The Bulls made the playoffs. Great. Now what do they do? Or more precisely, how do they beat LeBron James, surely the league’s MVP, and the Cavs, the NBA’s winningest team?
I’m glad I asked because I know how to do it. Unfortunately, I am not coaching the Bulls, so I cannot be responsible if the Cavs win, as everyone expects.
Look, the Bulls aren’t supposed to win this series, or really even make it close. This is supposed to be a Cavs team on a mission after being upset in the conference finals last season and reloading with Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison.
This is a Bulls team whose priority is this summer and free agency, so they let go Ben Gordon, the scoring star of last season’s great playoff series with the Celtics, along with trades of John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas, two other major contributors. Flip Murray and Hakim Warrick have come in their place, though Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro rarely uses Warrick.
Perhaps the Cavs’ biggest early opponent is expectations.
You are supposed to walk through this series. After all, the Bulls lost 10 straight games in March and got to .500 by winning 10 of their last 14 to barely pass Toronto for the final playoff spot. But Derrick Rose, who just was named player of the month, and Joakim Noah are playing at All Star levels, and, the Cavs had just one All Star this season.
Will Mo Williams start missing shots again like he did in last year’s playoffs? Shaq’s just returning from being out six weeks. Jamison hasn’t shot as well. Can James embolden them? Will he have to?
The Bulls should look at this as an easy series in which they have nothing to lose. They weren’t supposed to be here. Few expect them to get even a game or two. So what if they don’t? Big deal.
So be creative. Be imaginative. Make the Cavs think. And make ‘em sweat a little.
I don’t really expect it because Del Negro prefers to play a traditional game.
On defense, the Bulls will play Deng on James and Noah and later Miller on Shaq, though Shaq probably won’t play that much in his first game back. The Bulls general defensive plan will be to deny middle and when someone penetrates to bring a double.
I wouldn’t do that, but I’ll explain.
The Bulls will stunt with the guards when Shaq or someone is posting, and they’ll probably bring someone in a double along the baseline, which has been their preferred position to double. They’ve been burned some bringing the other big from across the lane because then you have a mismatch with a guard dropping down, and teams have exploited that. Better, perhaps, to bring the wing player on the shooter who’ll be in the opposite corner. It’s a longer run to make the double, but keeps your matchups.
The Bulls stay traditional, and that’s where I’d change.
Look, the Cavs are way better than the Bulls.
So what you’ve got to do is get them off balance. Their coach, Mike Brown, isn’t very good making in game adjustments. So make them think.
LeBron, obviously, is the key.
The last half of this season he’s begun to play more like Michael Jordan, at least in the last three championships. LeBron won’t look for his scoring early. He sort of lopes into games, looking to get interior guys going, then working with the perimeter guys before he takes over scoring later.
I’d put Kirk Hinrich on him. Del Negro will likely have Hinrich on Mo Williams in a cross match with Rose as Williams gives Rose trouble running off screens. Teams like to put Rose in screen/roll since he has trouble with them, just as the Bulls will have to put Shaq or Zydrunas Ilgauskas in screen/roll since they don’t particularly play them.
Obviously, James would see the mismatch against Hinrich, who is a pesky defender. You need that kind of defender on James. No one stops him. But you need to stay up on him and bother him, not give him space.
You also want to lure him into trying to score, especially in the post as he doesn’t like to play out of the post.
It’s a variation on what Don Nelson once did to upset the second seeded Jazz when he had the Warriors at seventh seed. He put Tim Hardaway on 7-3 Mark Eaton, daring the Jazz to try to score. The result was the Jazz going away from their ball movement game, and the Warriors won the series.
You have to do the same with the Cavs.
The key to playing the Cavs, I believe, is to let LeBron try to beat you. He really doesn’t want to score that much. He is a willing passer, much more so than the likes of Jordan or Kobe Bryant. It also keeps his teammates more engaged, and, especially at home, the crowd responds when the “supporting cast” begins hitting threes and dunking.
So you stay home on the shooters and don’t double off. Let LeBron get going, but it takes the others out of the game. They get to standing around and can get lethargic in transition.
Because that’s the offensive priority for the Bulls.
There’s this notion the Bulls have to keep the score low because they don’t have as many weapons, and in a low scoring, closer game they can get bailed out by Rose.
But you want to run the Cavs. Shaq is old. Z is old. Jamison is old. That was what worked for the Bulls when they upset the defending champion Heat in 2007. Run and don’t let them set their defense.
The Cavs are best when they can set their defense. They are not a good defensive team contesting shots. It’s actually surprising how bad they are at that. You can get shots up against them. But they are very good in what’s called loading to the ball, which means stacking a defense to create a sort of wall against the offensive play.
You want to keep them out of those formations. You do that with speed and transition.
Also, you have to get in front of James and make the refs call charges. James gets a free pass like no one going to the basket because he is so quick and strong it seems guys don’t want to take charges or feel they won’t get a call against him as he’s called for the fewest fouls in the league for the star players.
Make the refs make a call. Get in front of him. Forget blocking a shot. Let him take those threes, which he can hit, but is hit or miss more often.
Also, make him defend. James has perhaps the most bogus reputation in the league as a defender because he makes so many of those highlight blocks from behind. But he doesn’t like to play much man to man and direct contact. He likes to play passing lanes and avoids a lot of direct defensive contact. If he’s on you, you have to go at him and attack. Make him make a play. Challenge the refs to make calls. They won’t to start. But you have to go back at him.
So I’d have Hinrich harassing him and see if he forgets about his teammates. The Bulls will play Taj Gibson on Jamison, but I’d have Deng more on Jamison. I’d play Jamison like teams play Dirk Nowitzki. He’s too fast and clever for a big who wants to stay by the basket, anyway, like Gibson does. Deng has good length and enough quickness to bother Jamison, who can shoot the three and then would beat Gibson with his quickness.
These aren’t matchups to start the game, which would be more traditional, but things to spring on the Cavs.
Initially, they’ll go to Shaq and I’d have Noah fronting. It’s not easy and no one generally tries with Shaq as he’ll try to seal you. Noah is quick enough to do it. The Cavs with Shaq like to post and repost and fighting him like that will take time off the clock and force him into a quicker shot, which is usually isn’t good at even when in condition.
So when I’ve got Kirk on LeBron and Deng on Jamison, it’s a small team. But the Bulls are small in this series. Use what you have. The Cavs eventually will go small in the backcourt a lot with Williams and Delonte West, so it won’t hurt you that much.
But Del Negro has to go to the bench. It’s too bad he lost faith in Devin Brown, who is a better defender than Jannero Pargo or Flip Murray and knows the Cavs well from playing there. The Cavs privately are happy not to see him as they felt he was one of their tougher players.
The Bulls will have to stay away from their high pick and roll, which they use way too much, anyway. Cleveland defends that well by loading to the ball, so the Bulls should go more side pick and roll in half court sets.
You’d say get Deng in more pick and rolls, but he doesn’t screen particularly well, and once you leave the screener, who usually is Noah, it happens that Noah is one of the better decision makers with the ball and can now make that jumper reasonably often. Brad Miller can pop out in that and the Bulls will try to use Miller as much as possible when Shaq plays other than starting.
The Bulls also have to move the ball, make those extra passes in the halfcourt to keep the Cavs moving, especially when they go with their slower bigs. The Cavs will go with Hickson a lot at center in what has been their best lineup because they spread the court and give James more options, which is when I’d have someone like Hinrich on him to just stay with him and see if he’ll go for 50. The Pistons always used to bait Jordan like that and take teammates out of the game.
The Cavs on defense are going to pick up Rose high and trap him early, as teams have done more of late. But they’ll have to be small to do that more effectively, and then the Bulls may be able to run more. And we saw in that last game when James didn’t play the Bulls laid off Varejao and he couldn’t make a play.
And then if the Bulls can get a lead, with the expectations hovering over them, can the Cavs exorcise those Bulls demons haunting their past and show themselves as the favorite they are supposed to be.
The Bulls should be loose and should be able to play free and easy. It’s house money just being in the playoffs. So take some chances and go for a jackpot. What have you go to lose?
Point Guard: Derrick Rose vs Mo Williams. This is going to be a cross match situation. Most likely, the Bulls will play Rose, their weakest defender but getting better with some nice blocks and staying more in front lately, on Anthony Parker. Williams plays off LeBron well and runs pick and pops with him and spots up. Hinrich likely will play Williams, who had a huge game earlier this month against the Bulls with LeBron not playing. Williams has not been good in big game settings and strained to make shots in last year’s playoffs. Rose is making up for the loss of Ben Gordon from last season and averaged more than 30 the last three games when the Bulls had to win and is the player of the month. The Cavs, like everyone else, will aggressively try to trap him, though it will only work some when Varejao plays. Rose has shown like in stealing Game 1 last season he’s a big game player.
Shooting Guard: Kirk Hinrich vs Anthony Parker. Parker can make some threes and will likely be defended by Rose since he’s not one of the primary scoring options. The Cavs probably will use a lot more of Delonte West as he’s more of a scorer off the dribble and could give Rose trouble in the pick and roll. Parker is a streaky shooter and can get hot if left alone, which is why I wouldn’t necessarily be aggressively doubling with Rose. Hinrich is the Bulls best perimeter defender and has been shooting the ball well lately coming off that down screen and dribble handoff the Bulls run for him. He’s finally giving the team some court spacing with his threes.
Small Forward: Luol Deng vs LeBron James. Obviously, no one has the edge on the league MVP. James pretty much does what he wants, though I’ve noticed of late he’s taken to the Jordan model of getting teammates off first and then looking for his scoring later in the game. He’ll tend to fall in love with the three a bit too much, and his free throw shooting is shaky with the Cavs last in the league in free throw shooting. But when he decides no one can stop him at the basket. It’s almost as if everyone is afraid to step in front, figuring either they’ll get hurt or they’ll never get the call. You’ve got to step in and make the refs call something. Deng missed last season’s playoffs and is determined to harass James sand make it difficult for him. Deng’s calf injury has acted up, and his scoring has dropped off. But he’s got to be aggressive to make LeBron work.
Edge: Cavs (big)
Power Forward: Taj Gibson vs Antawn Jamison. We’ll see if he’s the final piece. You’ve got to give the Cavs credit for being aggressive with adding personnel, obviously to try to get James to resign. Jamison’s a tough matchup for Gibson as he’s not a traditional four since he can go outside and hit the three and is unusually quick inside and never quite gets in the shooting motion with his assortment of floaters. Gibson had a big game against him earlier, but in the last game without James playing Gibson was lost as he is best inside and around the basket. He’s probably not strong enough to punish Jamison in the post.
Center: Joakim Noah vs Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal has been out more than a month with a hand injury and probably won’t play that much given his conditioning. He’s mostly on the team for the expected later matchup with Orlando and Dwight Howard. Without Shaq, they’ve been playing J.J. Hickson at center in a smaller, quicker lineup that opens the floor, and they’re really best that way. They’ll bring Varejao off the bench, though he’ll finish more games than Hickson because of his defensive abilities. Shaq will try to overwhelm Noah, who is more like the active Varejao. James likes to find Hickson in pick and roll and transition situations slashing and finishing, which is why the Bulls could have trouble if they continue to blitz the pick and roll, which is a staple of their defense. Brad Miller is the team’s choice on Shaq, so after the initial matchup Miller will probably match with O’Neal. Noah will run whomever is guarding him and the Cavs’ big guys with Ilgauskas don’t want to do that, and Hickson is too small for Noah.
Bench: Varejao is the defensive key off the bench for the Cavs along with Ilgauskas, who can be dangerous as a spot up shooter. The Cavs have pretty much ignored his value this season and he’ll probably move on to another team next season. Delonte West is another key for them, though you wonder as the playoffs go on if the pressure will have an affect on his personality disorder, which the Cavs tend to pretend doesn’t exist. The Bulls have done a poor job this season developing and using the bench. James Johnson never got much playing time and is pretty lost now as a result. After playing some after the trade, the same with Hakim Warrick, who could be useful. They went with their starters down the stretch for huge minutes to get into the playoffs, and they did, so it worked. But the bench has tended to turn selfish as a result given limited time and quick hooks for mistakes.
Coaching: Vinny Del Negro vs Mike Brown. It’s been a surreal last week for Del Negro with the revelations of an incident with vice president John Paxson and additional media scrutiny. Brown is the reigning coach of the year, so it’s not a fair fight, anyway. Brown remains essentially a defensive coach with little apparent input on the offensive end as James and Williams basically call all the plays and James isolates to close games and runs what he chooses. But he is a bright player and an asset that way. They are a tough defensive team that sets up a wall well on one side with good rotation, which is why you cannot let them get into a set defense. Del Negro hasn’t created much with the Bulls offense, which runs mostly high pick and roll and some weak side action of down screens. The lack of bench development shouldn’t hurt as much in a series with the games spread out, especially in the first round.
Pick: Cavs in five. Maybe six if they listen to me more.