Cleveland Cavaliers (2) vs. Chicago Bulls (3)
Series: Tied 2-2
Next game: Tuesday May 12th, 7:00 PM
In Game 1, we saw Chicago storm out of the gate by shooting 5-7 from the 3 point line in the first 12 minutes, building a 12 point first quarter lead that they maintained for the rest of the game, powered by former-MVP Derrick Rose’s 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists and Pau Gasol’s 21 and 10. Ultimately, the Bulls ended up beating the Cavs 99-92 at Cleveland, in the Cavs’ first playoff game without three time All-Star Kevin Love, who is out for the rest of the playoffs due to a dislocated left shoulder.
In response, Cleveland took a page out of Chicago’s book and dominated the first quarter of Game 2 by jumping out to a commanding 20-point lead. Ultimately, this proved too much for Chicago to handle, as they were easily defeated 106-91. Four-time MVP LeBron James led the way for Cleveland with 33 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists, while Matthew Dellavedova (9 points, 9 assists) and James Jones (17 points, 56% 3P%) provided excellent production off the bench. Over the course of Games 1 and 2, there were a grand total of zero (0) lead changes, which can’t be said for Games 3 and 4.
As the series moved to Chicago, Game 3 saw 19 lead changes, with the Bulls ultimately coming out on top 99-96 thanks in large part to another monster performance by Rose and his 30 points, 7 assists, and 7 rebounds, including a game-winning buzzer-beating bank shot to give the Bulls a 2-1 series lead. However, much of the game was overshadowed by Gasol’s early departure due to a hamstring strain and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving’s less-than-stellar performance (11 points on 3-13 from the field, 0 assists), which head coach David Blatt attributed to a right foot injury that Irving has been nursing since Cleveland’s first round series with the Boston Celtics. Irving, however, preferred to keep his injury private, saying, “I understand what Coach Blatt was doing to protect me…but I just wanted to play through it. There’s no excuses for myself.” While James had another MVP-caliber performance, putting up 27 points, 14 assists, and 8 rebounds, his 3-point woes continued to plague him as he shot just 1-7 from beyond the arc.
Game 4 proved to be more similar to Game 3 (6 lead changes), once again coming down to a buzzer beating jump shot from a former MVP leading his hometown team to victory. However, this time it was Akron native LeBron James coming out on top, as he hit a fall-away jump shot in front of the Chicago bench as time expired to stun the Bulls in their own arena, leading the Cavs to an 86-84 victory over the Bulls in what many believed to be a must-win game for Cleveland. While LeBron’s shot was incredible, it has been somewhat overshadowed by the criticism the NBA has received given that the Cavs, who had already used all of their timeouts, were essentially given a free timeout to design their game-winning play as the referees deliberated over how much time was left on the clock following the previous possession. Nevertheless, LeBron once again flirted with a triple-double, posting 25 points, 8 assists, and 14 rebounds, while Irving continued to struggle, scoring only 12 points on 2-10 from the field with 2 assists. Meanwhile, the Bulls saw strong performances from Rose (31 points, 4 assists) and Jimmy Butler (19 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals), while Gasol was sidelined due to the hamstring injury he acquired in Game 3, and is listed as day-to-day.
Tuesday will bring us back to the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland for Game 5, with tip-off set for 7:00 PM.
LeBron James: When you’re looking at a series involving arguably the best basketball player on the planet, it’s not hard to figure out why the 6’8”, 240 lb., St. Vincent-St. Mary graduate is the first name on my list of X-factors. James has clearly had the greatest impact for the Cavs thus far. He’s nearly averaged a triple double in these 4 games (26 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 9 APG), he has logged more minutes than any of his teammates, his usage% is nearly 15 points greater than the next highest of his teammates, and he has attempted 106 FGA in the series, a mark nearly twice as large as the next-closest Cavalier (Kyrie Irving, with 55). Needless to say, the Cavs’ offense does not function without LeBron playing high-caliber basketball.
However, this increased dependency on LeBron has not necessarily translated to increased success against the Bulls, a notoriously tough defensive team under head coach Tom Thibodeau – this season, the Bulls surrendered 97.8 PPG (9th in the league). Through the first 4 games, James has shot 37.7% from the field and a shaky 10.5% from beyond the arc, down substantially from his regular season averages of 48.8% and 34.4%, respectively. While some of this dip in performance can be attributed to Jimmy Butler’s outstanding defensive play, James still must be held accountable. Too many times in this series has LeBron has settled for difficult, inefficient midrange jump shots instead of trying to penetrate and either attempt to score or kick out to sharp shooters like Kyrie Irving (41.5% 3P%), Matthew Dellavedova (40.7%), and J.R Smith (39%), all of which are above-average marks. Though, some of this can be attributed to Love’s shoulder injury (which I’ll touch on shortly). Another issue for LeBron has been his inability to take care of the ball, as he is averaging almost 6 turnovers per game this series, nearly twice as much as his career average (3.4 TOPG).
Nevertheless, LeBron is still performing at an incredibly high level, an absolute necessity if Cleveland wants to move on to the next round. If James can improve his efficiency on the offensive end, this should open up the floor a bit more, which would inevitably help facilitate his ability to drive-and-kick. Furthermore, if he can maintain the defensive tenacity that we have become accustomed to seeing, then a lot would need to go wrong elsewhere for the Cleveland to lose this series.
Jimmy Butler: This season, we have seen Butler elevate his game to the next level, and he was appropriately rewarded with the 2015 Most Improved Player Award. However, Butler has truly stepped up where it counts the most; he has near-singlehandedly taken on the challenge of containing the world’s best basketball player. As discussed earlier, despite LeBron’s strong stat line, he has performed inefficiently and is turning the ball over more frequently, both of which are direct consequences of Butler’s swarming defense (3.3 steals per game). Specifically, Butler has incredible confidence guarding James, very active hands, and he is very good at moving his feet defending the drive. In addition to his great defensive performance, Butler has been able to hold his own on the offensive end, shooting 39.7% from the field and averaging 19.3 PPG (second only to Rose’s 25.0 PPG). Butler is very well known throughout the league for being a workhorse, averaging a league-leading 38.7 minutes per game played in the regular season, which over 2 minutes more than the next-highest total. Unsurprisingly, he has more than lived up to his reputation this series, playing 42.4 minutes per game thus far. Clearly, the Bulls’ All-Star shooting guard is a key component to their success, and Thibodeau will need Butler to put up similar numbers in Game 5 (and beyond) in order for the Bulls to win this series.
Pau Gasol: When Bulls GM Gar Forman signed Gasol to a 3 year, $22 million deal this summer, he received a significant amount of praise from NBA analysts who felt that this was the deal that could push the Bulls to the next level. Game 1 gave us a perfect image of just how potent the Bulls offense can be when Gasol is in form, as he scored 21 points on 10-16 shooting, including 8-13 from outside the paint. However, Gasol only played 22 minutes in Game 3 and was sidelined for Game 4 due to a strained left-hamstring, forcing the Bulls to start Taj Gibson in his place. While Gibson is an above average defender, he is not as strong a candidate for the stretch-4 position, shooting 38% from outside the paint compared to Gasol’s 43%. Following Game 4, Thibodeau said Gasol was “still sore”, listing him as questionable for Game 5. Given that Chicago’s new starting frontcourt of Gibson, Dunleavy, and Joakim Noah have averaged 23.0 PPG combined in this series (2 points less than Rose), a healthy Gasol would be a huge offensive boost. It’s very possible that this series could hinge on the status of the 34-year-old Spaniard’s left-hamstring.
Kevin Love: Yes, I know it is a cop-out to call someone an X-factor even though they haven’t played a minute in the series, but hear me out for a second: as I mentioned before, so much of Cleveland’s offense depends on LeBron’s ability to penetrate and kick effectively, especially when you consider that for the last 4 minutes of Game 4, nearly every Cleveland possession was simply a high screen and roll with LeBron and Timofey Mozgov or Iman Shumpert. This is where Love’s shoulder injury becomes so devastating for the Cavs. With Love (37% 3P% in 2014-15) spotting up on the 3-point line, he would hypothetically bring his defender out with him, freeing up the paint. This would then give LeBron a more open lane to penetrate, at which point he has several options depending on how the play unfolds and which Bulls defenders come to help. If one of the aforementioned shooters’ defenders commits to help against the penetration, James could decide to kick out to Smith/Irving/etc., which would lead to an open thee-pointer. If whoever is guarding Mozgov decides to step up and help against LeBron, he could decide to dump the ball off to Mozgov for an easy layup. If no one comes to help against LeBron, then he can simply drive against his defender (presumably Butler or Mike Dunleavy) one-on-one. Despite Butler’s outstanding defense thus far in the series, I believe that he would eventually be worn down by James after countless post-ups and drives to the basket, which more often than not will result in a layup or free throws for the James (75% from the charity stripe for his career).
However, now that Love is injured, David Blatt has been forced to start Tristan Thompson, a non-threat from outside the paint, in his place; for his career, Thompson has shot 60% within 3 feet of the basket, 38% 3-10 feet from the basket, and 35% 10-16 feet from the basket, the latter two being below league-average. Therefore, Thompson’s defender, whether it be Gasol, Taj Gibson, or anyone else is now able to commit to helping against James’ penetration a bit more comfortably knowing that he is leaving behind Thompson and his below-average jump shot instead of sharp shooter Kevin Love.
Kendrick Perkins: No, not actually. For anyone who doesn’t think that some serious remodeling needs to be done to the current playoff seeding system, know this: in the 2014-15 NBA playoffs, Kendrick Perkins has scored more points than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined. Just let that sink in for a second.
Vegas: Currently, the Bulls and Cavaliers both are listed at 5/1 odds to win the NBA championship, with the Cavs (7/4 odds) being slightly less favored to come out of the Eastern Conference than the Bulls (3/2 odds).
My prediction: The Cavaliers have been excellent at home this season (31-10, second best in the Eastern Conference) and maintain home court advantage for 2 out of the remaining 3 games. Furthermore, Cavs fans are hoping that LeBron can return to form and do his best to lead Cleveland past the Bulls. However, Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler’s performances thus far have left Bulls fans optimistic that they can steal Game 5 in Cleveland. Ultimately, I believe that LeBron’s best will be enough, and that he will improve his efficiency in these later games to get Cleveland to their first Conference Final since he did it back in 2007. Nonetheless, he will be pushed to the limit by Chicago’s menacing defense led by Butler. Given the uncertainty in Gasol and Irving’s health and the slightly-out-of-character inefficiency of James, no one can say they know where this series is headed with complete certainty. What I am certain, though, is that this series will truly be one for the ages. Hell, maybe Kendrick Perkins will even score again.
Cleveland in 7.