The Chicago Bulls put away the Milwaukee Bucks quickly in their Game 6 matchup on Thursday night, and I can only imagine how much of a relief it must have been when the final horn sounded in that game. They closed out just their second playoff series victory since taking care of the Atlanta Hawks in the second round in 2011, and somewhat amazingly, just their fifth total playoff series victory since Michael Jordan brought championship No. 6 back from Utah.
For the Cleveland Cavaliers, they’re back in the playoffs for the first time since LeBron James took his talents to South Beach. They took care of the Boston Celtics in a sweep, but it came at a cost. They lost Kevin Love to a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum, an injury that could potentially keep him out until into training camp in the fall. They lost J.R. Smith to suspension for his hit on Jae Crowder for Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland. Their depth is going to be tested.
Depth will be the key to this series, in fact. When they were at full strength, the Cavs played with nine players in the first round against the Celtics. But outside of James and Kyrie Irving, question marks riddle the Cavs’ roster for the matchup with the Bulls.
James and Irving performed like the stars they are this season, but the rest of the available roster is mainly role players. When considering that Smith won’t be appearing in the first two games, the Cavs are essentially down to three starters, two guys in Shumpert and Thompson who are forced into starting roles but ideally should be coming off the bench, and two guys in Dellavedova and Jones who probably wouldn’t be playing at all for any other remaining playoff team.
On the other side of the court, the Bulls are finally fully healthy in the playoffs. Compare the kind of depth that they have available to what the Cavs have to play with:
The Bulls counter James and Irving with Butler and Rose, even if the Cavs’ duo is better overall. Butler upped his game in the series with the Bucks, and Rose has performed well when he has had his legs underneath him. The real advantage for the Bulls is in the frontcourt, where Noah and Mozgov cancel each other out, and the Bulls’ Gasol, Gibson, and Mirotic are countered by the Cavs’ Thompson and … Kendrick Perkins? It’s a massive advantage for the Bulls.
The depth is a massive advantage for the Bulls, as well. Even if the Cavs’ new starting five can match the Bulls’ starting five on the court, they’re going to have to rest some of their starters eventually. When Dellavedova, Jones, LeBron, Thompson and Perkins are on the court against Brooks, Snell, Butler, Mirotic and Gibson, the Bulls are going to swarm James on defense and, likely, run wild on offense with outside shooting.
It’s not always as simple as matchups and depth, but in this series it looks like the Bulls have both working in their favor. The Cavs have the best player on the court and the home-court advantage, so it’s not as if you can simply count them out. This is going to be a hard-fought series, and due to the way the playoff seeding worked out, it could very well act as the de facto Eastern Conference Finals. The winner of this series is probably heading into the Finals against the winner from the West, although we can’t count out the Atlanta Hawks or Washington Wizards.
LeBron has eliminated the Bulls from the playoffs all three times he has faced them in his career, and the Cavs are only going to get better from this point forward. Now might be the last great chance for this core to win a championship in Chicago. Hopefully they’re up to the challenge.