Bulls

Bulls-Cavaliers: Who's got the edge?

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Bulls-Cavaliers: Who's got the edge?

We're just hours away from the start of Bulls vs. LeBron IV.

And before the second round playoff series begins, we're taking a look at each area of the game to see which team has the edge.

Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill has the Bulls analysis, with Bulls Talk producer Mark Strotman handling Cleveland.

Backcourt

Cavaliers: Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I don't believe Kyrie Irving's playoff inexperience is much of an issue. This is a star who has been in the national spotlight all year long and performed admirably. He was the MVP of the FIBA championships this summer, he has an All-Star Game MVP to his name and had a target on his back all year. There isn't going to be a stage too big for the 23-year-old, including a semifinals series against the Bulls that's going to feel more like a 12-round boxing match. The issue, of course, is he'll have to hold the fort down without J.R. Smith for two games. Iman Shumpert will see an uptick in minutes, and he showed some glimpses in Game 4 against the Celtics, going for 15 points and 10 rebounds after Smith was ejected and Kelly Olynyk went Ronda Rousey on Kevin Love's arm. When Smith returns, the Cavs backcourt will comprise two starters who combined to make better than 40 percent of their 3s this season. And while Smith won't be directly paired up with Jimmy Butler (can't wait for the LeBron-Jimmy showdown) he and Irving have the firepower to match the Bulls backcourt, even if they aren't relied on as much as the Chicago guards. This could be the series that propels Irving to super stardom.

Bulls: It depends on which Bulls backcourt shows up in the series, although the Bulls feel pretty confident in having an edge—if LeBron James doesn’t decide to play point guard. But if Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler combine to shoot 10-for-41 like they did in Game 5 against the Bucks, it doesn’t matter what they do in any other facet of the game because the Bulls will be going home. But one suspects they’ll have their share of shots and opportunities because the Cavs don’t have two perimeter stoppers. Rose’s 26 turnovers in the first round are a bit of a concern, but the fact he’s only played 10 games means the longer the first-round stretched out the better it was for him to shake the rust off. Rose and Butler’s versatility can twist the Cavaliers’ team defense into a pretzel, and force Cleveland to making matchup adjustments it doesn’t want. Aaron Brooks has a place in this series, unlike the first round. They have to find a way to get him on the floor with Rose and possibly Butler at the same time. That opens things more up for Butler to roam on the perimeter off the ball, getting him to score in different ways without having to stress himself as a ball handler—if he isn’t burning himself out guarding LeBron.

Edge: Bulls. Even if Irving goes off, the Cavs don't have enough perimeter defense to slow down the tandem of Rose and Butler.

[MORE BULLS: NBA Executives predict the Bulls-Cavs series]

Frontcourt

Cavaliers: With Love sidelined, the x-factor in this series becomes Tristan Thompson. In 15 games as a starter he averaged 12.6 points on 55 percent shooting, 9.7 rebounds and nearly a block in nearly 37 minutes per game. Further, he averaged 9.3 rebounds per game, including 22 offensive rebounds, in four games against the Bulls. He'll be relied upon heavily on the glass, with Joakim Noah sure to make him work for every board. Timofey Mozgov absolutely bullied Pau Gasol in three games (13.3 points, 11.3 rebounds), but after a quiet first round I have a feeling Gasol wants to remind people he was an All-Star starter and has two rings in his trophy case. Then there's LeBron James. It almost feels like whatever advantage the Bulls have in this series, one could rebut, "but Cleveland has LeBron" and have a solid point. Make no mistake: the two-time NBA champ gets up just a little bit more for these series against Noah and the Bulls. 2015 will be no different. The difference this time around may be that James sees additional time at the 4, much like he did later in his tenure with Miami. Whether he's able to sustain that physicality inside for seven games remains to be seen, but I wouldn't bet against him.

Bulls: The name I keep hearing from league executives concerning this series is Taj Gibson. If he’s healthy and active, he’ll be depended on to do everything, from guarding LeBron James to trying to keep Thompson away from the offensive glass. Milwaukee revealed the blueprint for possibly taking Pau Gasol out of the offensive plan with hard double teams, although its unique personnel makes it a bit difficult to duplicate. This series will test whether Gasol can sustain a high level of play after carrying the Bulls for stretches to close the regular season. Joakim Noah has to make the Cavaliers at least think about him on offense, and he may find himself unwillingly chasing around perimeter players when Cleveland goes small. One has to wonder if the Cavaliers’ small ball takes Nikola Mirotic out of this series because he would struggle covering their wings, but he’s too valuable to keep on the bench, assuming he’s completely recovered from his knee injury. Mike Dunleavy is the one shooter the Bulls can rely on, hitting nearly 55 percent from 3 against the Bucks and he’ll likely get a similar number of open shots this go around. Tony Snell will possibly see some time guarding James if Thibs wants to give Butler a rest on defense, but he’ll have to make the perimeter jumper to stay on the floor. Hitting 35 percent, as he did in inconsistent run against the Bucks, won’t cut it.

Edge: Cavaliers. Though they'll be shorthanded in the department, James won a pair of championships playing power forward. But watch out for Gibson in Round 2.

[MORE BULLS: Bulls get another 'best chance' to beat LeBron James]

Bench

Cavaliers: With two starters on the sidelines, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert are expected to enter the starting lineup. That's not a terrible drop-off with the starting unit, but it makes a woefully thin bench that ranked last in the NBA in points per game even thinner. One of Mike Miller, James Jones and Shawn Marion will need to step up, while Kendrick Perkins must provide some stability after he returns from a Game 1 suspension. Shumpert is going to loom large all series. With his ability to defend both guard positions he could log major minutes, especially if the Cavs go small ball with James at the 4. In the regular season the Cavaliers defense was nearly 7 points per 100 possessions better with Shumpert on the floor. That Cavs bench isn't going to score with the Bulls second unit, but if they can lock down defensively and play even it'll give them a chance while James and Irving get some rest.

Bulls: The Bulls are deeper here and more dependable, while the Cavaliers are a top-heavy bunch. Mirotic, Gibson and Brooks have to receive the opportunities to have an effect on this series, although benches traditionally shorten during the playoffs. Brooks will be absolutely crucial here and it cannot be stated enough, as he can run circles around Kyrie Irving and anyone who takes up a few extra minutes at point guard. That’s the one way the Bulls can force the Cavaliers to switch their personnel when they go small, because he can stretch their defense in the same ways they plan to stress Chicago’s. If they can maintain health, it could be the very reason they emerge in Games 3 and 4 back at home

Edge: Bulls. Even before the injuries and suspensions this was the Bulls' category to lose. Now? It's not close.

[MORE BULLS: Jimmy Butler faced with task of slowing down LeBron James]

Coaching

Cavaliers: David Blatt faced a talented Brad Stevens in the first round and swept the series, but we'll simply chalk that up to player personnel being in Cleveland's massive favor. Now, not only does Blatt face an uphill battle against one of the league's most experienced playoff coaches, he'll have to do so without his third best player. How Blatt manages his rotations and who he decides to plug in without Love in the fold could make all the difference in the series. I do expect James to see most of his time at the 4, but then Blatt will have to figure out who to plug in at the 3. He's got to find a way to get productive minutes out of Perkins, and get some sort of production from the aforementioned wings (Miller, Jones, Marion) who haven't been asked to do much of anything significant all year. One advantage, as always, is Blatt has the game's smartest player on side. Still, he's got plenty of decisions to make.

Bulls: Here’s where Tom Thibodeau can shake the “stubborn” label, because the Cavaliers’ ever-changing lineups will have to force Thibs to be flexible. Perhaps the Bucks weren’t talented enough to force Thibs to truly switch it up, but moving LeBron James to power forward for long stretches will test Thibodeau’s ability to match up with an opponent by going small when his advantage is playing big. Going against a novice in Blatt will give him an assumed edge he’ll be expected to exploit. Finding a place for Noah and Gasol in the lineup, let alone Mirotic, when the Cavaliers go small, could turn Thibs into Houdini because it’s looking like a high-stakes game of chicken. Will he go exotic and put Gibson on James, or Snell, to give Jimmy Butler a breather every now and then? If he can create some combinations that places extra pressure on a team that’s already adjusting on the fly, especially in the first two games on the road…?

Edge: Bulls. Blatt's going to earn his money this series, while Thibodeau has perfected his rotation for just about every conceivable scenario.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans!]

Intangibles

Cavaliers: Your team is always the favorite in the playoffs when LeBron James is leading the way, as the four-time MVP seemingly always elevates his play on the game's biggest stage. And while this group hasn't done it, James has knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs each of the three times they've met. That intangible alone - as well as having home-court advantage - must have the Cavaliers feeling good about their chances. Everything has broken the Bulls' way leading up to Game 1, but until the Bulls find a way to knock off James' team they should feel good about the series. Plus, with Love and Smith sidelined it almost feels like the Cavs are now the underdogs in a way, which could help relieve some of the pressure they'll feel when the series begins.

Bulls: If not now, when? At some point, you have to get tired of seeing the same man knock you out of the playoffs year after year. The Cavaliers are presumably still figuring themselves out, and most feel they’re a juggernaut in the making. But if they’re still learning, the Bulls have to figure they’re the best teachers for a hard playoff lesson. How long will Gibson stay healthy? Can you count on Gasol to play at this level for years to come? And Rose’s long-term health is always a question mark, although one can see how much this run means to him. If they feel it’s their last best chance at something significant, they’d better throw everything into it. And they’re healthy, unlike the Cavs. Again, if not now, when?

Edge: Cavaliers. Just a kid from Akron > Just a kid from Chicago. James has sent the Bulls home packing three of the last five seasons. Until he's on his couch watching, having the best player in the world on your side is an advantage.

Lauri Markkanen's struggles are a daily storyline, but the solve isn't simple

Lauri Markkanen's struggles are a daily storyline, but the solve isn't simple

MILWAUKEE — When Thad Young played for the Pacers, this was, according to Young, that team’s scouting report on Lauri Markkanen:

“He’s a guy who can score in different levels of the game. He can shoot the midrange. He can take you off the dribble and do his hanging fade to get his shot off. Or he can step behind the line and tee up some 3s,” Young said. “So we tried to keep him seeing bodies so he wouldn’t take the ball from one side to the other.”

Markkanen’s struggles — and the Bulls’ usage of him — is becoming an almost daily storyline. It certainly dominated Monday’s postgame questioning after the Bulls dropped to 1-18 versus winning teams with a 111-98 loss to the Bucks.

For the second time in three games, Markkanen failed to score in the second half. Seven of his 11 attempts came from 3-point range — all of which he missed. His eight points came from two putbacks and four free throws.

That’s it.

“He missed some shots he normally makes. That happens,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I thought he was moving well. He had a couple great cuts to the basket, opportunities at the rim. That’s what we want from him — inside, outside.”

But that’s not happening enough. Fifty-three percent of Markkanen’s attempts this season have been 3-pointers. That’s up 11.5 percent from last season and 4.1 percent from his rookie season.

Too often, Markkanen is being relegated to playing as a stationary, 3-point shooter and not the dynamic, multifaceted scorer for whom Young’s Pacers teams prepared.

“Yeah, I think I can do a lot of good things besides just shoot threes,’’ Markkanen said. “Haven’t really been able to do that lately. Just have to figure out the way I can attack the rim more and get to the free-throw line. I need to figure out my spots.”

This is not meant to fully absolve Markkanen, who has indeed missed open looks consistently this season. For the second straight game, Markkanen joked about how Boylen called a play for him on the first possession, only for Markkanen to turn it over.

Markkanen also again acknowledged the sore left ankle he is playing through as he tries to reach his well documented goal of playing all 82 games. Markkanen called the ankle “not normal but getting there” and also shook off banging knees with Donte DiVincenzo that left him running hobbled for a few possessions.

Markkanen said he has no problem talking to Boylen about his usage and, as is his nature, looked inward.

“We’ve talked about it. He ran some plays for me. I turned it over. He does run some stuff for me. I just have to make the plays,” he said. “If you shoot the ball like [I have], you don’t really deserve touches. Can’t really complain.

“When you’re feeling it and actually making shots, it would be good to get closer to the rim and kind of keep it going. A lot of our plays I screen and pop.’’

The Bulls tied their franchise record with 48 3-point attempts. Boylen said that was the gameplan since opponents averaged 40 3-point attempts and 17.5 makes in the Bucks’ mere six losses.

Never mind that even if the Bulls hadn’t gone ice cold in the second half to finish with 14 makes that adding 3.5 more makes would’ve still left them on the losing end. The Markkanen problem is bigger than a math problem.

“I think the system complements him to the point where he has a lot of freedom to do different things,” Young said. “If he’s open, he takes a 3. If he’s not, he tries to make a play. He’s doing the best he can, just like me and any other guy on this roster. He has to continue to believe in what we’re doing.”

Markkanen now has nine single-digit scoring games after posting just four last season. He has nine 20-point games after registering 22 last season.

This is a huge season for Markkanen not only because his success is tied into the success of the Bulls’ rebuild but also because he’ll be eligible for an extension of his rookie contract following this season.

“I know he’s going to work. And he cares. He has high character,” Boylen said. “I believe in him. And our team believes in him.”

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Four observations: Bulls tie franchise record for 3-point attempts, fall to Bucks

Four observations: Bulls tie franchise record for 3-point attempts, fall to Bucks

The Bulls dropped their season series with the Milwaukee Bucks 4-0 with a 111-98 road loss on Monday. Observations from a familiar-feeling defeat:

Kris Dunn is unafraid

Bulls’ opponents have recently begun to aggressively sag off Kris Dunn when set, routinely leaving him with oceans of space to operate with behind the 3-point arc.

But that hasn’t deterred Dunn from continuing to chuck. In January, his 3-point attempts per game is up to three (he had been hoisting 2.1 per contest in the first two months of the season). Today, he took three in the first quarter alone and finished the night 3-for-5 from deep, bringing his January 3-point percentage up to 34.3%, though that figure is skewed by tonight's performance.

Still, when smart, lengthy teams like Milwaukee employ this strategy to clog driving lanes, it throws a real wrench in a Bulls halfcourt offense already prone to stagnation. Zach LaVine suffered the most from it today. He didn’t score until hitting a 27-footer at the 2:02 mark of the first, missing all three of his prior attempts in heavy traffic in the paint. Dunn checked out on the next possession, and LaVine ended the period with 10 points. But the team’s spacing was off all game.

Turnovers and jump-shots kept the Bulls in it, but not forever

That LaVine spurt spurred the Bulls to a sharp-shooting first half, at least from deep. After starting 3-for-9 from long range, the visitors entered the break at 9-for-22 (40.9%), and also parlayed 15 Bucks turnovers into 19 points.

But their inefficiency inside the arc (9-for-24 in the paint in the first half) served as an omen. In a stretch that recalled these teams’ last meeting in Chicago, the Bucks sprinted out to a 17-4 run in the first four-and-a-half minutes of the third, shooting 7-for-10 to the Bulls 2-for-9 (0-for-5 from three). Déjà vu all over again.

The Bulls did claw their way back and trailed only 84-77 entering the fourth, and it was 3-ball that resuscitated them. They shot 4-for-9 from deep in the latter part of the period, and also converted seven of seven attempts from the free throw line. But the Bulls never got closer than nine after the Bucks’ first bucket of the fourth quarter. They finished the game 14-for-48 (29.2%) from three, 20-for-44 (45.4%) from two and 37% from the field. The Bucks outrebounded them 49-39 and outscored them 60-38 in the paint.

"In [the Bucks'] six losses, teams have shot an average of 40 threes and made 17.5. We were on pace to do that in the first half," Jim Boylen said after the game. "Second half we didn't shoot it as well, we ended up making 14. So, that was pretty much our gameplan... I think our gameplan to play against them was solid, we just needed to make a few more of those open shots we had."

The defense was good enough to loosely hang around, forcing 23 turnovers by game’s end. But the Bucks’ paint-packing, hard closeout strategy worked to perfection — the Bulls missed some open looks, but the Bucks also forced a bunch of tough ones.

Fourty-eight 3-point attempts ties the Bulls’ franchise high for a game with the famed 4OT bout with the Hawks last season. Three of the Bulls’ six highest 3-point attempt games have come against the Bucks this season.

A step back for Lauri Markkanen

To be fair, no Bull outside of Thad Young (4-for-8 from three), LaVine (24 points, 8-for-9 from free throw line) and Dunn finished with stat lines that approached being positive. Still, Markkanen’s 8 points on 2-for-11 (0-for-7 from three) shooting was a regression from a solid 17 point outing against the Cavaliers on Saturday.

"He's okay, he's just working his way through it, he's just fighting," Boylen said when asked to assess Markkanen's confidence level. "He missed some shots that we know he can make. That happens."

All eight of Markkanen’s points came in the first half. He logged 15 minutes in the final two quarters, missing all five of his shots. Four of them were 3-point attempts. Markkanen has now gone scoreless in the second half of two of the Bulls' last three games.

"When you're feeling it and actually making shots it would be good to get closer to the rim and kind of keep it going," Markkanen said. "A lot of our plays I screen-and-pop, so maybe get to the rim. But most of the time, I'm pretty good."

"I think I can do a lot of things, not just shoot threes, but obviously haven't been able to do that lately," he added. "So just gotta figure out the ways that I can actually attack the rim more and get to the free throw line. So, I need to figure out my spots."

The intent that the Bulls had in getting Markkanen involved against Cleveland wasn’t there today, and he can do more to assert himself, as well.

"I know he's gonna work, and he cares, and he's got high character and I believe in him. And our team believes in him," Boylen said.

Another reality check

Not much to lament here. The Bucks aren’t just a better team, they’re the best team in the league — potentially historically so. Antetokounmpo had a relatively quiet 28 point, 14 rebound, 10 assist triple-double, despite going 3-for-9 from the foul line and committing eight turnovers. Khris Middleton was 10-for-13 from the field and Kyle Korver poured in an impactful 12 points on 5-for-5.

"They've got a star player. They can beat you from the 3-point line, they can beat you free throw line and they can beat you defensively when they don't have a night when their scoring," Boylen said. "That's what championship-caliber teams look like."

The Bulls are now 1-18 against teams above-.500 and 3-8 in the month of January. Back home for Minnesota on Wednesday.

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