LeBron James was waiting for it, the subtle knuckleball of a question coming his way after his Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday eliminated the Bulls in five games with a tough 96-94 victory in the opening round playoff series.
James, who held together a shaky Cavs group that was feeling the pressure down the stretch with 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, called Derrick Rose a special talent who now is one of the top two point guards in the NBA. James said he wasn’t offended by anything Joakim Noah said as Noah was able to back up everything with his play on the court.
So wouldn’t Chicago, LeBron, be a nice place for a free…
James, wearing an oversized white sweater with an “LBJ” monogram bigger than Lyndon Johnson’s ranch, stopped me before I could finish.
“So I want to play with them?” James said with a laugh. I kind of figured that was coming.
“Those guys are great,” said James, going on without prompting. “First of all, I’m a fan of the game of basketball before I was a player. It just so happened with the God given abilities I have I was able to be successful in the game and be part of this league. Even when I’m done playing I still love the game. I watch the game every day. I know talent and those are two talented guys. They are going to be really good for this league for years to come.
“I know,” said James, walking away for the night and heading to Boston for the Eastern Conference semifinals, “I didn’t answer your question.”
And now that this season is over with another fun and entertaining first round playoff series, but again a first round elimination—”I don’t want us to be known as the team that always plays hard in the first round. The goal is to win the series and play in the big games,” said Noah—the big questions remain:
What is the fate of coach Vinny Del Negro?
GM Gar Forman said after the game no decision is imminent and the team, as usual, will do its post season evaluations.
Will the Bulls’ moves of letting go Ben Gordon and trading John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas for salary cap space pay off in the signing this summer of a major free agent star to add to the talent base of Rose, Noah, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich and Taj Gibson?
“I think I am going to meet with them, the people in the front office, and just talk and see who we are going to get,” said Rose, whose brilliance with 31 points and six assists in Game 5 overshadowed even James with gasps and demands from the crowd to “stop that guy!” “It is going to be fun. We can get any one of them (potential free agents). We’ve just got to get the right one to fit the team. I’m going to have a say-so, but everything is going to be left up to the people in the front office. I wouldn’t say recruit like that, but Chicago is a great place, a great team, a great organization, the fans are great, so why not come there?”
And just who will be around to play with that free agent?
Certainly Rose and Noah. This series, if it wasn’t already clear, determined those two are untouchables. Bulls insiders confirm no offer could get the team to part with either one of them.
As for Hinrich and Deng, the off season will be an anxious one as both know they’ll be mentioned in trade talk and quite possibly be the bait for the sign and trade deal that a major free agent likely would desire.
“I think they’ve got good pieces, Derrick and Joakim and Taj and Luol, good, though guys,” said Hinrich, who has been a constant in trade rumors. “It’s a big summer for the organization. For myself, I’ve had a good time and enjoyed this year. I’d like to be back, if possible, but you never know.
“It seems every summer or trade deadline my name comes up,” Hinrich said with a wry laugh. “I don’t worry about it. This summer I’ll try to improve and get work in and work hard and be ready to go.”
Dressing near Hinrich in a relatively light Bulls locker room given the circumstances—those guys really did seem to like one another and get along well—Deng was getting up to leave. He was pleased to get through the season mostly healthy after a stress fracture last year and will play for the Great Britain national team summer, likely with former teammate Ben Gordon.
“Everybody talks about the future,” Deng acknowledged after an active 26 points and six rebounds with eight of 11 free throws. “We’ve got a lot of talent, a bright future. I’m sure the organization feels the same way. I’d love to be here my whole career. But you have to understand the business side. There’s always going to be changes. As a player and professional you have to work on your game. Every year is different.”
This one sure was with Rose hurt early in the season but playing through it without his usual explosion. Was the kid done already?
That led to a rocky start, a five game losing streak on the “circus” Western Conference trip in November, and then the December meltdown which produced a hysterical reaction and stories of the imminent firing of Del Negro.
The Bulls lost at home to 1-19 New Jersey, then went to Atlanta and lost by 35, lost by 32 at home to Toronto, lost by 26 at home to Boston and blew that 35-point lead at home to the Sacramento Kings and fell to 10-17.
But Rose recovered and so did the Bulls with a five-game winning streak out west in the January/February trip and suddenly the Bulls were 23-22 and moving up on fifth in the East.
Rose made the All Star team, the first Bulls player to do so since Michael Jordan, but Noah’s plantar fasciitis worsened and he went out. The Bulls got to 31-27 after the All Star break, but that game was the turning point as the Bulls beat Portland at home in overtime. But Del Negro played Noah longer than he was supposed to, Noah suffered a setback and had to sit out three weeks. The Bulls lost 10 straight and Del Negro had a confrontation with team executive John Paxson.
But the Bulls came back, winning 10 of their last 14 and the last three straight to make the playoffs, and James Tuesday admitted, yes, he wanted the Bulls.
Maybe a little to pay back the ills the old No. 23 put on the Cavs two decades ago, but more to get better prepared for what lies ahead.
“We knew this (Bulls) team would push us,” complimented James. “Honestly, we’d rather play Chicago more than Toronto. We knew we were going to get pushed a little more. Not taking anything away from Toronto (sure), but with (Chris) Bosh being out the rest of the season, it looked like they didn’t even want to make the playoffs at the end of the season, especially when you see that game in Toronto with Chicago. So with Toronto it probably would have ended the same way as last year (with an opening round sweep).
“When Chicago made the eight seed, I was excited,” said James, who did control his dancing this series. “Because we knew we had to be in tune on every possession. That team plays hard no matter the score or time, no matter what the series is.”
It’s the way you want to be known around your sport, and I didn’t take it as James just being kind to a loser.
Yes, the Bulls had their usual home big loss, as they always seem to do, like last year in Game 3 against Boston or in Game 3 in the conference semifinals in 2007 against Detroit.
And that Game 4 loss left a bad taste for the team about this series.
“It was tough, the games they really won, they blew us out,” said Rose. “If anything, we just wanted to come out here and compete and try to make the game close. I think if we would have made the game close in the other games, it would have been a better series. But, we let them get out and get their runs and they are the type of team where they are too good offensively where, if one person is going, all of them get going. I wouldn’t take anything back, if anything, we can learn from it and try to work on it in the future.”
But the Bulls pushed the Cavs to the brink Tuesday in the game everyone just gave them.
Cavs players were locking up late in the game, seemingly reluctant to shoot as the Bulls kept coming with two Rose jumpers coming out after being halfway down and an amazingly bad continuation basket for Rose being reversed perhaps costing the Bulls the game. James even was yelling at teammates to shoot in the fourth, and there was a scare for him as he finished the game shooting a left handed free throw because he said his right elbow gets numb on occasion.
This was met with near post game panic by the Cleveland media as one reporter suggested James see Dr. James Andrews and another asked if he could reassure the Cavs fans.
“I don’t know, honestly, what’s going on (with it),” Jame said “I’ve done tests to try and figure this thing out, but it almost feels like you hit your funny bone and it kind of numbs up for a little bit. After I shot the first (free throw late in the game), that’s exactly what it did. I’m not concerned. I just want to try and get a better sense of what it may be. But Cleveland fans have nothing to be worried about. I’m healthy, I’m ready and we are looking forward to the second round. They don’t have any reason to panic.”
I know Noah had some fun with Cleveland with his comments, and it was a tough game for him with eight points, nine rebounds and seven turnovers while Shaq banged his way in for 14 points and eight rebounds.
But you really feel sorry for Cleveland fans, even more so than Cubs fans. Cubs fans generally are so drunk and having a good time, it doesn’t matter much. And they are in Chicago. You are in Cleveland with the Indians failures of the 1990’s, the Browns famous fumble, the Cavs losses to Jordan, and now this and LeBron is a free agent.
And you can almost feel the anxiety in the crowd, especially as the Bulls wouldn’t go away in Game 5.
It really was a fun game with 16 lead changes and five ties. The Bulls again outrebounded the bigger Cavs with Taj Gibson game high with 11 and a big edge in second chance points.
Again, the offensive holes were too much. The Bulls were two of 10 on threes while the Cavs were 10 of 26, making as many as the Bulls shot, and the Bulls had to earn their points with Rose driving and mid range jumpers, the hardest way in the NBA.
Which means: Go for Joe Johnson, a three point threat to spread the court, or Chris Bosh, a postup threat the Bulls never really have had to draw the defense inside. Either way, you open the court with one or the other. The Bulls have made themselves attractive with talent, but it still remains a question how many top players will leave their teams and whether you can out together the right sign and trade as top teams like the Lakers and Mavericks are rumored, as well, to be interested in sign and trade deals for the top talent.
The Cavs got a 27-20 lead late in the first, but Rose came back driving and scooping and shooting just out of reach floaters that were driving the Cavs nuts. It was 27-26 Cavs after one.
The Cavs pulled ahead 55-48 at halftime as they got out running on several Bulls turnovers and James found Williams and Delonte West for threes, a dangerous sign.
But the Bulls were doing some good things with James as Deng was picking him up sooner and forcing the Cavs to run more clock. Deng and Gibson did have some issues trying to contain Antawn Jamison early as he led the Cavs with 25, but just five after halftime.
LeBron began to take some turns on Rose earlier than in previous games as the Bulls pulled within 73-71 after three as the Cavs realized they were not going to shake this Bulls team.
“I told him (after the game) I love his game,” said James of Rose. “He’s awesome. He started this season probably as the third, fourth, fifth best point guard in the league. Now he’s one or two. He’s an unbelievable talent. No guard in the league has the athleticism he has, the speed and quickness. Chicago has a good one. I was guarding him because that’s the one guy who could beat us, their biggest threat.”
And Rose almost won it in the fourth.
He had two jumpers in the last four minutes spin in and out, and seemed to have a three-point play with the Cavs leading 80-79 with 8:10 left. But the refs reversed the call and said it wasn’t a continuation, and then James went down and scored and was fouled for a crucial turnaround that maybe cost the Bulls a chance to win.
“It hurt,” said Rose. “I thought I picked the ball up. They say, usually after you dribble, if you got fouled and dribbled again, it’s not continuation, but I think I picked the ball up while I ran into him. They didn’t call it and it hurt us. They came down, got fouled and LeBron got an and-one or something like that. It turned the game around.”
This came after another awful series of plays in which Brad Miller got entangled with Shaq, a long time foe, and Shaq almost came out swinging like several years ago at the United Center. But Miller got called for the fouls, getting the Bulls in the penalty early, and then Shaq scored against Noah to give the Cavs the edge just before that Rose play. Noah was astonished at the disparity of foul calls.
“We fought hard all year,” said Noah. “This is unbelievable that you can fight like that and it can come down to one or two plays. But we cannot get down on ourselves because we felt everyone on this team gave everything they had, even with the losing streak, the controversies. I still think we can be mentally tougher, but I feel overall with all that happened, what happened with coach, the losing streak, we fought hard. I would go to battle again with every single one of these guys.
“It was frustrating (in the fourth) they are calling our bumps and this guy is 400 pounds and trying to dunk on me every time, but I’ve got to learn from it,” said Noah. “If one day we want to be a championship team, we’ve got to beat these guys.”
The Cavs looked like they had it going up 93-86 with 2:44 left. I could quibble with some of the defensive switching that left Noah on an island on James and caused some foul trouble, but the Bulls brought help better on James late when he was the main option.
The Cavs fouled after having that lead and the Bulls got within 95-92 with 1:11 left. Rose had a floater go in and out and after an Anderson Varejao turnover when the Bulls got a smart double onto James, Rose came out of a timeout and came up short on a drive left handed.
“Yeah, he played great defense (James),” said Rose. “I thought he was going to jump and I was going to jump into him. It messed me up a little bit, messed up my timing. Usually, I hit that one with my left hand because I’m kind of good going to my left. Tonight, it didn’t go in.”
James then made the first free throw for a four point lead with 7.8 seconds left before throwing the second wild left handed and Deng scored at the buzzer to get the margin within a basket.
“We had it in our grip,” said Gibson, clenching his fist for emphasis. “We made them beat us.”
And so ended 2009-10 for the Bulls.
Reporters extracted votes of confidence for Del Negro from Rose and Noah, and even some praise from James.
“Vinny has done a lot as coach,” said Noah. “He’s done a very good job. He’s someone who early on was on my side. I always appreciated that. He gave me an opportunity to play.”
“I would vote yes (for retaining Del Negro),” said Rose. “That’s a guy where we both came in. He let me have my freedom, but still coached me and let me make my mistakes. I watched film with him almost every day. He taught me a lot just on defense and on offense and what I was supposed to do. The decision really isn’t up to me. It’s up to the front office, so I’m just going to let them worry about that and just deal with it.”
"Vinny and that coaching staff had those guys ready," added James when asked. "They have a group of young talent that loves to play the game of basketball and they play hard. There was not one point where they kind of laid down. I'm not trying to make a pitch for Vinny because I know what's going on — 'Is Vinny in or is Vinny out?' That's not my job, but this team that we played in this series played hard."
And so the season ends and the questions begin.
Is Del Negro the guy to lead this team to that next level they all seek?
Will they be able to get those players who will make a difference?
It’s been a heck of a ride thus far, bumpy, sure, uncertain and entertaining, and it’s only just begun.