Some ways Bulls finally can get past their nemesis
The focus of the Bulls-Cavaliers second-round playoff series will be on who is missing when Game 1 tips off tonight in Cleveland.
The Cavs will be without two starters: Power forward Kevin Love is out for the playoffs with a dislocated left shoulder and shooting guard J.R. Smith is suspended two games for striking Boston's Jae Crowder in Game 4 of the first round.
But don't consider the Cavaliers short-handed, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau insisted.
"Any team that has LeBron (James) and Kyrie (Irving), you're not short-handed," he said Sunday.
True, Cleveland still has two of the league's best players and remains a strong opponent. But the fact is, the Cavaliers won't be the same, especially in Games 1 and 2. Here's a look at what the Bulls have to do to give themselves a chance to get past James and the Cavs in Round 2:
Play with a lead: Cleveland has one of the best homecourt advantages in the league, winning 20 of their last 21 games at Quicken Loans Arena. The one game the Cavs lost, they basically tanked late in the season against Boston.
For the Bulls to win this series, they need to get it done before reaching a Game 7 in Cleveland. That means taking at least one of the first two games, then going back to the United Center and building a 3-1 lead. The Cavs have had a full week off since their last game, but nobody knows whether that will help or hurt.
Win the mismatches: Kevin Love is a unique player because he's one of the league's best rebounders and also shoots 3-pointers well. To replace Love, the Cavs generally use Tristan Thompson, a strong rebounder, or James Jones, who at some point in his career was a good 3-point shooter. No one on the Cleveland bench is going to do both.
The Bulls have mobile big men and probably won't try to match a small lineup. They'll let Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson or Nikola Mirotic chase a smaller player. So when the Cavs go small, the Bulls need to dominate the boards.
When Thompson is in the game, the Bulls need to shut down the 3-point game, which was a big part of their two regular-season losses at Cleveland.
Control the ball: The Bulls aren't going to win any 20-turnover games in this series. They need to keep that strange tendency to throw careless passes and dribble into traffic under wraps.
Against James, most every live-ball turnover becomes a fastbreak dunk. Beating the Cavs will require keeping them in the half court and limiting easy baskets.
Attack the rim: The Cavaliers have not been a lockdown defensive team all year. They ranked 20th in opponents' field-goal percentage, 13th in points allowed, 22nd in forcing turnovers.
The biggest weakness in that defense might be the guards' inability to stay in front of opponents. In other words, Derrick Rose needs to drive past Irving and put constant pressure on Cleveland's defense. It doesn't have to be Rose all the time, Jimmy Butler and Aaron Brooks also can get into the lane.
Once the Bulls get into the paint, anything is possible: Drive and score, drop it off to a big man, kick it out for a 3-pointer. That's the formula for a Bulls victory.
Final analysis: This is a tough one to predict since there are so many unknowns for the Cavs. They have some veterans on the bench who likely will get a chance to contribute. In my mind, though, any minutes by Kendrick Perkins, Shawn Marion or Mike Miller are good news for the Bulls.
But LeBron is LeBron, and the Bulls have been perplexingly inconsistent. The pick here is Cavs in 7.
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