As soon as the New LeBron Era began in Cleveland last summer, the Cavaliers shifted into championship mode. The presence of a player like James will do that.
But in the clinching Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, as his team crushed the Chicago Bulls on their home United Center court, it was not James leading the Cavs to their first Eastern Conference final since he was last led them there in 2009, but the supporting cast members that many doubted could actually support James during a playoff run: Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavadova, even in-season additions like Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith.
In doing so, this new Cleveland crew may very well have ended another era in Chicago.
The Cavs’ 94-73 beatdown of the Bulls has widely been hailed as the final game of the Tom Thibodeau era, and if that’s the case, it would be an ill-fitting conclusion in many ways, as Thibs’ teams have never known when to quit, and yet, even a 21-point deficit doesn’t quite seem to do justice to just how hapless Chicago seemed in this game.
In other ways, it could be fitting era to the Thibs era: the Bulls struggled to score, the players looked tired, and the coach stubbornly adhered to his preferences.
Chicago started the game with 31 first-quarter points but scored just 42 points the rest of the way. Both Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose started well and faded down the stretch, Gasol looking increasingly labored by a bum hamstring and Rose simply content with a passive role off the ball.
There was no energy from Chicago, even as the world’s greatest player labored through another tough game shooting the ball and was forced to catalyze his teammates rather than score the ball himself. The Bulls failed to take advantage of another struggle-game from James, and not even a great performance from the team overall. Yet as the opportunity slipped through their hands, Thibs was still running his pet guys like Kirk Hinrich out onto the floor, who put up a 0-0-0 line with 1 foul and a -29 in 20 minutes.
As mentioned, it was as unexpected as it was strange to see the Cavaliers’ backups be the squad to totally undo the Bulls.
Dellvadova filled in for Kyrie Irving, who left in the second quarter after aggravating his knee injury, and threw in 17 points, a career-high in the postseason, and along with Smith, hit several heartbreaking shots as the Bulls tried to cook up a rally in the late third quarter. Shumpert added five-straight points after being clotheslined by Nikola Mirotic in the quarter. Thompson pulled down 17 rebounds and had a huge impact on the pace of the game, which Cleveland was more than happy to slow down after Chicago’s early offensive success came on the break.
Jimmy Butler, the lone Chicago player who seemed to show up for every game and minute of this entire season, once again did an admirable job on both ends, making shots and guarding James in trying to lead a comeback, but even another 43 minutes with him wasn’t enough. This was an ugly game after the first quarter, and it was over once Cleveland’s other players started making shots, since James’s was broken.
It was also fitting, though, to see LeBron–or at least a LeBron-led team––potentially end Thibodeau’s tenure, as James has eliminated Thibs’s Chicago teams in three of his five years at the helm there. For James, it will be the fifth-straight year he has made the conference finals.
As Cleveland moves on, they must continue to get performances like these from their supporting cast, especially without Kevin Love, and closing this series out in six games will give them some valuable rest to heal their other injuries, especially those to James and Irving. The Cavs will face the Hawks or Wizards and will surely be favored as James looks to lead them to a chance at a championship.
The Bulls seem like they will be moving on in a different way, with the Thibodeau situation and Butler’s impending free agency. Although it was encouraging to see Rose return to health, they clearly need some additional scoring punch and have other areas to address as well. Maybe they can turn their thorough defeat in this series into catharsis.