Bulls

3 unsung keys to the Bulls' Game 1 victory over the Cavs

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3 unsung keys to the Bulls' Game 1 victory over the Cavs

The Bulls knocked off the Cavaliers, 99-92, in Game 1 to take back home court advantage in their best-of-seven series with the Eastern Conference favorites.

Here are three keys that may have gone unnoticed but led to that crucial victory:

Mike Dunleavy: Mike Dunleavy had to be the most difficult “Where’s Waldo” piece ever, because the Cavaliers couldn’t find him early at all. He came in shooting 55 percent from 3-point range and upped that percentage against a porous Cavs perimeter defense, hitting three of four and scoring 13 of the Bulls’ 27 first-quarter points.

Considering the Bulls had slow starts headed into Game 6 of the Bucks series, there was genuine concern if they could muster the requisite offense to match the expected production of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

[RELATED: Rose rises to the occasion, leads Bulls to Game 1 win]

Dunleavy did it himself, allowing Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose to work themselves into the game against a loose defense and a Cavs team that seemed quite unsure of the overall game plan.

Getting off to that 10-2 start was more than enough to quell every nervous tick in the Bulls’ psyche.

Controlling Tristan Thompson: One of the league’s most devastating offensive rebounders had very little effect on that end, and it wasn’t for lack of opportunities as the Cavaliers shot 42 percent from the field. Tristan Thompson found himself being face-guarded by Taj Gibson or Pau Gasol or Joakim Noah whenever a shot went up, as the Bulls were more than cognizant of the second shots Thompson creates.

He finished with three offensive rebounds but the Cavaliers finished with only 11, negating an advantage that was evident in the regular season when Thompson grabbed 12 offensive rebounds in an overtime win in Chicago in the opening days of the season.

[MORE: Bulls vs. Cavs -- Who's got the edge?]

“He’s probably as good as it gets in terms of going to the boards, and sometimes it requires more than one (guy),” Tom Thibodeau said. “He’s physical. We’ve got to make sure we keep a body on him. Sometimes you do that and he still manages to get to it.”

Clank, clank, clank: The Bulls held the Cavaliers to just 27 percent shooting from 3-point range, as they limited the open shots created by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to a minimum aside from Iman Shumpert. Irving and James shot under 50 percent, and combined to go 1-for-8 from 3-point range themselves. They truly miss Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, as Smith will be back for Game 3 in Chicago. Shumpert hit four of 10 triples, many of them contested and momentum-changing. But the Cavaliers’ other guys couldn’t take advantage of the chances they were given, leading to the Game 1 win.

Bulls observations: Bulls blow lead, but grind out win against Timberwolves

Bulls observations: Bulls blow lead, but grind out win against Timberwolves

Though it wasn't the romp it appeared it would be early, the Bulls ground the Timberwolves out down the stretch, winning 117-110. Observations:

More trouble out of halves

The Bulls played their game to a tee for most of the early going. Or the Timberwolves were really bad. At times, it was difficult to tell.

Regardless, Minnesota committed 12 turnovers in the first half, off which the Bulls scored 15 points, and allowed the Bulls a 38-16 advantage on points in the paint at the break. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting (3-for-3 from deep), but none of his teammates had much juice.

Still, an, at one time, 19-point first half lead shrank to seven when Zach LaVine was whistled for a ticky tack 3-shot foul on Shabazz Napier at the second quarter buzzer. 

Towns was then forced out of the game after picking up his fourth personal (a shooting foul on LaVine) with 8:55 left in the third quarter. After LaVine’s ensuing free throws, the Bulls led 64-56, and it appeared would have a chance to reassert themselves.

The Wolves — even sans Towns — had different plans. Over approximately the next three game minutes, the visitors staged a 13-4 run to seize their first lead since the first quarter. Going into the fourth, the Bulls led, but only 81-79.

Teamwork made the dream work

The Bulls got contributions all around in this one. Luke Kornet poured in 15 and Cristiano Felicio (!) logged a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds (seven offensive) — neither offered a ton of resistance against Towns, but Felicio ran the floor hard and drew some good-natured cheers from the UC crowd with his six points early in the fourth. Chandler Hutchison played big minutes again and swiped three steals, and Coby White chipped in 12 impactful points.

It was an especially encouraging outing for Lauri Markkanen. He began assertive, notching 10 first-half points and four rebounds, while moving downhill better than he has in a long while. Then, in the fourth, he canned a handful of big shots when the Bulls needed them. He finished with 21 on 14 shots (still probably not enough, but won’t harp tonight). That consistency from the first and the second half hasn’t been there, and is a nice development.

The Bulls closed with a sequence of seldom-used lineups, heavily featuring an uber-small unit of Tomas Satoransky, Coby White, Kris Dunn (14 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals), Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Boylen has tried out a couple different combinations down the stretch recently with options limited.

And of course, LaVine grabbed the reins late. Even on a night that wasn’t his finest (8-for-18 shooting), he finished with 25 points. Five of those were in the last minute-and-a-half, which pushed the Bulls over the top for good. The Bulls are now 4-2 when he and Markkanen both score over 20 points.

No answer for Towns

Another skilled, bruising big roughed up the Bulls. Even without playing much of the third quarter (he ended the night with 31 minutes), Towns finished with 40 points on 16-for-24 shooting, 16 of those points coming in the fourth quarter. Whatever he wanted, he pretty much got. 

What pushed the Wolves so close to a monumental comeback, though, was his teammates waking up. Andrew Wiggins answered an ugly three-point, 1-for-4 shooting, four-turnover first half with 22 in the second. Napier’s energy was also key to sparking their aforementioned third quarter run.

But the shooting shut off late. The Wolves entered the fourth 41.9% from deep, but hit only 2 of 13 long-balls in the fourth. The Bulls ground them down, shooting 37 free throws and outrebounding them 50-43, and ended up with a much-needed (albeit much-too-close) victory.

We’ll stay right here in Chicago for a struggling Kings squad this Friday.

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: What is wrong with Lauri Markkanen?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: What is wrong with Lauri Markkanen?

David Schuster, Mark Carman and Mark Potash join Laurence Holmes from the United Center.

0:00 - What is wrong with Lauri Markkanen? The guys discuss how he can find his shot again and what current NBA star he should be playing like?

8:40 - Zach LaVine is on fire of late. Has he done enough to be selected for next month's All-Star Game?

10:40 - Zion Williamson finally makes his NBA debut tonight. What should we expect from the No. 1 overall pick for the rest of the season?

13:00 - Eli Manning announces his retirement from the NFL. So what is his legacy? Will he eventually end up in Canton?

18:00 - Patrick Mahomes has led the Chiefs to the Super Bowl. Could he eventually become the greatest QB ever?

20:00 - The guys react to Joel Quenneville's return to the United Center and the crowd's reaction to the three-time Cup-winning head coach.

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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