From the time LeBron James returned to Cleveland, the matchup between his Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls has been the most anticipated matchup of the Eastern Conference title chase. Now, in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, it’s finally here.
How Cleveland got here: Beat Boston Celtics in four games during the first round
For the first three games of the series, LeBron and the Cavs had no problem with the Celtics, who, despite their great coaching and admirable resilience, found themselves on the wrong end of a “cat n’ mouse” game with one of the most talented teams in the NBA. Cleveland was in total control of the games in which they staked a 3-0 lead, gassing its high-scoring offense when they needed to and pretty much chilling when they didn’t.
Then, in Game 4, everything kinda fell apart, and Cleveland suffered through a very Cleveland-y elimination game of a sweep, losing Kevin Love for the rest of the playoffs to a dislocated shoulder and J.R. Smith to a suspension that’ll keep him out for the first two games of this series.
Obviously, that’s about the worst situation imaginable for the Cavaliers, and it pretty much nullifies anything we might have learned about this team in their four games against the Celtics. Going forward, how David Blatt and the Cavs adjust to using a lot more smaller lineups will be huge, especially against a team with size like Chicago.
Cavaliers X-Factor: Replacing Love (and Smith for two games)
Love isn’t only part of this team’s Big Three and one of its most important players, but he seemed to finally be fitting in better than he had all year and had strung together one of his best three-game stretches of the season during the first three games of the series against Boston. While Smith isn’t quite as important, both he and Love account for the majority of the Cavaliers’ ability to space the floor.
Without a ton of frontcourt depth, as mentioned, Cleveland will probably use a lot more lineups featuring LeBron at power forward, which means the burden on Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson to protect the rim and rebound will be enormous in this series. Kendrick Perkins will probably also see some action against Chicago’s huge front line.(Yikes!) No doubt, it’s going to be an adjustment for the Cavaliers.
How Chicago got here: Beat Milwaukee Bucks in six games during the first round
For the first time in a long time, the Bulls were able to enjoy a playoff series with a healthy Derrick Rose at the helm, and other than a brutal two-game stretch in Games 4 and 5, neither he nor his Chicago teammates disappointed. Their strongest performance in the entire series came in the elimination Game 6, when they washed Milwaukee off its home floor and demolished them, 120-66.
Overall, the series wasn’t pretty, but then again, the Bulls and Bucks aren’t pretty teams in general. The important thing is that Chicago was able to match a feisty and defensive-minded Milwaukee team blow for blow during a tough playoff series in a year when the Bulls’ defense hasn’t been up to their recent excellent standard. Then, when the young Bucks started getting ideas of a comeback and won two straight games, Chicago made a statement and slammed that door shut with vigor in Game 6.
Bulls X-Factor: Minutes for Mirotic.
One of the Bulls’ most dynamic players in the second half of this season has been power forward Nikola Mirotic, the Spanish rookie whose inside-outside game gives Chicago’s offense a spacing and versatility that no one else on the roster can. Mirotic has an overused but still-effective pump fake that keeps defenders off-balance even when his shot isn’t falling, and he’s very good at getting to the free throw line. While his defense still needs work, he has improved on that end as well, no longer needing to switch every single pick-and-roll that defenses put him in. He wasn’t great during the first-round against Milwaukee and also dealt with some injuries, but they’re a long and athletic team on defense. Cleveland is not.
With the Cavs missing Love, Mirotic’s presence gives the Bulls something that Cleveland no longer has: a big man who can space the floor. While Thompson, as a big who can defend on the perimeter and grab offensive rebounds, would be a great antidote to Mirotic, he’s now one of the Cavaliers’ two best big men, meaning minutes and foul trouble could become limiting factors for him. In the best-case scenario, Mirotic would give the Bulls the kind of versatile scorer who can help them take full advantage of Cleveland’s diminished frontcourt; in the worst case, he makes Thompson, or any other 4 for the Cavs, have to work that much harder on the defensive end of the floor.
Season series outcome: Cleveland, 3-1
The Cavs won the first two meetings of the season, 114-108 in OT and 108-94, before the Bulls took the third game, 113-98 in Chicago. They were without Rose for the last meeting of the year, which Cleveland won 99-94.
Prediction: Bulls in 6
Catching the Cavs without J.R. Smith for their home games to start the series, as well as no Kevin Love at all, is a huge break for the Bulls, and the type of break that’s gone the other way for them during the last three seasons. With so much writing on the wall, it seems like this could finally be the year for Chicago to get over their LeBron James-sized hump in the Eastern Conference, especially if they can steal one of Cleveland’s Smith-less home games during the early part of the series.
The caveat to all of this, obviously, lies within stopping LeBron. Without Love, the scoring onus on James is that much greater, and he showed during the first round that Playoff LeBron still exists, and that he can unleash himself at any point in time if he so chooses. Kyrie Irving, too, was a scoring force in the first round, but outside of those two, Cleveland doesn’t have much. If the Bulls’ defense, which hasn’t been up to its elite levels of the past this season, can show up in full force and minimize the damage done by James and Irving, they’ll certainly have a chance. Fortunately for Chicago, they can score a little bit more this year as well, although they’ll want to avoid getting into any track meets, even with this diminished version of the Cavaliers. If the Bulls can get out to a 3-2 lead, I think they’ll close it out at home.