Bulls

The NBA Finals Sequel: A series neither Golden State nor Cleveland can afford to lose

The NBA Finals Sequel: A series neither Golden State nor Cleveland can afford to lose

With the exception of “The Godfather”, the sequel is rarely more compelling than the original, but the NBA Finals could challenge that conventional theory as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers will make history with a win or become dubious with a loss.

The rematch many anticipated tips off Thursday night in the Bay Area, with each team coming in equally motivated in what is likely the most hyped matchup since 2010 when the Lakers and Celtics squared off in a rematch of the 2008 series, with the Lakers avenging an embarrassing six-game loss with a seven-game triumph.

The Warriors have embraced the challenge of going after history all season long, and are now four wins away from completing the task of not only repeating as champions but finishing off a 73-win season, breaking the record of the 1996 Chicago Bulls by one game.

The defending champions have emerged weary but emboldened after being the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Conference Finals to the Oklahoma City Thunder, while the Cavaliers have gone through the East, largely untested and healthy.

A loss for the Warriors awakens the doubters who say jump-shooting teams can’t win championships, despite the resounding evidence from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s displays over the last week and last two seasons as a whole.

Curry, the NBA’s first unanimous MVP, is battling knee and ankle injuries he suffered in earlier rounds, but looks healthier with his lateral movement, as evidenced by his ball-handling dancing in Game 7 of the Conference Finals Sunday night, freeing him up for jumpers against Oklahoma City’s big men who had been able to stay with him earlier in the series.

A loss for Curry perhaps stops the coronation to crown him as one of the best in this era, although one could say he’s proven plenty at 27 years old.

A loss for Golden State sullies a transcendent season, particularly those in Chicago who are clutching their Michael Jordan beads, believing that somehow the Bulls will be erased or lessened by Golden State’s greatness.

For Cleveland, a loss would merely add to the list of championship failures for a city that hasn’t won anything in over 50 years, adding to LeBron James’ record in NBA Finals’ series, already at 2-4 — which overshadows the fact James has become the face of June basketball, reaching the NBA Finals for the sixth straight time, a mark that hasn’t been attained since members of the great Celtics teams of the 1960s.

Last season, James carried the Cavaliers with historic performances in the absences of co-stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the Cavaliers’ six-game loss to Golden State, a series in which they led 2-1 before dropping the final three.

This year, James has acquiesced a bit, aiding Irving and Love but Irving in particular, as Irving was leading the Cavaliers in scoring before the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals when James took over.

But the turning point could have occurred months ago in Cleveland, when Golden State strutted back into Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, the building where they clinched last year’s title, and trounced Cleveland on national TV, leading by as many as 43 points.

It led to David Blatt being fired days later in favor of Tyronn Lue and the reconstruction of the Cavaliers’ style began shortly thereafter. They added long range shooter Channing Frye and seemingly, began preparing for a rematch with Golden State by playing Warriors-like basketball.

They play smaller, with shooters around the floor and in the second round, combated Atlanta’s trapping defense with a record amount of 3-pointers in the four-game sweep.

But it’s dangerous to try to beat Golden State at its own game, even if James is on the roster, even if the team is healthier this season. Finals rematches in the last 30 years or so usually favors the scorned team, but with the narratives surrounding both and considering Golden State’s quest for validation, it’s hard to see which team is more motivated to win.

Either way, it’s a series neither can afford to lose and will go to the limit.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: A sprained MCL and Trubisky's performance. vs the Pats

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: A sprained MCL and Trubisky's performance. vs the Pats

David Haugh, Jordan Cornette, Shae Peppler join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- Mark Schanowski joins SportsTalk Live to discuss Kris Dunn’s sprained MCL, Fred Hoiberg’s tough luck and Zach LaVine postgame criticisms of the coaching. Plus they’ll discuss another 0-3 team- LeBron’s Lakers.

20:00 – The panel discusses Mitchell Trubisky’s performance vs. the Patriots. Jordan makes the case that the media is giving the former No. 2 pick a pass.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Bulls bracing for a Kemba Walker onslaught

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USA TODAY

Bulls bracing for a Kemba Walker onslaught

Through the opening week of the NBA season, Hornets' All-Star point guard Kemba Walker and former Bull Niko Mirotic share the league scoring lead, averaging 33 points per game.

Bulls' fans have seen these hot stretches from Niko before, and chances are he'll start moving down to the mid to high-teens before long. But Walker is a big-time scorer who's quietly emerged as one of the most consistently productive point guards in a league loaded with stars at that position. He's averaged over 20 points and 5 assists in each of the last three seasons, making the Eastern Conference All-Star team twice.

Last season, Walker lit up the Bulls for 47 points in an overtime loss at the United Center in November, making some of the most difficult shots you can imagine to keep his team in the game. He seems to be as this best when facing the Bulls and you can bet Fred Hoiberg and his staff will pull out all the stops to try to slow him down, especially with defensive ace Kris Dunn out 4-6 weeks after suffering a sprained left MCL in his season debut on Monday.

The Hornets made some personnel changes since last season. The one-year experiment with Dwight Howard at center is over. Howard put up solid numbers for Charlotte a year ago, but didn't make much difference in the win-loss column, so he's moved on to Washington in his NBA odyssey. Cody Zeller is now the starting center, backed up by Bismack Biyombo and former Benet Academy and University of Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky.

Charlotte tried to improve the athleticism on their roster by selecting Malik Monk and Miles Bridges in the first rounds of the last two drafts. Monk is getting more playing time this season, averaging 13.5 points in the Hornets' first four games. Bridges is averaging just under 16 minutes a game as a backup to starting forwards Marvin Williams and Nic Batum. Just like he did at Michigan State, Bridges is providing those highlight reel putback dunks, but it remains to be seen whether he'll develop a consistent enough outside shot to be a quality starter in the NBA.

The well-traveled Jeremy Lamb is now starting in the backcourt with Walker, and the Hornets brought in long-time Spurs' point guard Tony Parker to add some much needed experience and veteran savvy off the bench. Given the current state of the Eastern Conference (post-LeBron), it's not out of the question for this group to contend for one of the final playoff spots.

Here's what the Bulls need to do for a shot at their first win of the season. This also applies to the rematch in Charlotte on Friday.

1. CORRAL KEMBA. For whatever reason, seeing that Bulls' logo turns Walker into an almost unstoppable scoring machine. Walker is adept at working off his big men, either in straight pick and rolls or cutting through the post on give-and-go plays. He's one of the league's most creative scorers, and doesn't require much room to get his shot off. The Bulls' bigs will have to provide help on Walker whenever he comes off screens to keep him from taking over the game.

2. PUT THE BALL IN ZACH'S HANDS. Whether he's playing shooting guard or point guard, Zach LaVine needs to be the primary facilitator with Dunn sidelined. LaVine scored 34 points against Dallas Monday night on just 15 shots, which led to him questioning some of the offensive sets that were run in the 2nd half. LaVine told reporters on Tuesday that he smoothed things over with his head coach, explaining his comments were the result of the frustration he was feeling after a third-straight loss to open the season. Still, LaVine is on a major hot streak, joining Bulls' all-time greats Michael Jordan and Bob Love as the only players to start the year with three straight games scoring at least 30 points. The Bulls will need to ride that hot hand for as far as LaVine can carry them.

3. DEFEND THE 3-POINT LINE. You knew I would eventually get to this, right? Dallas made 15 of 47 3-point attempts on Monday after the Pistons knocked down 18 of 40 in a two-point win last Saturday. The Hornets have all kinds of capable 3-point shooters in Walker, Lamb, Monk, Batum and Williams (they're shooting .397 as a team on 3's), so guarding the arc will be crucial for the Bulls to have a chance at their first win.

Don’t forget you can catch Wednesday's game on NBC Sports Chicago and the new MyTeams by NBC sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 pm when Kendall Gill, Will Perdue and Kelly Crull join me for Bulls Pregame Live from the United Center Atrium. Neil Funk and Stacey King have the play-by-play call at 7 pm, then stay tuned after the final buzzer for Bulls Postgame Live and the always entertaining Bulls Outsiders.