Tuesday, April 20, 2010
By Mark Schanowski
Kind of an empty feeling after watching Game 2 in Cleveland. The Bulls played about as well as they possibly can, tying an NBA Playoff record with only 4 turnovers, and they still wound up losing by 10 points. So, with the series heading back to Chicago for the next 2 games, are you encouraged or discouraged? Can the Bulls win a game in this series, or like Jordan, will LeBron find a way to steal every game in the 4th quarter? Feel free to post your opinions and predictions in the comments section below.
If you're looking for reasons to be optimistic, it's pretty unlikely the Cavs will match their shooting from Game 2 during the upcoming games at the United Center. Cleveland shot 56 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3 point range and 92 percent from the free throw line. They had a journeyman role player named Jamario Moon hit 4 of 5 three point attempts, 3 of them in the 4th quarter when the home team took control. They also got big contributions from bench players Delonte West and Anderson Varejao. Generally, role players perform a lot better at home than they do on the road. So, you wouldn't expect Moon, West and Varejao to be big factors in the next 2 games. But Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry has done a nice job of assembling talent around James, and now Cleveland has one of the deepest rosters in the league. 2nd year forward J.J. Hickson was a starter for much of the season, but now he's not even in the rotation. With the addition of Antawn Jamison, and the return of the guy they traded to get him, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland now has a deep and talented frontcourt that allows Mike Brown the option of rotating Shaq, Big Z and Varejao in any way he see fit. The Bulls just can't match Cleveland's size up front, even when they play Joakim Noah and Brad Miller together.
So far in the series, the Cavs have been able to get just about anything they want in their halfcourt offense, And when all else fails, they can always give the ball to LeBron to create his own shot. That's the beauty of having a superstar in your line-up. The Bulls had it for so many years with Jordan, and maybe one day Derrick Rose will start to get the favorable calls from the officials reserved for the game's biggest stars. But for now, James gives the Cavs a big advantage in any close game they're in. He can shoot over any defender, and get to the rim anytime he wants. If you try to get physical with him, he'll either drive past you or initiate contact to get to the free throw line. And, just ask Bulls' rookie James Johnson about getting off-balance trying to guard LeBron. You could wind up on a poster that will be a hot seller in the city of Cleveland.
The Bulls really don't have a lot of options in trying to defend James. Luol Deng isn't physical enough to body LeBron, and he's lost some of his lateral quickness because of nagging knee and calf injuries. Kirk Hinrich is too short, so LeBron can just shoot right over the top of him. Johnson doesn't have enough experience and tends to overreact to any fake. Vinny Del Negro seems to have lost faith in Hakim Warrick, but he's really not strong enough to keep James from backing into the paint for easy shots. So, about all the Bulls' coaches can do right now is send double teams from different spots on the court to try to disrupt James' rhythm. LeBron is a willing passer, and double teaming him will undoubtedly lead to open shots from guys like Jamison and Anthony Parker. But at this point, James has made it obvious he's capable of winning games by himself in the 4th quarter, so the only chance for the Bulls is to try to take the ball out of LeBron's hands, and hope the other Cavs aren't hitting a high percentage of their shots.
Offensively, the Bulls did a much better job of attacking the basket in Game 2. Deng scored 20 points and showed a willingness to drive to the hoop. The big question about Luol is how strong will he be physically after bumping knees with James late in the game? Noah piled up 25 points and 13 rebounds, Taj Gibson had 11 points and 7 rebounds and Flip Murray chipped in 14 points off the bench. The Bulls aren't intimidated by Cleveland's defense, and they should be able to get some easy baskets inside with Rose penetrating and dishing to open big men. The key in Game 3 will be getting off to a fast start, and putting some doubt in the minds of the Cleveland players. The Cavs fully expect to sweep the Bulls in round 1, and they will have supreme confidence if the game stays close since 23 is on their side. The Bulls need to take advantage of the energy they should get from the home crowd and run out to an early lead. Maybe then some of Cleveland's role players will start forcing bad shots, and LeBron won't be able to save the Cavs in the end.
Defense will be the key for the Bulls. They can't allow Cleveland to shoot a high percentage from the field like they did in Game 2. The rotations have to be crisp and the Bulls' perimeter guys have to get out to the three point line to prevent Mo Williams, Parker and Moon from hitting big shots. And if Shaq becomes a factor inside, Vinny needs to mix in a little zone defense to make it harder for the big man to operate. You hate to say the Bulls will have to play a perfect game to win, but that's the situation they find themselves in right now. Cleveland is more talented, deeper, and they have the best finisher in the game. It's hard to say if any lead is big enough to keep James from working his late game magic.
LeBron is in his 7th NBA season right now, the same point that Jordan was when he won his first NBA title. No doubt Cleveland will face some tough series down the line with possible match-ups looming against Orlando and the Lakers, but James has the look of a champion right now, and I'll be surprised if he isn't clutching that gold trophy in mid-June. And once LeBron gets that championship feeling, it's hard to picture him leaving Cleveland to go to another team in free agency and start over. This summer's long-awaited free agent derby could turn out to be a big disappointment if James and Dwyane Wade wind up staying with their current teams, but that's the way it looks right now. The Bulls will pursue All-Star caliber players like Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer and Amar'e Stoudemire, but the only real franchise-changers are James and Wade. Just like we saw during the Jordan era, it's amazing what impact a dominant player like James can have, making every other player on the team a little more confident. Only time will tell if LeBron comes close to the run of success Michael enjoyed with the Bulls.
Don't forget you can watch Game 3 on Comcast SportsNet Thursday night at 6 o'clock. Bulls Pre-Game live sets the table at 5:30, and we'll have expanded post-game coverage on Bulls Postgame Live and CSNChicago.com. I'll be talking to you from the United Center on Thursday! You can also watch the game live on CSNChicago.com!
Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre- and postgame studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite, Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.