The Chicago Bulls picked up a huge win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, getting a seven-point win on the road and stealing home-court advantage right away from the Cleveland Cavaliers, 99-92.
This group of Bulls players, especially Derrick Rose, has been waiting a long time for a rematch with LeBron James. The last time the Bulls played a team led by James was the 2013 playoff semifinals, but the last time they had a healthy Rose for a series against James was the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, when James led his Miami Heat to a win over Chicago in just five games.
With the way the Bulls started Game 1, you’d think that those memories felt much more recent than four years ago to this team. While LeBron was content to distribute and integrate his teammates in the early part of the game, Rose and the Bulls got off to an assertive start offensively, moving the ball well and often finding Mike Dunleavy, who was 5/5 with a trio of three-pointers in the opening quarter. Chicago had a 12-point lead after the first quarter and literally never looked back, leading wire-to-wire.
Snagging Game 1 on the road is obviously a coup for the Bulls, who were able to take full advantage of the Cavs adjusting to life without Kevin Love and J.R. Smith. David Blatt will surely make some lineup adjustments against the massive Bulls frontcourt going forward, and with a player like LeBron, he has a generous capacity to do so, although James played a very pedestrian Game 1 while being guarded by Jimmy Butler. That matchup brings up the first key to the game.
The Love Chasm. – In Cleveland’s first game on its quest to win a championship without Love, they didn’t do a very good job of convincing anyone they’re capable. The Cavs came out flat in the franchise’s first high-stakes playoff game in six years and, as our Today’s Fastbreak managing editor Jason Patt pointed out on Twitter, allowed the Bulls to match their production at every key position, including small forward and point guard, where Butler and Rose did more than enough to offset the production of James and Kyrie Irving.
As noted, the biggest difference came at the power-forward position, where the Cavaliers couldn’t decide what they wanted to do all night. Love’s scoring production as the third member of their Big Three was sorely missed. Mike Miller started for the Cavs in a sort of two-way platoon with James that wound up with him bizarrely matched up with Pau Gasol on multiple occasions early in the game. It wasn’t pretty.
The spot proved to be a nuisance for Blatt and the Cavaliers for the rest of the game. Miller’s lack of size was making him unplayable against the Bulls’ huge lineups, and James Jones wasn’t shooting well enough to make his size worth it. Blatt even dusted off Shawn Marion for a stretch, but as Gasol tore up Cleveland in the second half with a barrage of jumpers and nifty ball-movement from the high post, it became painfully obvious how much the Cavs were going to miss the versatility of Love. Gasol finished a team-high +17.
The Return, Realized. – While Derrick Rose wasn’t youngest-ever-NBA-MVP Derrick Rose in Game 1, he was extremely good, with strong shot selection as well as patience and poise. Early on, Rose allowed the game to come to him, but he wasn’t afraid to assert himself down the stretch in the fourth quarter, when the Bulls just kept putting Rose in pick-and-rolls and forcing the Cavs to adjust. Several times, they found themselves with big men switched onto Rose, and he made them pay. There was an injury scare at the end of the game when Rose left the floor clutching his shoulder, but it’s just a stinger and not a big deal.
Without being nostalgic or hyperbolic, it was the kind of performance that Bulls fans have been aching to see from Rose in a big moment for years, and it certainly feels great to see him realize it after all he has worked toward during the last few years. He knows better than anyone, though, how quickly things can go wrong in chasing a title, so don’t expect him to let up at all in Game 2. A 2-0 lead would be an incredible advantage for the Bulls heading back to Chicago, and with the shallow Cavs still missing Smith for another game, they have the perfect opportunity to get it. Rose might be intimately familiar with the kind of bad luck Cleveland is experiencing right now, but that doesn’t mean he feels anything other than hungry to finally make up for his own lost winning time.