Category Archives: NBA Playoffs

Cavs out of playoffs; LeBron headed to Bulls?

Stupid time officially began about seven minutes after the Cavs were knocked out of playoffs Thursday in losing 94-85 to the Boston Celtics to fall four games to two in the Eastern semifinals.

Chad Ford of ESPN reported he’d heard from three league general managers who said they now believe James will leave the Cavs as a result of the series loss and said James would be coming to the Bulls and will be coached by John Calipari.

Of course, there were no actual names mentioned from these sources who may or may not know.

Among the actual people, former Mavs coach Avery Johnson, doing the pregame and postgame for ESPN, said he believed James would be going to the Nets. I took this to mean Johnson would like to be Nets coach.

Johnson’s postgame partner, former player Jamal Mashburn, said he believed James would be staying with the Cavs, though Mashburn was told he had to pick a team other than the Cavs—clearly ESPN as well as Joakim Noah is tired of Cleveland—for James to go to and he also guessed New Jersey.

ESPN national NBA writer Chris Broussard said he believed James would be signing with the Bulls, maybe with Phil Jackson as coach.

No report yet on whether Michael Jordan would come out of retirement for this, as he isn’t quite 50 yet. But, hey, it still wasn’t time for the real late SportsCenter…

Whew! I’m tired already. This is going to go on for the next two months since free agency begins July 1 and then teams have a week until they are permitted to sign a player.

James said after the game he “has no plans.”

He said, “We’ll see what happens.”

James acknowledged the Cavs are “committed to winning,” but added, he has “given myself options.”

How dare he be vague when so many people actually know what he’s doing? Who is he to say he doesn’t know?

It’s gotta be the Bulls, right? James already has said he’ll change his number next season to No. 6 because he didn’t feel anyone should wear No. 23. Yes, the Bulls can keep Jordan’s number retired.

Though James is friends with entertainer Jay-Z, a part owner of the Nets, who are now owned by one of the world’s richest, and supposedly to be the most generous to his basketball players.

But there’s the Knicks, the only team that can give a full free agent contract to James and whomever James wants to bring with him, even if it’s Ilgauskas. The owner of a famous New York strip club was quoted last week offering James free lap dances for life. I’m not fully sure how that works under the salary cap. I don’t know if James ever does that sort of thing, but I’m quite sure they wouldn’t be that expensive for him, anyway. I’m not saying, mind you, he engages in such behavior, whatever it is since I’m not familiar with the term.

There’s the Clippers and L.A. and the movie industry, which is where LeBron’s spending this summer making a movie. Of course, there’s the sign and trade possibility with the Lakers to play with Kobe. Can’t the NBA get this straight? Wasn’t this supposed to be a Kobe/LeBron Finals? And three second round sweeps. If the NBA manipulates these matchups they do a poor job.

The instant ESPN poll had 31 percent saying he’d go to New York, 27 percent say remaining in Cleveland and 24 percent for Chicago. Another 18 percent were said to be leaning to Warren Buffet’s basement.

Pat Riley allegedly has ordered LeBron to come to Miami because, well, he’s Pat Riley! OK, enough.

The Heat, meanwhile, already has set up a website inviting fans to urge Wade to remain in Miami. But there’s also a fan web site up now asking James to come to Chicago.

David Letterman has been running a segment of reasons for LeBron James to come to New York, though so far they’ve included being hit by a speeding taxi and being able to watch a foul mouthed TV anchor cursing on the air.

I’ve checked. No websites yet of anyone asking for free agent Shaq.

This is big, seriously.

This is the back-to-back MVP, a player whom some believe could one day be considered the games greatest not only being upset again in the playoffs, but threatening the geography of the NBA with James a free agent who may leave the Cavs.

And we know, as James would say, here’s a guy who has won at every level but college and the NBA.

It was not only a stunning, unexpected result after the Cavs led the league in wins for the second straight season. But it was shocking to see the way the Cavs gave up at the end, not even trying to foul to extend the game after Tony Allen, Rasheed Wallace and Rajon Rondo were gagging free throws down the stretch. Make them earn it! Heck, everyone does that even in the regular season.

I know Cavs players looked toward the bench at that time, though the mistake probably was not looking at the real coach, James.

There are going to be major ramifications from this series even if James elects to remain in Cleveland. No King Abdicates headlines quite yet.

It seems likely coach Mike Brown will be out. That would be a year after winning coach of the year and after winning at least 60 games in consecutive seasons. And they felt sorry for Vinny Del Negro. No coach ever has lost his job after such a run, though Alex Hannum resigned after a pair of 60-plus win seasons. James did say afterward he thought there could have been some better adjustments.

It was another unusual series for Brown as he stayed with the ineffective O’Neal for long stretches, failed to play smaller and quicker with players like J.J. Hickson to take advantage of getting James out in the open court, where he is unstoppable, and seemed more like a Rube Goldberg mad scientist trying different and odd combinations with Daniel Gibson appearing from nowhere, and never figuring out what to do with Antawn Jamison.

As I wrote during the Bulls series with the Cavs, if James really wanted to win—and I guess GMs in New York, New Jersey, Miami and L.A. would differ—he’d join the Bulls.

Yes, this appears on the Bulls’ site, but I’d say the majority of my mail about free agents favors Dwyane Wade over LeBron. Fans seem to personally like Wade more, though I know any team would take James first. He’s the best and he fits with anyone and everyone. And he sure can dance.

Forget positions. He can play anywhere, and probably one of the bigger issues with the Cavs is he has monopolized the ball too much. That took Mo Williams, for instance, out of games, and I thought the first half Thursday for the Cavs was better because Williams plays better with the ball. When James took over more after halftime, Williams became more a standstill player, which is when he’s not at his best.

Though James controls the ball a lot and has the mentality of a point guard, he would be better off playing with Derrick Rose.

James is such a threat that he should play in a faster, more open game, which suits Rose, because as James goes up court he’ll take the defense with him and make it easier on his point guard. It was an issue the Bulls had early with Michael Jordan. Doug Collins always tried to get Jordan to run out ahead of the ball, but Jordan resisted because he liked to have the ball in his hands and didn’t trust his teammates.

Once Scottie Pippen gained trust with Jordan and could handle the ball, Jordan attacked more without the ball and it led to Bulls titles.

So, James would do well to play with a ballhandler like Rose.

By the way, for those who whined all season about letting go of Ben Gordon and trading John Salmons, this was why. No, the Bulls may not get James. But they are now in the conversation. If they’d have kept either Gordon or Salmons they wouldn’t be. And how could they justify that?

Though the perfect scenario would be to get the Cavs to agree to a sign-and-trade for James, say Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and a No. 1 pick, for example, and then have salary cap money left to attract another free agent like Chris Bosh, David Lee or Joe Johnson.

That’s also why the Bulls seem to have the edge over, say, the Knicks, who have few sign-and-trade assets to offer. The Nets are much better equipped with a high draft pick and Devin Harris. It’s hard to see James going somewhere without a sign and trade, which would mean a lesser contract. Of course, James could go for three years with an opt out after two, which he could do with the Cavs to give them one more shot.

Of course, the sign-and-trade route opens the field to a team like the Lakers with Andrew Bynum and others to pair James with Bryant. You can be sure there will be other offers, though would the Cavs be the franchise that agreed to trade LeBron James? Almost better to let him walk.

James did acknowledge some issue with his elbow after the Game 6 loss, though there seemed more all of a sudden a level of dysfunction within the Cavs as their emotions and enthusiasm almost disappeared. We may be hearing something was amiss eventually.

As for Boston winning, you’ve now got to consider Celts top assistant Tom Thibodeau for at least an interview for the coaching job. The Celtics defense was terrific in this series, and without Kevin Garnett being great. What Boston had is what so many teams don’t and which troubled the Bulls this season, one system of play to fall back on when things went wrong or under pressure.

LeBron also needs to be coached. He clearly has run things in Cleveland, as everyone around the NBA knows, but that doesn’t seem to be working out. You don’t want to hire someone who is his friend or whom he chooses, but someone he can respect for his knowledge of the game and ability to put him in position to succeed, a strong figure.

This just in: James was heard listening to “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago. Does anyone need anymore proof than that he’s coming to the Bulls?

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Will Game 6 determine if LeBron leaves the Cavs?

It’s been a miserable second round of the NBA playoffs, with three of the four series being sweeps. However, that should at least finally prove the NBA isn’t manipulating the games for ratings and TV and seventh games.

But the one series that is left may be about to produce one of the most significant games of the last decade.

That’s Thursday in Boston when the Cavaliers, the NBA’s winningest team the last two seasons, try to avoid playoff elimination, trailing 3-2. But that’s just part of the story, as the Cleveland future of star LeBron James perhaps depends on the result, as well as the competitive landscape of the NBA given James’ free agency.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert had declared this season “all in” last fall, and even Gilbert, reminiscent of the Mavericks meltdown in the 2006 Finals, came out after Tuesday’s devastating home loss and demanded more from the team.

That game sent shockwaves around the NBA, given the confusing apparent disinterest exhibited by James, and left the league buzzing Wednesday about what could produce such a cavalier effort from James in such a crucial situation.

It raised doubts of James’ place in basketball history in this instant analysis world just a few weeks after getting his second straight MVP award when he was being called maybe the greatest player ever to play the game.

If the Cavs win Thursday, James could return to that accolade. This is not an era for perspective.

But coaches, GMs and former players I talked with since agreed all the great ones have had bad games, but you’d never have seen that lack of intensity from Jordan or Bird or Magic.

Kobe, well, we have seen some of that, like the 2006 seventh game with the Suns when he didn’t do much. The difference was he was immediately accused of purposely sabotaging the game. Ludicrous, but Kobe never commanded the media worship James does.

One longtime league guy said perhaps James got some sort of painkilling shot or drugs for his possibly injured elbow—most I talked with thought he was overacting about that—and the side effects dulled him.

The rest of the team must have shared them, then, as the Cavs bench, usually like a South Beach nightclub, was virtually comatose all game.

There were theories that James realized his teammates weren’t good enough and lost interest, bad matchups as Antawn Jamison isn’t good against Kevin Garnett and Mo Williams against anyone in the playoffs, and that late season vacation by James when the team began losing down the stretch and never quite recovered a rhythm even though they beat the Bulls in five, albeit, unimpressively.

There were reports in Cleveland of discord internally, that Shaq—big surprise—was upset with his minutes and players were upset with inconsistent rotations. And where the heck is J.J. Hickson? Though Shaq had 21 points, it was perhaps a sign that in his biggest game they lost by 30. The Cavs continue to play away from their strengths as a fast team and got caught up in a half court game, at which they are inferior to the Celtics.

Bad coaching? They always are to blame, and Mike Brown is being universally damned, by national media and in Cleveland. Hey, the Bulls want a successful, veteran coach. It looks like Brown is about to be available after consecutive 60-plus win seasons. Atlanta’s Mike Woodson should follow after averaging 50 wins the last two seasons.

How come no one’s upset they haven’t gotten votes of confidence?

There’s also this feeling I’ve long had about James.

He’s not Jordan, but not because of some talent difference.

James is a point guard in a point power forward’s body. James always has been commended for being a willing passer unlike guys like Jordan and Kobe. But I think that’s because he’s more inclined to be the facilitator.

Critics are questioning him since Game 5 because he didn’t take over. But the fact remains he never really has had that kind of mentality. He’s had big games at big times, like that double overtime classic against Detroit in 2007, and he’s hit big shots to win games, like in last year’s playoffs. But he’s also often given up the last shot when doubled, the right play but not the one the great players ever make.

Though it won’t happen, it’s why I’ve always thought James could play with Kobe. Like in the 2008 Olympics, LeBron seemed happiest and effective when he was making plays, rebounding, playing an all around game.

He had to become the big time scorer because his team didn’t have one, sort of like David Robinson. I always felt Robinson would be Bill Russell, but bigger. But the Spurs didn’t have the luxury to allow him to be a defensive specialist, which Russell could be with a loaded Celts team. Another reason why Chamberlain was better, but that’s for another day. So Robinson had to be a scorer, but didn’t win until he became more a defensive specialist alongside Tim Duncan.

I wonder if that’s what LeBron needs as well. Playing with Kobe. Playing with Wade.

Though scoring is how you get the attention.

LeBron likes attention; I don’t believe winning championships is quite as important, certainly not as important as it was to the previous generation, guys like Magic and Bird and Jordan.

Like some have termed it, LeBron is more concerned with being LeBron, Inc.

It’s also why in thinking about the possibilities of LeBron leaving Cleveland if the Cavs lose, I can see the Nets as No. 1 because of the new zillionaire owner.

I never heard LeBron talk as much about championships, like Kobe, as being the first billionaire player, a team owner, entrepreneur.

Many have said around the NBA this season if LeBron leaves he’d be viewed as a quitter and it would ruin his reputation, so he won’t. It’s one reason the conventional wisdom has been he’d stay.  He could stay even if the Cavs lose in this round. That’s one reason many believe John Calipari has been sniffing around–not to take LeBron somewhere like Chicago, but to become the Cavs’ coach.

You can be sure to keep James they’d throw Brown overboard in a second.

He has not been allowed to coach much, anyway. It’s no secret around the NBA LeBron directs everything in Cleveland and no one tells him what to do. It’s why he could choose to re-up.

Actually, his life has been much about few saying no to him.

He was raised by his mother in a nomadic sort of existence and pretty much dictated his team in high school. He’s had his group of friends from his school run his businesses. Heck, the Cavs built a practice facility near his home.

Could he live like that in the New York corporate existence of Comcast and James Dolan?  Of all the obvious destinations, the Bulls would seem to afford James the best chance of winning, other than the more complicated possibility of going to the Lakers. And James seemed to leave some hints with intimate knowledge of the Bulls roster and high praise for Derrick Rose. Heck, he didn’t even seem mad at Noah. And he sure had fun that weekend in Chicago. The Bulls would make logical sense. You hate to apply logic to pro athletes. Or, at least, our logic.

Is it winning LeBron seeks? Or is there more to him?

There’s that problem of playing in Newark for two years with the Nets. And they were almost the worst team ever with Lopez and Devin Harris. How good could they become? But LeBron could live in New York City, a helicopter ride away, and this new billionaire owner has made clear he’ll spend. I’ve heard he offered Krzyzewski $20 million a year. Could Phil be seduced? He loves New York and that would be the big market trifecta. And that’s where Phil actually first coached as a Nets assistant. There’s celebrity pal Jay-Z in ownership and a jet set life to be lived. LeBron likes jet setting.

There’s a center for the Nets not as good as Noah and a point guard not as good as Rose. But I’m not sure LeBron is as much about winning as he is about the celebrity of the game. It’s not that unusual, really. Everyone wants him to be like Mike. But that’s taken. LeBron may define the new millennium athlete, which may mean winning is good, but fame and fortune are even better.

He certainly hasn’t seemed the least upset or depressed over all of this. True, the series isn’t over. And Boston still is a fragile, rickety bunch hardly certain to win Game 6.

But this one has enough story lines and intrigue for an entire playoffs. And with no one else playing, everyone gets to watch. The entire NBA is stopping for one game Thursday. And all eyes are on LeBron, and he loves it.

Is this the end of LeBron in Cleveland?

Time to strike up the band and get Benny the Bull out to O’Hare!

Oh, right. That didn’t work last time when the Bulls met Tracy McGrady in 2000 with a carnival and he fled to Orlando.

But NBA free agency 2010 just got a lot more interesting Tuesday night when the Cleveland Cavaliers and a passive, seemingly disinterested LeBron James were blown out at home, 120-88, to fall behind Boston 3-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinal.

It was probably the most shocking game of the NBA season to see the heavily favored Cavs not only fall behind in the series at home, but to see James and his teammates, usually Dancing with the Stars wannabes, lamely accept the loss.

James, at least to me, clearly seems hurt, though he denied anything was wrong. But you could almost see his entire team, usually a rollicking, lively bunch on the sideline along with him, sag with an acceptance of their losing fate, and that James really may be leaving.

So the big question is if he is getting close to that decision where, and the Bulls now have to be in the equation. You hear all sorts of rumors regarding James’ future, and one around the NBA now is James taking the Bulls seriously, though hardly as the only team. There also are rumors circulating around Cleveland now that James will need surgery on his elbow this summer, though you’d certainly take him if you could get him even without a physical.

Unquestionably, James Tuesday was as bad in a big playoff game as just about great player ever has been. I cannot believe his lame explanations of not getting into rhythm, just an off shooting game, or doing other things to help the team. He’s too good. Nevertheless, the NBA outside Cleveland is cheering the possibilities.

If LeBron does decide to leave the Cavs, there will be three main criteria: Where he wants to live and play, whether he can win, and whether he needs a sign-and-trade for a max, six-year deal.

Here’s the way I’d rate the favorites if James wants a max deal and sign-and-trade, which I don’t believe is certain. But I’ll get to that later.

First, you can forget all your Oklahoma Cities and San Antonios, Houstons, Washingtons and Philadephias. LeBron’s going to the big time if he leaves, which means New York, L.A., Chicago, perhaps Miami and maybe, just maybe, Phoenix or Dallas.

So here’s the way I see it if there’s a sign-and-trade:

1. Lakers: Cavs get Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom and Lakers take back Daniel Gibson for Cavs cap relief, or maybe Delonte West with LeBron. I know Kobe supposedly won’t want this, but how could you pass on a chance for Kobe and LeBron with Pau? How great could they be? Of course, if they win again they’ll think they already are.

2. Bulls: Not a great sign-and-trade, but something. Probably Deng, Gibson, a No. 1 pick and Brad Miller going to Cleveland after signing. It gives the Cavs a lineup to work with.

3. Knicks: Probably David Lee and Gallinari. Not that great, either, but then the Knicks could add two free agents to go with LeBron and build a team instantly. Though that would be a hard sell for the Cavs to overpay Lee without a big man.

4. Nets: The No. 1 pick if they get it and maybe Yi or Terrence Williams. The Cavs could start building right away with an attraction. Russian billionaire, Jay-Z. Who knows. Maybe Newark is OK for two years.

5. Clippers: They probably have the best package for the Cavs in Blake Griffin and Chris Kaman. Then they could add LeBron and another free agent with Baron Davis, though they’d try to hold onto Griffin. But would LeBron want to compete with Kobe and the Lakers? I can’t see it.

6. Heat: They’ve got the least. Michael Beasley. Alonzo Mourning has been telling people James is Pat Riley’s secret project, but the Cavs couldn’t in good conscience accept anything from that roster.

I assume those would be the markets LeBron would go for as he likes the spotlight. The Suns would be interesting because old buddies Steve Kerr and Danny Ferry do a lot of business and the Cavs might be able to get Stoudemire and maybe Robin Lopez. Dallas would try to go in big, but I’d assume they’d try to keep Dirk and don’t have much else. I suppose the Cavs could sell Dirk for a few years, but I don’t think Dirk would re-sign to go there.

The other possibility is LeBron just leaves and takes someone’s cap room. I actually think this is more likely because I can see him taking a short deal again, maybe three years as he’s only 25, and seeing if the team he goes to can get the pieces in place. So how would the rankings look then?

1. Bulls: Enough to pay James to fit him in right away with a point guard and center, which no one else can offer. And then it would be up to the Bulls to find a sign-and-trade with the pieces they have to add someone like Chris Bosh or maybe even Stoudemire or Lee. I’ve long thought LeBron would run away from the Jordan comparisons, but Chicago would be the most ready made team in an actual big city.

2. Nets: They could have John Wall to go with Brook Lopez and then a trade of Harris for someone good and LeBron. That, too, could be a heck of a team, but, again, could LeBron put up with the relative anonymity of Newark for at least two years? Though the new Russian owner could make things pretty comfortable.

3. Knicks: They can bring LeBron and anyone else he chooses and he is one of the few who would seem to like the New York attention. It’s uncertain who he could recruit, though, as not many guys want to go somewhere as the second piece, and then one overshadowed all the time by LeBron with the pressure to produce because no one’s blaming LeBron.

4. Heat: They just don’t seem to have enough pieces without a center or point guard. Wade and LeBron would be impressive, though they’d still have to do too much. They’d have money for another high level player, so maybe Boozer or Lee decides to take a bit less and come. It’s possible.

5. Clippers: It could be a heck of a team if Blake Griffin is OK, along with Chris Kaman, Baron Davis and Eric Gordon. But I cannot see LeBron playing second to Kobe and the Lakers, who run the city and the arena. Would he try to upstage them? It’s a heck of a risk and an even bigger one as something seems to happen to guys when they become Clippers.

If the Cavs lose the series Thursday, which now just about everyone expects, James’ future will be the biggest NBA story for the next two months no matter what else happens.

Yes, he could go back to the Cavs on a short deal to give them one more chance or not opt out and take his last year. That was the thinking all along with the assumption the Cavs would at least make the conference finals. But losing in this round would be a step back each of the last two years, and with an aging, uncertain team and few options to improve.

What actually seemed most shocking—and yes this could all change with a win in Boston Thursday—was the way James and everyone seemed to accept their fate in a matter of fact way without much enthusiasm. It’s as if everyone knows and only the date needs now to be filled in. Someone may be getting the sporting prize of a lifetime.

Who’s got the fireworks! Didn’t anyone call the jugglers?

Bulls season ends with loss and questions begin

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.

Vinny Del Negro reflects before Game 5

Part of the pregame Tuesday before Game 5, as it will be until the fate of coach Vinny Del Negro is decided for next season, was a session on Vinny Reflects.
“I liked the competitiveness of our guys,” Del Negro said about this season (so far) and what he’s appreciated most. “Our guys have handled a lot of adversity and injury and distractions. I’m proud of the guys. They’ve had a solid season. They’ve developed in a lot of areas. That’s always rewarding and fulfilling as a coach.
“On a consistent basis they’ve played hard,” said Del Negro. “They haven’t made excuses. The guys care. All seasons are different. Every year, every team is different. I’m always positive and try to learn from things and grow and get better. Playing or coaching what matters is trying to help the guys get better.
“From when I took over a couple of years ago to now, a lot of strides have been made and I’m proud of that,” said Del Negro. “The assistants have done a fantastic job. Mostly, it’s basketball. I love the competition. People say there’s pressure, but there’s no pressure. That is what makes it great. I like to say if it’s easy, everyone would do it.
“Some parts can be difficult at times,” said Del Negro. “It’s a franchise with a rich tradition and you take the good with the bad and move forward and work and stay positive by helping these guys. You always think about how you could do better. It never is a perfect script. I’m proud of the way the team has handled things. You learn from things and grow and appreciate the opportunity and know how fortunate you are to be in this position. You try to be more optimistic than pessimistic and understand where you are at as a team and organization and try to find ways to improve. That’s how you get better. Everyone needs to get better.”

Bulls shooting for three: Three more games

As what may be the Bulls final shootaround of the 2009-10 season was ending, several of the players were practicing half court, LeBron James style jump shots.
When James Johnson came up short on one, Kirk Hinrich joked, “Better get in the weight room.”
At least the weight of playing perhaps their final game of the season, trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers 3-1 in this opening round playoff series, was not pulling the Bulls down.
“Today is one of those days everyone is feeling fine and shooting well and focused,” said Derrick Rose. “I think we’re gonna get a win tonight.”
Reporters asking questions were far more subdued than the Bulls players as Rose playfully talked about James’ half court three from Game 4 and said he’s still working on making three pointers.
Rose reported no ill effects from the sprained ankle in Game 4 and precautionary MRI Monday.
“I thought I was going to have a shot before the game the way I was feeling after the game and yesterday,” said Rose. “I got treatment, was taking pills and putting cream on it (and sleeping in a boot). It hurt (afterward) when I walked. It feels good now. If I did not have the brace on it would have been worse.”
Rose doesn’t tape his ankles like most players, but wears a brace.
Luol Deng, who has knee and calf problems, also is fine to play.
The Bulls seem to be bracing for a fight, at least.
“They’ll play tonight,” said coach Vinny Del Negro. “They both feel a little better. They’re sore, but they’ll be out there. They’ve been battling all year and fighting through different (injury) things.”
But trailing 3-1, the Bulls will have to do some different things as well, especially with LeBron James, who dominated the game with 37 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.
You just can’t say you take the ball out of his hands with double teams as that compromises your defense and leaves too many open shooters.
Deng has been trying against James and doing a decent job, but the Cavs adjusted well and got the ball to James higher with more steam coming up court. The result was he was able to get into the middle of the court better and spread the ball to shooters.
I expect the Bulls to change up some and put Kirk Hinrich on James more. They’ve done some of this, but Hinrich will get up on him and bother James physically, and while it may seem like a fly on an elephant, James doesn’t generally like defenders like that. Sure, it could leave post up options, but James doesn’t generally like to play out of the post. And if he does, he ends up controlling the ball more and stopping their offense, and then mostly becomes a passer. I’d try to lure him into more of that.
The Bulls were getting burned on that pick and roll play where Deng was switching onto Antawn Jamison and Jamison was dominating Deng.
There also comes a time you have to, as they say, “man up,” and Deng will have to be more physical with Jamison in those situations. Though he had a rough go in Game 4, I still expect to see James Johnson in those situations as well because of his size and quickness and Del Negro’s uncertainty about playing Hakim Warrick with troubling matchups with the Cavs.
Also, on offense, I’d like to see the Bulls put James in pick and roll as well as he likes to play more free safety. James isn’t a great—or much interested—pick and roll player, so you want to make him work on defense. So I also look for Deng to be more aggressive shooting.
You got the feeling around the Bulls Tuesday morning that, as John Belushi famously said, “It ain’t over until we decide it’s over. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” Germans?
“This can be our last game,” noted Rose. “We’ve got to give it our all. Go out and play hard. I know I will and I know the team will.”

Bulls and Coach Del Negro facing elimination game

It was an appropriate setting Monday in the Berto Center for what could have been the Bulls last full practice of the 2009-10 NBA season and perhaps Vinny Del Negro’s last as Bulls coach.

Yes, coach Vinny Del Negro had his back to the wall.

“Everyone is frustrated because we know we can play better,” said Del Negro of the Bulls being down 3-1 after Sunday’s 121-98 loss to the Cavs and LeBron James’ triple double and six three pointers. “But give Cleveland credit. They made plays. It’s not like we didn’t want to play better. They put us back on our heels a little. They made a run at the end of the first half and then jumped on us to start the third. Derrick (Rose) hurt his ankle and we got out of the flow a little. But our defense wasn’t good enough. We have to do a better job defending and making it harder on them. We did it in spurts, but we didn’t have consistency.”

It’s not a particularly upbeat time for the Bulls, and not only because of the playoff deficit to the league’s winningest team and likely MVP.

Rose and Luol Deng didn’t practice because of minor injuries.

Rose had an MRI on his ankle injury suffered early in the second half. It was negative, but he was sore. He traveled with the team to Cleveland and is expected to play Tuesday in Game 5.

Deng aggravated long standing knee and calf injuries.

“(Rose) was sore,” said Del Negro. ” He jammed it on Shaq’s foot. He was limping a little today, so hopefully he’ll feel better tomorrow. Luol’s knee and calf were a little sore. It’s that time of year. Things are going to happen. You have to get the guys out there who are healthy. Obviously we need both those guys to play at a high level. I think they’ll both be fine, ready to play. Who is 100 percent at this time of year? Not many guys.”

Well, the Cavs for 12.

James is playing at a tremendous level after sitting out the last four games of the regular season to rest while the Bulls had to play their way in with, effectively, three win-or-go-home situations. It has to have taken a toll, especially now facing a team which finished 20 games ahead of the Bulls.

James crowed about not returning to Chicago after Game 4, and it was not unlike the confident claims Michael Jordan would make in the 1990’s.

In that era, first round series were best of five. After the Bulls would win the first two, Jordan would generally tell his teammates to pack for one game.

He never was wrong. In the Bulls’ six championships, they never lost a first round game.

There also has been speculation about Del Negro’s job future basically going on since January of Del Negro’s first season, and it only has grown with a recent confrontation between Del Negro and Bulls vice president John Paxson.

It was a travel day for the Bulls Monday, so after a short practice, only Del Negro and Joakim Noah addressed reporters.

Del Negro had been asked some before the last regular season game about it being perhaps his final game as Bulls coach and he said he’d prepare as he always does and deal with other circumstances after the season. The question didn’t come up Monday.

Noah was asked about the speculation and reports regarding Del Negro, and said it hasn’t been an issue with the players, and that clearly seemed to be the case the way the Bulls overcame the Raptors late to make the playoffs.

“Those are things that we as players can’t control,” said Noah. “Our mindset is just to be ready for tomorrow’s game. We’re in this all together. A lot of things can happen and there’s a lot of rumors and speculation. But some things are better kept internally, kind of like a family or a frat, you know? Kind of like that.

“(It) doesn’t mean you guys have to know everything,” Noah told reporters. “As long as we fight every day on the court for you guys, what else do you need to know?

“How about we focus on this game tomorrow and see what happens and then when the season is over you figure it out?” Noah said. “It’s important to live in the moment. I’m enjoying this. Even though we got slapped by 30, I still think we’re in a good situation getting to play on the biggest stage in the world and battle it out tomorrow against the best players in the world. I think that’s pretty cool.”

It’s the ultimate optimism of youth. And the way the Bulls have played to come back from a March 10-game losing streak, you can never truly count them out.

Rose is averaging 25.8 points and 7.5 assists while Noah is averaging 16.5 points and 14 rebounds. The Bulls have been able to count on them, and Deng has been consistent averaging 17 points. The question will be whether the Bulls can get Kirk Hinrich rolling again. He is averaging 12.5 points on 41.9 percent shooting, but 58.3 percent on threes.

Overall, I feel the Bulls have played the Cavs the right way.

They’ve pretty much shut off the middle in Del Negro’s “elbows, boxes and nails” defense, which is a shorthand for the way the team provides a shell of a defense around the lane.

The key in playing the Cavs is keeping James out of driving the middle, where he then can attack the basket or pass off into the corners for threes.

Though James was scoring the first three games, the Bulls limited the other shooters. In Game 4 Sunday, James got into the middle more to free Antawn Jamison, who had 24 points and Mo Williams and Anthony Parker, who combined for five threes. James added another six, and the Bulls could not score at that level.

The Bulls have to push the ball to get over 100 points to match the Cavs, but the Cavs shot the ball so well Sunday the Bulls couldn’t run, and then, as Noah noted after the game, lost their enthusiasm and allowed the Cavs to run away.

Rarely have the Bulls when healthy played two poor games in a row, so if Rose’s ankle is OK I can see them making a good effort.

The elemental weakness the Bulls have on offense is the lack of a true post player, which they really haven’t had since, well, ever, and the lack of a consistent three point threat.

The Cavs have made 42 threes in this series. The Bulls have attempted 44.

That’s right, the Cavs have made 28 more threes in the four games while outscoring the Bulls by a combined by 44 points.

It’s the right strategy. See if they can beat you “over the top,” the shorthand for long distance shooting, and the Cavs have.

And why not try that given James shot 28.5 percent on threes in the regular season since the beginning of February, one of 14 in April.

“At times, you can live with, but when he’s (James) making six, you have to get up in him a little and come with the double-team,” said Del Negro, who did very late in Game 4 to finally take the ball out of James’ hands a few times. “You have to pick your spots with him. It wasn’t like we didn’t do that. He made one step across halfcourt, banked one in, things are going to happen. Those are the tough shots. That’s why it’s so important to take the easy ones away. The one where he splits you and takes a dunk, those you can’t have because you know he’s going to make some difficult ones.”

So I suggested to dare James to do it again. It’s easy to say you take the ball out of his hand with double teams, but that compromises your defense and rebounding, putting everyone out of position and helping. Great players do great things and James is great. And they do these things at big times. LeBron qualifies with some memorable playoff performances. But I think he’s more dangerous when he gets those other guys good shots, which comes when the defense is scrambling. Hey, LeBron, I’d say, you can’t shoot threes. Do it again!

You have to use some gamesmanship when you are behind and some innovation when you are a big underdog. Del Negro isn’t much a believer in that.

“Shouldn’t the message be he can’t do this again, let him try?” I asked Del Negro.

“No,” said Del Negro. “That’s your message. That would not be my message. It’s not one guy. Antawn played very well for them. They isolated him on the wings. He’s a very tough cover one-on-one. Mo is always Mo and you have to find him. It’s not just LeBron who is going to fill up the stat sheet. You have to have a huge amount of attention on him. But they’re very good for a reason. The reason starts with LeBron. But they have other players who are capable.”

I don’t deny that, but you have to try to lure the Cavs into doing things they don’t usually. Look, they are better and more talented and have the best player in the series.

So call out LeBron and see if he forgets he’s playing with the other guys. We know he’s got a giant ego, and maybe he wants to show you.

The Bulls had one of these elimination games last year in the Boston series, but it took three overtimes to finally win at home and go back to Boston for a seventh game.

Another key for the Cavs, I thought, was Shaq getting in foul trouble. That brought in J.J. Hickson, who runs the court and finishes strong and fits better with James in a smaller lineup in wich they are able to open the court better and get to the middle. Coach Mike Brown basically is looking two series ahead and trying to get Shaq ready for the Magic and Dwight Howard. Take advantage of that.

I’d put Jannero Pargo on Shaq.

Actually, Vinny hasn’t been very good with his bench, basically rarely using guys or so inconstantly that when he puts them in now for a short stint it’s difficult for them to do anything. So he pretty much has to stay with seven guys with Brad Miller and Flip Murray off the bench. James Johnson came in and committed several fouls on James when the Cavs closed the first half fast to get a 62-52 lead. But James is the Bulls best reserve matchup with James because of his size and basically has been told to play James physically. So he went a bit far in Game 4, but it was hardly his fault.

Given wildly fluctuating minutes, Hakim Warrick has been inconsistent.

I’d also liked to have seen Pargo some to match some three point shooting.

But you know making a move like that with Pargo on Shaq would force the Cavs and the sensitive Shaq to go at Pargo. Challenge the Cavs to beat you with Shaq. I don’t see how given how long he’s been out he could score much, and he might waste a lot of time doing so and slow the Cavs and take them out of their running and three-point shooting game.

It’s called junking up the game, but it’s OK when you are in a desperate situation. It doesn’t get more desperate for the Bulls than Tuesday.

“I think there was frustration because guys were so excited to play,” said Del Negro. “We were in the game and then we gave up some scores and free throws late in the half. We felt good at halftime with some of the stats we had (leading 16-5 in fast breaks and 26-19 on the boards). Then in the third quarter they jumped on us and Derrick hurt his ankle and we took quick shots and they built that lead on us. LeBron was hitting threes. There was frustration. But it’s been a very resilient group all year. I expect us to come out tomorrow. Our backs are against the wall.”

We’ll see if it’s a firing squad looking at all of them.