It doesn’t take an expert to tell you the Cleveland Cavaliers will miss Kevin Love in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bulls. Sure, Love struggled at times in playing the third wheel to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but he’s still one of the NBA’s elite power forwards, capable of putting up 20-point, 10-rebound games with regularity, while providing the floor spacing that’s so important to the Cavaliers offense.
But the loss of Love (and J.R. Smith for the first two games because of a league suspension), has an even greater impact when the two teams go to their benches. It’s expected Cleveland coach David Blatt will start 6-foot-9 Tristan Thompson in Love’s spot, and Thompson had great success against the Bulls during the regular season, averaging 5.5 offensive rebounds per game. The combination of Thompson and Timofey Mozgov inside will definitely pose some problems for Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah inside, and keeping the Cleveland bigs from dominating the offensive boards will be one of the keys to the series.
But what does Blatt do when Thompson and Mozgov need to rest? Enforcer Kendrick Perkins will get some playing time in the middle, looking to punish Derrick Rose and any other Bulls who drive to the basket. But the power forward spot provides some interesting options for Blatt. Does he go with seldom-used veteran Shawn Marion, or simply slide LeBron James to that spot and go with either James Jones or Mike Miller at small forward? Miller might be an option at shooting guard as well in the first two games when Smith serves his suspension for punching Jae Crowder in the final game of their first-round series against Boston.
No matter which option Blatt chooses, Thibodeau should have a deeper and more talented reserve group throughout the series. Taj Gibson is one of the league’s top sixth men, and has the size and quickness to guard James if he moves to the power forward spot. Gibson’s post-up skills could also cause problems for Cleveland if they try to defend him with Marion. Look for Gibson to log extended minutes throughout the series.
Nikola Mirotic is the ultimate X factor for the Bulls, giving Thibodeau a 6-foot-10 stretch forward who can hurt the Cavs with his outside shooting or his ability to drive to the basket. Mirotic wasn’t very effective after suffering a leg injury in Game 2 against Milwaukee, but the additional time off should have him close to full strength for this round. Thibodeau will have to pick his spots in using the European rookie to protect him against bad defensive matchups, but he could give the Bulls the offensive boost they need in close games.
It’s a similar story in the backcourt, where Bulls’ reserves Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell all bring something a little different to the table against Cleveland’s duo of Iman Shumpert and Australian Matthew Dellavedova. Shumpert figures to start the first two games of the series while Smith is out, but he’s not nearly the same type of threat on the offensive end. When Smith returns for Game 3, look for Shumpert to come off the bench as a wing defender to match up with Jimmy Butler when James slides to the power forward spot.
Thibodeau should be able to mix and match his reserve guards depending on the lineup Cleveland has on the floor. Given the size of Cleveland’s shooting guards and Irving’s quick strike scoring ability, Brooks will again be a negative on the defensive end. Thibodeau will try to use Brooks at point guard when Dellavedova is on the court and hope he can provide the scoring punch that made him such a valuable reserve during the regular season.
Look for Hinrich to get limited minutes in a defensive role against Irving, but the real wild card in this series could be Snell. Remember how good he was in the Bulls’ lone win over Cleveland during the regular season, scoring 22 points on 9-for-11 shooting in a starting role and playing solid defense against James? Snell has the quickness and length at 6-foot-7 to give Butler some help in guarding James and Smith on the perimeter. And, if Snell is knocking down that 3-point shot, he gives Thibodeau another floor spacer to make the Cavs pay for sending double teams at Rose or Butler.
This series figures to be extremely close, with bench scoring capable of swinging one or more games in the Bulls’ favor. Let’s see how creative Thibodeau can be in using his five primary reserves and find out if the Bulls can really take it to the Cavs when the 30-somethings such as Marion, Perkins, Miller and Jones are on the floor.