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.
Thus their shocking Game 3 victory.
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.”