MILWAUKEE—This is what Joakim Noah wanted, a trip to Cleveland.
It’s what the NBA likely wanted, and for once there will be no outside accusations of league manipulation in terms of making sure Bulls and Cavs happened.
The two teams who love to hate each other in the East, in a matchup that seemed preordained from the moment LeBron James announced he was taking his talents back to Ohio and reinforced once James the executive pulled off some roster-changing moves to ensure the Cavaliers would have a championship-ready roster moves, bringing in Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert via trade.
“You know what? I never thought I'd say this, but I'm very excited to go to Cleveland."
Of course that was Noah, who found his game at the right time in Game 6 against the scrappy, pushy Milwaukee Bucks with 11 points and 10 rebounds, giving credit to assistant coach Ed Pinckney for the work they put in during the two days leading to Game 6.
By the time halftime rolled around in Milwaukee, you can bet the Bulls’ thoughts shifted to Cleveland and the inevitability of said matchup. They can drop the niceties about not thinking about the Cavaliers, and focusing solely on the team in front of them.
After Game 6, they sounded like they had a full scouting report on their rivals, starting with the absence of Kevin Love—whose shoulder injury will cause him to miss the entire series, leading many to believe the Bulls and Cavaliers are now even, despite the Bulls’ struggles with the Bucks in round one.
“It's a little different when you take the range shooting 4 out,” Derrick Rose said. “You don't know what they're gonna do or what sets they're gonna (run) or strategy they're gonna have. It's gonna take going up there and playing them. When you don't have a player like Kevin Love, it's something to worry about a little bit.”
After two shaky games and a shaky finish to Game 4 where he let Jerryd Bayless sneak behind him for a game-winning layup, Rose is back staring down that old nemesis who always seems to be in his way in James.
James is the main reason the Bulls can’t play the “we took them too lightly” card that seemed to be within reach during their slip-ups against the Bucks. When a man puts you out of the playoffs seemingly every other year, you can’t forget him, you can’t avoid him.
James averaged 28.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists in four games against the Bulls this season, so whatever slippage people think exists with James in his 12th season, it doesn’t show on the stat sheet.
“Just make it hard on him. I'm not gonna sit here and say we have the game plan to stop him,” Rose said. “But he's gonna bring it. He's gonna play hard. He's won championships so you gotta give it to him. He's a hell of a player. So when we play against him, we just gotta make it tough. Nothing easy for him, make sure he sees bodies.”
They’ll need Rose and Jimmy Butler at their best and most efficient, and one wonders if it’s too much to ask those two to be superstars every night against James and Kyrie Irving—especially with the damning evidence the Bulls presented in terms of inconsistent performances against the Bucks.
“We know they're a great team. We're gonna have to play very well for 48 minutes,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We're gonna have to be ready from the start. They're well-rested, they've been sitting there.
“They have a lot of weapons, it's a lot more than LeBron and Kyrie. They play very well as a team, share the ball. They've got length at the rim, good competitors. We're gonna have to be ready.”
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How sweet would it be for these Bulls to put away these Cavaliers? The players won’t say, but the eyes of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, two players who’ve had to endure James sending them away for the summer three times before, can’t lie.
Gibson wants to make sure every possible thing that can work in the Bulls’ favor will, starting with the famous “limit the distractions” speech.
“Every game is different; especially in the playoffs everybody adjusts; like Thibs said everybody has to sacrifice, focus on doing the right thing." Like Derrick said, "put away the poison. Take away everything your friends, your family, the girls, you have to put all that stuff away and focus on the team.”
As they say all the time, no excuses, because they’re showing up at the door of a bad man ready to send them back away with a bad feeling.
Let’s get it on.