For the first time since the 2009-10 season, the Cavaliers clinched the Central Division, and you can indeed attribute this to the LeBron James effect. When he’s on your roster, you’re exponentially better. While the Cavs’ victory over the Bucks would have clinched the feat itself, the division was clinched earlier in the night when the Bulls lost to the Magic by a final score of 105-103, souring Derrick Rose’s return to the lineup after a 20-game sabbatical following knee surgery.
Victor Oladipo took matters into his own hands in the fourth quarter for the Magic to lead his team to a victory. Trailing 99-98, Oladipo pulled up in transition and connected for a three-pointer. A few possessions later, oozing with confidence, he drove and eluded the Bulls’ defense and scored with 1.5 seconds left to give his team a 105-103 lead. Chicago was unable to respond and lost its third game out of four.
Rose was limited to just 19 minutes in the game with the Bulls looking to preserve his ever-so fragile body with eyes set on a deep playoff run. He scored nine points on 3-of-9 shooting and had four turnovers in the contest. On the season, he’s shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc, and in his first game back from surgery, those struggles continued as he went just 1-of-6 from downtown.
Although it didn’t net a good result in the win column, the Bulls were delighted to have the 2011 MVP back in the lineup. They’re fully aware that they become a much scarier team when he’s on the court. In the 47 games he has played for the Bulls this season, Rose has averaged 18.2 points, 5.0 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 31.0 minutes per game.
In Rose’s absence, the Bulls were a mediocre 10-10 with impressive wins over Washington and Toronto (x2), although both those teams were struggling at the time. But this stretch also included rough losses to Detroit, Charlotte, Indiana and Milwaukee. This pretty much epitomizes the Bulls’ 2014-15 campaign — a team ripe with inconsistency and never able to fully gain enough momentum to put together an extended impressive streak of games.
Many of their woes this season can be attributed to injuries, which has stymied the progress of the team’s chemistry and cohesion. They’re hoping they can finally right the ship and have this bunch at full strength going into the postseason. Obviously much, if not all, of their hopes are predicated on the health of Rose. Every drive to the basket, fall to the ground and impromptu visit to the locker room will cause Bulls front office executives to have trepidation. But, in order for this team to have a real shot at contention, depth will be critical – everyone will need to be healthy.
At the beginning of the season, fans were salivating at the thought of watching the Bulls play because they had surmised that this team could legitimately become a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. Heck, I had this team winning the East, but sadly that hasn’t come to fruition.
But if you analyze this roster, there’s still reason to be excited if you’re a Bulls fan. If healthy, it may ultimately come down to the Cavaliers and Bulls battling it out for a chance to go to the Finals. Joakim Noah actually alluded to this matchup following their loss to the Cavs on Sunday when he spouted that he’d relish having an opportunity to meet them in the postseason. Noah has never defeated James in the playoffs, so there’s no question he’d welcome the chance to transcend those previous failures.
Nikola Mirotic has been a bright spot for the Bulls, as he has thrust himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation with his outstanding play. Since the All-Star break, he has averaged 16.6 points and 7.0 rebounds. He has had a propensity to hit big shots late in games for Chicago as well.
Pau Gasol has also played exceptionally well and proven to be one of the best signings of the offseason. His ability to create for teammates by using his astute passing is an integral part of the offense, to go along with Noah’s slick passing. Their ideal scenario would be the pairing of Noah and Gasol producing results because of their unselfishness and ability to finish in the lane, with Gasol providing some spacing in pick-and-pop situations. Unfortunately, this duo hasn’t panned out the way the Bulls would have hoped, but there’s still hope for greener pastures come postseason.
What can the Bulls do to improve their chances?
Well, they’re shooting 44.2 percent from the field this season, which is tied for 20th with Boston. Offensive synergy is important when making a postseason run because the tempo slows down and half-court sets are emphasized much more. The Bulls sometimes struggle in the half-court, and they don’t help themselves with many easy buckets in transition. Chicago ranks 23rd in fast break points with 10.9 per game, and this can largely be attributed to their inability to corral steals. (29th in league with 5.8 per game) If the Bulls’ defense can force more turnovers and get Rose out running, that could lead to more easy buckets.
On a more effervescent note, the Bulls are 10th in the league in three-point shooting at 35 percent, so hopefully the cutting and slashing of Rose can continue to open the floor for his team and give him opportunity to find shooters. Spreading the floor can also open the lane for more drives which result in free throws. Chicago has done a good job getting to the line this season, ranking third in the NBA with 25.3 free throw attempts per game.
If the Bulls can get it together, we may be able to get a dream matchup of a healthy Bulls team facing the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. The loss to Orlando dropped Chicago to fourth in the Eastern Conference, and with Cleveland at No. 2, that ECF matchup could happen. The Bulls would be seeking their first Finals appearance since the glorious Jordan era, and James would be looking to get his hometown Cavs back to the Finals for the first time since 2007.
But wait … Let’s not get TOO ahead of ourselves. So much can happen over the next few months. What we do know is that many things will need to go right for Chicago, and so far, many of those things haven’t happened.