Bulls

LeBron, Cavaliers sweep Hawks to advance to NBA Finals

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LeBron, Cavaliers sweep Hawks to advance to NBA Finals

By Associated Press

CLEVELAND -- The championship LeBron James craves more than any other, the one he came back home to get, is within reach.

The Cavaliers are in the NBA Finals.

James scored 23 points, Kyrie Irving provided a boost after missing two games and Cleveland reserved a spot in the finals with a 118-88 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night to win the Eastern Conference title.

By sweeping the top-seeded Hawks, the Cavs earned their second trip to the finals, where they will face either Golden State or Houston starting June 4.

It will be the fifth straight visit to the league's showcase event for the inimitable James, who returned to Cleveland after four years in Miami to try and end this city's championship drought dating to 1964. The Cavs are four wins from doing it, and if they can, James will have a title that would put him in a class by himself. Other players have won more championships, but none has ever done it for his ring-starved home region.

"We have everything it takes to win," James said after the Cavs were presented with the conference trophy.

However, they've got their eyes on another one.

"Cleveland," owner Dan Gibert said, addressing the crowd. "We're not settling for this."

Jeff Teague scored 17 and Paul Millsap 16 for Atlanta, which won a team-record 60 games during the regular season and made the conference finals for the first time since 1970. But the Hawks were no match for the Cavaliers and had no answer for James, who nearly averaged a triple-double in the four games.

J.R. Smith added 18 points and Tristan Thompson had 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Cavs, who were handed new caps and T-shirts following the win and were joined by family members on the floor to celebrate.

But unlike 2007, when James ran into center Zydrunas Ilgauskas' arms at the final horn, he was very business-like after the clock hit zero.

Standing at center court, he turned to Smith and reminded him there was work still undone.

"Four more," James said.

It was a tough way for the Hawks to end a remarkable season. They survived a tumultuous offseason, and their young roster gelled in January when they became the first franchise to go 17-0 in a calendar month. They went on to win 19 straight, improved their record by 22 wins over last season and beat Brooklyn and Washington to make their first conference finals since 1994.

But an injury to starting forward Thabo Sefolosha in April was followed by DeMarre Carroll injuring his knee in the series opener, before Kyle Korver's season ended in Game 2 with an ankle injury.

Those all hurt, but it was James who inflicted the most pain.

James carried the Cavs to their first finals appearance eight years ago, when they were swept by San Antonio. Cleveland was a heavy underdog then and it was assumed the Cavs would get back again. But James left in 2010 to join the Heat, a move that dropped the Cavaliers from relevance and into the draft lottery four straight years. But those days are over -- Cleveland and King James reign supreme in the East.

The Cavs got through the last two rounds without forward Kevin Love, who sustained a season-ending shoulder injury. His arrival last summer, joining James and Irving to form a Big 3, made Cleveland the team to beat in the East.

It didn't go exactly as planned under first-year coach David Blatt, who left his family in Israel to take the Cavs' job.

"We're in Cleveland," Blatt cracked. "Nothing is easy here."

The Cavs lost center Anderson Varejao to a season-ending Achilles injury in December and they were 19-20 before trading for Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov, a trio that transformed Cleveland.

Irving, who missed Cleveland's previous two games with tendinitis in his left knee, scored 16 and the All-Star point guard looked better than he has in weeks.

Unlike Game 3, when he missed his first 10 shots, James started much better and scored 15 in the first half as the Cavs opened a 17-point halftime lead. They pushed it to 20 early in the third, withstood a brief rally by the Hawks and spent the fourth quarter playing their reserves and getting ready for a party and some time off before the finals.

This was Cleveland's night from the start.

Following pregame introductions, James slapped hands with members of Gilbert's family and then with his boss. The two mended their broken relationship last summer, paving the way for James to re-sign with Cavs and try to deliver the title he couldn't during his first stint.

James had a bounce in his step and it wasn't long before he delivered one of his patented windmill dunks, prompting the Hawks to call a timeout while James ran the length of the baseline screaming at Cleveland fans to "Get up!"

Moments later, Irving showed he could get up after being knocked down.

He drove to the basket for a layup and was fouled hard. Irving, though, quickly popped to his feet and James, who was on the bench at the time, walked several feet onto the floor to salute his teammate.

The Cavs know they'll need a healthy Irving to take the next step -- the one to the top.

Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago

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USA TODAY

Jabari Parker and Tyler Ulis shine at open run in Chicago

Jabari Parker is looking forward to what will surely be an intriguing season for he and the Chicago Bulls.


Parker signed a two-year, $40 million contract, that essentially acts as a tryout for the Bulls. The second year of the contract is a team option, meaning should things not go well, the organization can cut ties with him. But after 183 career games with the Bucks over four seasons, it was clear that Parker was in need of a fresh start. In Chicago, he will slide in as the day one starting small forward, and is already paid like a player who is definitely appreciated by his organization.


But with all of the off the court stuff taken care of for now, Parker's main focus is getting in to the best shape of his life, as he prepares for a full season as a wing player. 


Part of Parker's preparation was a great pickup game in downtown Chicago organized by the Chicago Basketball Club.

 

For Bulls fans itching to get a look at Parker on the court, the video shows off some flashy passing ability, impressive handles and a flurry of pull-up jumpers from the 23-year old forward. He also finishes well in transition in the video, though that is to be taken with a grain of salt as Parker was easily the biggest player on the court. 


Other players in the pickup game included former Simeon teammate of Parker's, Kendrick Nunn; and NBA free agent and former Marion Catholic star Tyler Ulis (a possible Bulls target?). If Parker looks as dynamic against NBA competition as he did in the pickup game below, the Bulls are going to have one of the more valuable contracts in the league in 2020, and would be likely to lock up Parker to a long-term deal. 

Bulls need to develop a secondary playmaker

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Bulls need to develop a secondary playmaker

These are the career points per 36 minutes numbers for the three players who figure to get majority of the field goal attempts on the 2018-19 Bulls:

Zach LaVine: 17.6 
Lauri Markkanen: 18.4 
Jabari Parker: 17.9

There is no debating that this current Bulls roster has multiple players who can flat-out put the ball in the basket. The the biggest questions come into play when you try to imagine how these players will keep each other involved, assuming they take the lion's share of the field goal attempts.

Kris Dunn finished just outside the top 10 in the league in assist percentage (33.3 percent), a higer mark than Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry or Stephen Curry. And though he is a talented passer, what this figure really shows is that the Bulls severely lack a secondary playmaker to take pressure off of Dunn to create shots for others.

Per Ben Falk's site Cleaning The Glass, Markkanen was not able to create for others with his offense, but shockingly, Parker and LaVine did an OK job in the play-making department, considering their reputation as shoot-first players.

Assist rate is a great way to see how much a player is distributing when they are on the floor. And usage rate is perhaps the best way to get an idea of how many possessions a player uses on offense. So naturally, assist to usage ratio is one of the best tools to use to assess a player's ability and willingness to create opportunities for others on offense. What the statistic boils down to is: how often did a player get an assist given how much they had the ball. 

Parker finished last season in the 67th percentile in assist to usage ratio, and LaVine finished in the 58th percentile. These numbers show that both players are capable passers and clearly have the potential to be great setup men.

This is crucial because Markkanen’s development will heavily depend on if he can expand his scoring repertoire, something that looks increasingly difficult with Parker and LaVine, who have averaged a combined 29.5 field goal attempts per 36 minutes for their careers. 

Many times throughout the offseason you likely heard about how the Bulls have many mouths to feed in the locker room. But this doesn’t pertain to just shots, ball-control will be a major concern as well. With incumbent point guard Kris Dunn still a relatively weak floor-spacer (32 percent from 3-point range last season), Fred Hoiberg will need to get creative with his rotations to keep the offense running efficiently. Backup point guard Cam Payne shot 38 percent from the 3-point line last season, and when inserting him into the game for Dunn, Parker would flourish as a point-forward (possibly) surrounded by four competent shooters. Parker could derail the Bulls offense because he is not an elite 3-point shooter, but that issue is mitigated when you put the ball in his hands to let him create.


Parker was fourth in the pecking order in Milwaukee last season, and so it comes as no surprise that his free throw attempts, points and field goal percentage dropped from his 2017 numbers. If you look at the 2017 season (Parker’s breakout season) you see that Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo pretty much split the No. 1 options duties on offense. They each took about 16 shots apiece and combined for 8.2 assists per game. This is a best case scenario for the Parker-LaVine wing duo. 


LaVine has the benefit of coming into the league as a point guard, and he has still retained the ability to make the right pass when it presents itself. And last season, he had an impressive turnover percentage that was just below 10 percent. However, the reason for this was that he averaged 4.34 seconds per touch, a very long time in an NBA possession, usually looking to score and nothing else. It’s easy to avoid turnovers when you aren’t looking to pass.


LaVine usually makes the obvious play if it is one pass away, but he does not move the ball around to prevent the offense from becoming stagnant.


Both LaVine and Parker will have their struggles on defense (understatement of the year), but much more important to their development is understanding that if you give the ball up on offense, it will find its way back to you. This is perhaps the only way a Bulls team that ranked 28th last season in offensive rating, can make a big enough leap in scoring efficiency to make their way back to the postseason.