower praise on “King James.”
“LeBron’s hitting unbelievable shots,” Noah said. “Yes, it’s tough. But we’ve got to play them again, so I don’t want to be up here and give LeBron all this credit. Yeah, he played an unbelievable game. It’s tough right now. I hate to lose, so I’m a little frustrated by that. But we’ll be ready to go come Thursday.”
Courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information: “Entering Monday, LeBron James failed scored 30+ points against the Bulls and shot better than 50 percent in one of four meetings, including the playoffs. A key was the Bulls ability to contain LeBron on Isolation Plays. In the previous four games, they held him to 27 points on 37 plays or 0.73 points per play. His regular-season average vs all NBA teams on points per play was 0.97, which ranked 11th in the NBA. This all changed on Monday as LeBron dropped 40 on the Bulls, 26 of those 40 coming on Isolation Plays.”
Here are the numbers. ‘Bron ran 16 isos, going 11-for-14 (78 percent) and scoring 1.63 points per play with a scoring percentage of 75 percent. In this case:
Plays = Total number of FGA, TOs and trips to the free throw line (except for and-1s).
Scoring percentage = Percentage of plays where at least one point is scored (count of plays were one point or more was scored / total number of plays).
In other words: When LeBron wanted to score, he scored.