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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.