The Eastern Conference first round is over! No more watching 30-point blowout closeout games. No more watching Kyle Lowry lumbering on the court, while reiterating that he isn’t hurt, when everyone knows he is or his starting spot in the All-Star game was a complete sham. No more “chill mode” from LeBron and the Cavs. No more Hawks-Nets! YES!!! REJOICE! I have to admit I will miss the Bulls-Bucks tussles, Zaza Pachulia playing his favorite role of instigator and Giannis becoming inspired by the NFL Draft.
The conference semis are here and…..wait we have to watch Hawks-Wizards? WTF?!?!
But there is the Bulls versus the Cavs!
It’s a travesty this series isn’t directly deciding which team represents the East and desperately attempts to prove the East isn’t the NBA’s JV conference. Instead either the Bulls or the Cavs will play the winner of Wiz-Hawks (okay deep breath…let’s just adopt the Scralett O’Hara mindset and worry about that tomorrow and enjoy this series today). This is going to a brilliantly engaging and lengthy series full of vexing matchups (Butler v LeBron, Kyrie v D-Rose), redemption stories (D-Rose and LeBron), entertaining individual quirks (Nikola Mirotic, Joakim’s hatred for LeBron, Perk playing meaningful minutes, J.R. Smith) and high-level basketball in the only Eastern Conference series that matters (Yeah I said it. Prove me wrong Atlanta and Washington).
Throughout the season I have thought the Bulls’ ceiling is higher than that of the Cavs, even when Kevin Love was healthy. Think about it. MVP-level Derrick Rose may be extinct, but top five in MVP balloting Derrick Rose still subsists if only in short flashes that temporarily leave you believing time travel is absolutely possible because it’s happening at this very moment. Also, although the Bulls have slipped a bit defensively this season, Thibs’ coaching cornerstone will still rear its head in during which Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson lockdown the paint, Jimmy Butler harasses opposing stars and a Bulls game transforms into a collegiate-style contest featuring a severe scoring deficiency. There’s Butler who has expanded his offensive game to the point that he can carry the Bulls offense by himself with a plethora of contact-invoking drives, contested pull-up 3s and awkwardly adjusted jumpers deserving of Carlos Boozer-style “and one” proclamations.
And finally, with the additions of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic the Bulls can trot out a frontcourt that can actually score points!
That’s a lot of potential for the Bulls in comparison to the Cavs, who have exhibited a shaky defense all season, has a rookie NBA coach, is without Kevin Love for the series and J.R. Smith for the first two games, may have to rely on James Jones, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and Perkins to play rotation minutes and whose sole explanation for winning this series is “we have LeBron and Kyrie.” However, LeBron and Kyrie might just be enough.
Of course, plenty of people will point to the Bulls’ struggles to fend off the pesky and youthful Bucks, and think if they had that much trouble putting the Bucks to rest, are they really going to beat LeBron and the Cavs? It’s a fair thought. The Bulls are prone to extended scoring droughts, which likely won’t fly against the offensive juggernaut residing in Ohio. However, in addition to being a long, rangy and dynamic defensive squad, I think the Bucks sapped some of the Bulls’ psyche. The Bulls embrace being the rugged, scrappy and tough team that glorifies slogging defensive struggles accompanied by hostility and a handful of tussles, but that’s exactly how the Bucks play, and unlike Chicago it’s not a choice, but a necessity. It wasn’t as if the Bulls suddenly transformed into a collection of soft, well-mannered individuals, but the Bulls encountered the unknown position of being the more talented and offensively competent group who would benefit from playing a cleaner brand of basketball. I think it absolutely entered into their minds, and as a result crippled their swagger. That won’t be the case against the Cavs, in which the Bulls will feel right at home devoting hard fouls to slow down LeBron, rallying behind Noah’s body flexing of screaming emotion and committing to the craggy playing style that embarked the Thibodeau era.
However, the Bulls don’t match up well with the Cavs likely new small ball approach after the Love injury. While the Cavs will use lineups using both Timothy Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, the tantalizing proposition of LeBron playing the four will be utilized at length. LeBron playing the four poses major matchup issues for opponents, revolving around whether they can hide a big man on an offensively unpolished wing player. If opponents can’t pass their second big as a sieve defensively, they will be forced to try to beat the Cavs at their own game, and commit to small ball lineups.
The Bulls won’t give in to this proposition and with either Shumpert, Jones or Miller on the wing in small ball lineups the Bulls should be able to pass playing Noah, Mirotic or even Gibson on the perimeter defensively without getting burned. Of course offensively, the Bulls would seek to attack LeBron in the post, gradually wearing on him, similar to what the Pacers did against the Heat during LeBron’s time in Miami.
The problem is, outside of Pau Gasol the Bulls don’t have a polished postup threat allowing LeBron to forgo any punishment in the post. Not only does LeBron avoid the exhausting physical nature of post defense, but he can fly around the court helping on pick-and-rolls and anticipating passing lanes to commit miraculous acts of thievery. The Bucks deployed this strategy against Bulls lineups featuring Noah, sticking Jared Dudley on him who ignored Noah’s unthreatening offensive game, and acted as a centerfielder providing help wherever needed defensively. And that was Jared Dudley, this freaking LeBron! Lineups demanding LeBron cover either Gibson or Mirotic will hamper LeBron’s defensive range somewhat. The attention toward Gibson would still be minimal, but he has a passable midrange jumper, and he will find crevices for basket cuts where he’s a better finisher than Noah. Also if LeBron is content to mostly ignore Gibson, Gibson will be seeking out putback opportunities at a premium. Mirotic won’t be the rim attacker or hyperactive offensive rebounder that Gibson is, but his 3-point shooting alone will demand more attention from LeBron than Noah or Gibson.
On paper and in terms of matchups this series points to Chicago, but the Cavs have home court and the singular heroism abilities of the best basketball player on the planet cannot be understated. And unlike years past his running mate isn’t playing on frail and aged knees. LeBron and Kyrie must be sensational if the Cavs are to overcome the lineup and depth deficiencies they face without Love and for two games, Smith. They’ll be sensational, of course, but the Bulls have two guys on their own roster in which sensationalism is scattered throughout the scouting report.
The Pick: Bulls in six.
 This isn’t 2008 by the way.