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NBA Playoffs chat: If Bulls advance, can they get past LeBron's Cavs?

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NBA Playoffs chat: If Bulls advance, can they get past LeBron's Cavs?

With the Bulls set to kick off their first round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday, Bulls Insider Vincent Goodwill and Mark Strotman are chatting about the Bulls' prospects this postseason. Here's what transpired:

Mark Strotman: LeBron James heading home. The Splash Brothers and the Warriors taking the NBA by storm. A narrow, four-player MVP race late into the year. The Atlanta Hawks reeling off 19 straight wins. Far too many injuries to stars and rookies alike. Derek Fisher and the Knicks trying to run the triangle offense. Derrick Rose's return after two years away from the game. The 2014-15 regular season had a little bit of everything, setting up what should be a terrific postseason with plenty of intriguing storylines.

As it pertains to the Bulls, Tom Thibodeau's group will be making their seventh straight trip to the postseason. And with Rose back in the lineup, Jimmy Butler playing at an All-Star level, Pau Gasol having a career year at age 34 and a bench with offensive firepower, when healthy (which they are) this is the Bulls' most talented roster since Thibodeau took over in 2009. Yet for a fifth straight season, the question remains: Can the Bulls get past LeBron James? In James' four seasons in Miami, twice he knocked out the Bulls on his way to Finals appearances (as well as his final season in Cleveland), and with the two teams headed for a collision course in the semifinals, my question is: What will it take for the Bulls to get over that 6-foot-8, 250-pound hump in Northeast Ohio?

I believe it begins with the play of Jimmy Butler. Before he was named an All-Star ranked 15th in the league in scoring, Butler averaged 41.6 minutes per game in 17 playoff games the last two seasons as the Bulls' primary defensive stopper while also averaging a respectable 13.4 points. Now the onus is on him to continue that All-NBA Defensive Second Team defense from a year ago while also playing the second scoring option behind Pau Gasol. Chicago's slight defensive regression this season (11th in defensive efficiency after four straight years in the top-5) will need to improve in the playoffs, and that's on Butler. Joakim Noah isn't playing at a Defensive-Player-of-the-Year-caliber level, while Gasol and Derrick Rose aren't cut out for the role, meaning Butler needs to be "the guy" while also maintaining his season point and shooting averages.

Vincent Goodwill: Jimmy Butler, you say? If it starts with him, he has to be the best wingman in this series. You know, the guy who sets everything up for his buddy at the bar? Smooth conversation, under control, low maintenance, that's what Butler has to be. The ultimate complement to Derrick Rose.

And not Derrick Rose the 30-point scorer, but the player who controls the game from a playmaking standpoint. He's displayed far more mastery at the point guard spot since he's returned from injury than I ever recalled, and while some of that is a function of learning and trusting his body, that mindset must carry over. Rose will be the first option when he's out there but by the attention he commands, Butler has to benefit.

If that tantalizing and drama-filled Bulls-Cavs matchup occurs, you try to prevent James from his explosions while trying to keep Kyrie Irving from making a mockery of the series, because he can. In other words, hope and pray.

Strotman: Butler's breakout campaign and Rose's third, fourth and fifth returns from injury this year dominated headlines, while Gasol became the dollar-for-dollar best free agent signing of the offseason (Gar Forman owes Carmelo a fruit basket and a thank you card at some point, by the way). But I was amazed at how little criticism Noah received this year. It was almost as if the positive headlines coming out of the United Center allowed Noah a free pass because, hey, they were winning. True, Noah finished last year's playoffs on one knee and dealt with that injury most of this season. Even still, this isn't a fan base that gives free passes for injuries (see: Rose, Derrick).

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Looking past the fans' criticism, though, Noah shot a career-worst 44.5 percent from the field and was nowhere near the same defender he was a year ago. It's clear he hasn't been totally healthy most of the year, but in the playoffs that'll get you sent home packing. The biggest issue may be that a true center playing power forward on a bad knee/hamstring is going to have to guard stretch-fours in Ersan Ilyasova, Paul Millsap, and/or Kevin Love in the coming weeks. I have serious doubts about how much Noah will be able to contribute in a seven-game series. Am I overreacting? It was, after all, Noah who said "the plan" was to flip the switch once the playoffs began.

Goodwill: I think the lack of attention placed on Noah's play has been for two reasons. One, he's always been thought of as the heart and soul of the on-court product. He speaks candidly, he's been around and his effort always looks on-point. It's hard to quantify his numbers because his effect has always been greater than tangibly.

How do those passes get there? How does he even make free throws? It's apparent he has trouble finishing in traffic and the offense is run differently because of Gasol's presence and the emergence of Jimmy Butler. I think if Noah believes he's been playing possum all season with the hope he'll be able to turn it on during the playoffs, that's very dangerous.

The true problem is you have to wonder about all the interior defenders the Bulls have. Each has major concerns. Taj Gibson, is he healthy? Nikola Mirotic, is he ready for the physicality of the postseason? Gasol, he struggled with Al Horford Wednesday night at the United Center and against mobile bigs as a whole. Will they be able to keep athletic bigs off the offensive glass, i.e. Milwaukee and Cleveland?

Noah's play is a question. But there's plenty of questions all around.

Strotman: I'm glad you brought up Mirotic. I have no idea how to project him in the playoffs. He showed flashes in the season's first half, then seemingly came out of nowhere to average 20.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in March before tapering off in April. I was amazed to see he's shooting just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc this season. It just feels like he's making them at such a better clip, and that's where I'm stuck. Will the Bulls get the passing-the-eye-test version of Mirotic in the postseason, or the guy who shot 29 percent from deep and committed more turnovers than he had assists in the season's final two months?

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I'm cautiously optimistic we're going to see a plus contributor...so long as he knocks off that damn pump-fake. The big question is whether or not he can improve defensively. As you mentioned, the game slows down and gets more physical in the postseason, and this is new territory for him. The Bulls were significantly worse defensively with Mirotic on the floor, and that fourth-quarter scoring magic is only going to fly with Thibs so long. And for a Bulls team that struggled rebounding the ball this season, second chances are going to loom large.

All that being said, it's incredible how unfazed he is for having only 82 NBA games under his belt. It's almost as if not fully understanding specific players' skill sets has made him fearless. Ninety-nine percent of the NBA knows not to try and defend LeBron at the rim in transition. Mirotic strikes me as that 1 percent who will say, "Screw it. I got this." It'll get him into trouble at times, but that Nate Robinson-type attitude also won the Bulls a few playoff games two years ago. (Still, Niko...When LeBron has a full head of steam? Don't jump, youngblood.)

Before we wrap this up with predictions, let me ask you: What's one area the Bulls are going to be better off in the postseason than they were in the first 82 games?

Goodwill: I understand the general feeling about Mirotic. But I'm not sure if the dependence on him will be as heavy as it ever was in March when he set the world on fire. I think once you get to the playoffs, it's more about guys who can create their shot over guys who can make them. And it'll be extremely hard to break that long-held habit of the "Niko fake", which is catching few opponents by surprise and more importantly, fewer officials (picture Danny Crawford or Joe Crawford smirking at Niko when they keep their whistles in their pockets).

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Rookies get little respect from the officials on either end in the playoffs, and defensively you wonder if some of the extra physical jousting that goes on will hurt Niko on that end. But back to offense. The dependency on shots will come from Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol. It wouldn't be a surprise if 60-70 percent of usage comes from those three guys. Niko's offense will be like chili on your coney dog (it's a Detroit thing, you'll understand one day), an added bonus but too much of it will send you holding your stomach in pain.

As far as the Bulls being better in the playoffs? Consistency on defense, actually. No more random nights where your mind wanders to the next night on the schedule or the dreaded 4-in-5 stretches that can lead to mental fatigue. The offense, of course, will come and go but I think the attention to detail defensively will lead to tighter play--plus with Thibs coaching for it all this postseason, he'll leave nothing to chance. I don't think you'll see the 110-104 final scores (except for maybe Saturday, which is the courting period), but the old-fashioned defense, if the Bulls have it in them? It'll come out in this series.

Strotman: I agree the defense will be better, or at least have fewer silly lapses (looking at you, Bulls defense that gave up 121 points to the Magic in January). Will it be good enough to slow down a Cavaliers offense that's posted a blistering, NBA-best 110.1 offensive rating since LeBron returned in mid-January? No, it won't. I believe the Bulls could end the Milwaukee series in four games if they really want to, but this Cleveland team has found a phenomenal rhythm behind James and Kyrie Irving. Hell, even the black sheep of the group, Kevin Love, was the only player in the NBA this year to average 16 points, nine rebounds and a 3-pointer per game. The Bulls hit home runs this offseason in bringing over Mirotic and signing Gasol; the problem is the Cavaliers hit grand slams with their midseason trades (not to mention signing James and trading for Love in the process).

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The Bulls simply won't have the firepower to match Cleveland. I've come around on the idea of the Cavaliers being a better matchup for the Bulls than the Hawks - the Bulls went 0-3 against Atlanta this year - but that doesn't make it a good matchup. Cavaliers in six, and it won't feel that close. I've seen this LeBron vs. Bulls movie way too many times. It always ends the same.

Goodwill: Well, nobody's being foolish about their chances against the Cavs from a defensive standpoint, once that inevitable matchup happens. Their best chance at an extended run through May is taking care of business against the Bucks. The Bucks are young, athletic and energetic--as the Bulls aren't exactly brimming with young nor do they employ the versatile wings the Bucks have. But this series shouldn't be tough, and making sure they're enjoying the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight on May 2 as opposed to coming off a Game 7 or recovering from a longer-than-expected series is paramount.

Now, to LeBron. You're not stopping him and Kyrie Irving won't be the least bit concerned with the rigors and pressure of the playoffs. So the Bulls' best bet relies on two things that have come under heavy scrutiny: Coaching and depth. The Bulls have the better coach in Thibodeau and the 4th-7th guys are better as well. Trusting David Blatt in a playoff series? The Cavaliers would be better off with Scott Brooks and he's not exactly John Wooden.

All things in their favor, health and Derrick Rose, the Bulls carry this to sixth or seventh game. But the two best players are on the other side, and that usually wins out. Do the Bulls have enough? Yes. But their margin for error is so wire-thin it's too much to expect given the circumstances, and it'll make way for an interesting offseason before we reconvene next September.

Shaquille Harrison could improve the efficiency of Bulls bottom five defense

Shaquille Harrison could improve the efficiency of Bulls bottom five defense

The Phoenix Suns released guard Shaquille Harrison last week, and although it is not a move that will send shockwaves through the league, the Bulls picking up Harrison could be the exact type of move to help solve what ails them.

At 6-foot, 4-inches and with a long wingspan, Harrison would step in and likely be at least the second-best perimeter defender on the team behind Kris Dunn. And he is the type of player, when combined with a talent like Wendell Carter Jr. and/or Dunn, could help form the type of lineup that could have a transformative effect on the overall team defense.

Last season Harrison had a defensive rating of 109, this despite the fact that the Sun—as a team—had a defensive rating of 113.51, over four points worse than when Harrison was on the floor.

His best skill is his ability to “get skinny” around a screener, meaning that on defense, Harrison is adept at angling his body to get around players trying to screen him off his man:


The Bulls need more players who show Harrison’s effort level when navigating screens on defense, not just because it will make life easier on their rim protectors, but because they also need to make sure they continue adding players who lead by example on that end of the floor. A team as young as the Bulls needs to collect young talent who pride themselves on defense, and Harrison fits the part.

When it comes to offense, Harrison doesn’t have the most impressive profile, but his play on that end of the floor is similar to former Bull David Nwaba. Harrison is not even an average 3-point shooter  (23.1 percent from 3-point range), but he makes up for it in other ways.

His rebounding is an area of strength, and fitting in with his preference to bring physicality to his matchup, he is adept at getting to the free throw line.

Last year Harrison’s 30.6 percent free throw attempt rate would’ve been a top-five mark on the Bulls. But his low usage rate (18 percent) will likely be lower in Chicago, so the free throw numbers may fall. But with so many score-first players on the roster, Harrison will still be able to crash the glass against the many guards who forget to box out their man.

Offensive rebounding will be less of a focus for a Bulls team that wants to preach getting back on transition defense, but Harrison gives Fred Hoiberg a special player that can do both. Harrison will run back on defense to help create the “shell” that the best teams create to cut off easy forays to the rim, and then when his team gets the ball back and is on the fastbreak, he brings value as the “trailer” (trailing man on a fastbreak) even without shooting ability:

This signing could end up being a big one for the Bulls, however small it may seem now.

Around the league, more and more teams are starting to invest resources in multiple ball-handler offenses that negate the differences between point guard and shooting guard, making versatile back court defenders a must.

This will be evident when the Bulls take on the Dallas Mavericks in game No. 3 of the regular season, as Rick Carlisle's Mavericks feature Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic in an explosive offense that doesn't have a defined "lead" guard.

The Bulls will continue to attempt to curtail offense with a high-scoring back court duo when they take on the Charlotte Hornets in a back-to-back on October 26 and 27. If Harrison is worked into the rotation by then, expect to see Harrison and Dunn on the floor together to match up with Doncic and Smith respectively, but have the flexibility to switch defensive assignments on the fly. If Chicago's perimeter defense starts to offer significantly more resistance, it will allow quicker improvement from Carter and the rest of the Bulls bigs on the interior.

With Zach LaVine currently in the top-five in the NBA in points per game, Dunn returning and Lauri Markkanen getting healthy, the Bulls front office is slowly approaching the point where their team has enough players who are considered possible focal points of an offense.

To become a championship contender, you need to have that one player who is unequivocally a superstar capable of a heavy workload, and only time will tell if the Bulls already have that player or need to acquire him. But the other important factor in building a championship roster is having the elite-level role players who do the little things that make life easier for their teammates in all phases of the game, and Shaq Harrison is excellent prospect who fits that exact mold.

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.