The NBA’s winningest team, the championship favorite with the certain MVP and one of the league’s defensive rocks has needed LeBron James to hit an extraordinary and unexpected number of fourth quarter jump shots in Game 2 for the Cavs not to be trailing the Bulls in this first round playoff series.
Could this be Boston 2009 redux? Is the year old starring series coming back?
Can the Bulls take the powerful Cavs to the limit after winning Game 3 in the United Center Thursday, 108-106?
“We knew. We believed we can play with them,” said Luol Deng, who had his second straight 20-point game and drew a potentially game changing charging foul on James with just over a minute left. “A lot of people didn’t. A lot of people looked at the game and the team and the stars and were questioning. Now we forget about this game and focus on the next one.”
It’s 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the United Center, and if you are the Cavs maybe you are beginning to sweat a little bit.
Sure, the Cavs hold the 2-1 lead, but the Bulls have mostly outplayed and outcoached them, the Bulls shredding the vaunted Cavs defense with a solid game plan that is enabling James to have big games—he added 39 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, three blocks and two steals Thursday—but is isolating his teammates.
Derrick Rose, with 31 points and seven assists with zero turnovers, has, amazingly, been just about offsetting James in averaging 27.3 points and 8.3 assists in this series.
“DRose was huge for us,” said Joakim Noah. “Those floaters. They are huge. They better try to find a way to get the ball out of his hands because he is doing his thing.”
Kirk Hinrich came through with 27 points, five rebounds, five assists and four of four three pointers.
“I think he was really the X-factor tonight,” said Mo Williams. “He made plays off the ball, he made shots, he also got the ball off the screen and roll. We have to make an adjustment going into Sunday about how we’re going to play against their guards. Both of those guys get them going. When you have both of those guys playing particularly well, you’re going to have a long night.”
The Cavs pulled out all their tricks, including James defending Rose, not successfully, down the stretch, and scrapping their size advantage for a small lineup to get back in the game after trailing early in the third by 21.
“He does a lot of ballhandling so as a team, we don’t want to put me on him for a long period of time,” James said. “But in a game like this I felt like we had an opportunity to win and he was playing particularly well, so I wanted to switch off on him. He’s a tremendous player. It was a great game by him, a great game by their team. But we’ll see as the series goes on if I do move onto him a lot or if I don’t.”
Yes, the Cavs did make a terrific run as they ended up launching 35 threes, 15 in a desperate fourth quarter which ended with an Anthony Parker’s half court heave for the win that went off the side of the rim.
But the Bulls were better virtually all game, really, the better overall team for the last two games but for that fabulous James closing stretch in Game 2.
During the regular season, the Cavs were sixth in fewest points allowed, fourth in best defensive field goal percentage and second in overall defensive rebounding. The Bulls, conversely, were in the bottom third in scoring and shooting.
But the Bulls have averaged 105 points the last two games. They’ve shot 46 percent and had 24 more field goal attempts than the Cavs the last two games.
They are outworking the Cavs, and the Cavs have to be asking themselves some serious questions:
— Can they continue to play Shaq, who has been ineffective verging on pathetic the last two games, averaging seven points and 5.5 rebounds and again having to sit out the fourth quarter. Even James admitted the Cavs were better playing small when they got back in the game, and the Cavs might go back to athletic J.J. Hickson instead of Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
— Can LeBron get enough help? Yes, Mo Williams had 21 points Thursday and Antawn Jamison 19, but most came late when the Cavs were clawing to get back in and firing threes. The Bulls strategy of playing James straight up with Deng, who has done a good job, and staying with the others has left James scoring too much and the others watching way too much.
“We felt like in Game 2 they hit a lot of shots and those guys were not going to hit those shots throughout the series,” said Noah. “Our defense was good. We stuck to our game plan. LeBron coming down the lane, we tried to take that away as much as possible and force other guys to make jump shots.”
— Can the Cavs stop Rose, or do they have to change their trapping strategy the way Rose has dissected their defense. For the second straight game the Bulls have had five players in double figures while the Cavs Thursday had just three.
“They do a good job of exploiting what we do defensively,” admitted James. “We are a spread the floor team. But they did a good job getting into the paint and they’re hitting jump shots right now. Derrick Rose is hitting a lot of jump shots, Kirk is hitting a lot of jump shots. (Giving up) 104 points is not our M.O. Shooting over 50 percent against us is not our M.O. They shot the ball particularly well.
“They had a small line-up,” noted James, who said he decided on his own to switch defensive assignments late onto Rose. “We’ve been really, really good this year when we play small. We become more athletic, we become faster and that helps our rotation move faster. That doesn’t take away from our big line-up because we can also go big, but we play really good basketball when we’ve been able to go small. If that’s something that’s going to be successful for us, then we have to do that.”
James is said to be a coach on the floor, and more.
Yes, the Bulls have the Cavs questioning themselves, and not just because the Bulls won a game.
But after that devastatingly poor start in Game 1, the Bulls outscored the Cavs by one point in the last three quarters of Game 1, were within three points with under five minutes in Game 2 and tied going into the fourth quarter, and outscored the Cavs by a wide margin the first three quarters of Game 3. The Bulls are not exactly getting blown out.
No one is changing their predictions, but the Cavs have to realize now this is a series.
They have the best player, but in Rose and Noah, the latter with 10 points and 15 rebounds, the Bulls have the next two. And Deng has outplayed Jamison, the supposed final Cavs championship piece.
The Cavs plan has been to put up a big defensive wall against Rose early with their big bodies, and then late use an aggressive trap picking up him at half court. The Bulls took advantage, and made some nice adjustments that got Hinrich going after a slow first two games.
The Cavs bigs can’t play the pick and roll no matter what Shaq says in his fantasies.
They tend to lay back and zone the middle. So the Bulls took advantage of that by deploying Hinrich off more middle screens and dribble handoffs to get shots with some room and Hinrich responded with a brilliantly, efficient shooting game, nine of 12 field goals for those 27 points.
“I was feeling good,” said Hinrich. “Guys were finding me. I felt the first couple of game I was not asserting myself. I really didn’t give myself a chance to have an offensive game. It was a different mindset for me tonight.”
The Bulls also used Noah effectively again as a middle decision maker.
There’s a lot of criticism of Noah in the screen/roll with Rose given Noah is not a great shooter, though he is improved and was four of four on free throws as the Bulls shot 25 to 31 for the Cavs, a much better ratio than in Cleveland.
When the Cavs trap Rose on top, he releases the ball to Noah near the free throw line, and Noah has been able to pick apart the Cavs slow defensive rotations with crisp interior passing, an impressive skill as Noah had five assists and Taj Gibson a pair when he filed that role with Noah in foul trouble parts of the game.
The Bulls also did a good job fronting the post, which slowed the Cavs tremendously to start.
“We allowed them to get in a comfort zone,” James said about the Bulls 32-21 first quarter. “They were making jump shots and we allowed them to get rebounds. We did not have a lot of energy to start the game. We started the game too lax. I don’t know why. We didn’t have a sense of urgency to start the game.”
What happened is the Cavs plan is to go into Shaq to start, a traditional strategy to open the floor and get the defense to sag in. But Noah and later Brad Miller did a terrific job fronting Shaq, who doesn’t move well, denying the initial postup and getting the Cavs trying to repost, which takes time and gets everyone standing.
It’s not a good strategy anymore because Shaq is petrified wood.
That game lulls your offense to sleep and is only effective if Shaq can score. He couldn’t, and the Bulls burst out 8-2 as Rose was simply exploding through the traps for 15 first quarter points, even an off balance three with the shot clock going off.
The home crowd among some not so nice shouts were chanting “MVP” for Rose to counter James’ supporters back home.
“Did not listen to them,” Rose offered with a shy laugh. “Almost passed out. Hopefully one day. Not this year. I’m just worried about winning right now.”
The Bulls’ goal, even though the Cavs were 45-5 this season when scoring more than 100 points, was to speed the game, and they pushed effectively, Deng running out when James beat him and the Cavs poor in transition defense with their loafing big men.
Shaq even missed an open slam dunk late in the second quarter and the Cavs obviously felt so badly for the ancient warrior Delonte West later had a steal and open layup but waited to give it to Shaq for a dunk so Shaq could have some points.
Del Negro also got his point across as when Shaq led with his elbows, he was called this time for the offensive foul.
Though after the game I wondered if the Bulls were getting a raw deal as I saw league vice president Stu Jackson, who supervises officials and games, in private conversations with Cavs GM Danny Ferry and then with coach Mike Brown. It didn’t seem right the Cavs could do that much private lobbying after the game with the league official who potentially can have so much influence on the way the game is called.
Though earlier in the day, perhaps it was balanced off as NBA commissioner David Stern, after meeting with sports editors, declared the Bulls back.
“We’re doing great in L.A., Boston’s setting records, the Bulls are back, Dallas is an exciting team,” Stern said in responding to a question suggesting the league is helping New York. “People are saying,’New York who?’
“The Bulls have done a terrific job, probably the best job on an ongoing basis,” Stern said of the team’s marketing efforts. “The Bulls’ attendance is wonderfully out of sync with their record. They have marketed to their fans. They have persuaded their fans that they are in this for the long run. They’ve built a roster of players that are going to be there as the team improves.
“As impolitic as Joakim may be, he’s a hell of a player,” Stern continued. “And Derrick Rose isn’t so bad himself. … They’re playing exciting basketball.”
It was a terrific game, though not so easy on the nervous fan.
After going ahead 68-47 midway through the third quarter with Noah imploring the fans to get up and cheer as the Cavs went into a timeout, Noah soon got a third foul—”stupid, stupid, stupid,” he said of himself later–the Bulls fell into their rut of shooting jumpers and the Cavs went on an 11-0 run to get back into the game.
Deng helped hold off the Cavs at the end of the third with perhaps his best move ever as a Bull, a cross over to leave James swiping at air, drive to the basket and reverse for a score, the crowd gasping in appreciation.
“I tried to drive middle, he reacted and I put it behind my back and went to the basket,” said Deng a lot less interestingly than the play.
The Bulls were still hanging on ahead 84-73 after a Hinrich three with about nine minutes left when James blew by Hinrich for a dunk and Noah committed his fifth and West hit a three to make it 84-78 with 8:48 left. Uh oh.
Parker hit a three off James’ penetration to get it within five with 7:40 left.
But the Bulls made play after play to keep the lead, Rose finding Deng for a dunk, Rose with another floater. The Cavs had gone small by then with James and Jamison their tallest players and the game became more thrilling.
James went onto Rose with the Cavs trailing 94-90 with 4:39 left and stopped his first shot. But Rose then made two straight for a 98-92 lead.
“I just tried to get him off balance,” said Rose. “Usually my speed really gets people off balance. He’s big, but he’s got quickness. So it is kind of hard. We wee just trying to keep the pressure on.”
James then scored twice and Rose missed on a drive. LeBron came roaring down the left side and Deng stepped in and got the charge. LeBron said block. The referee called charge as the ball went through with the Bulls ahead by six with 1:18 left.
“I saw me and Luol, I saw Luol backpedaling,” recounted James . “Me, as a driver, I’m watching his feet to see if he’s stationary or moving. I thought he was still backpedaling. As soon as I saw him backpedaling, that’s when I decided to take off. They called a charge. I haven’t seen a replay, but I know exactly what I’ve seen on the court with the defender right in front of me.”
“I just wanted to get in front of him,” said Deng. “The ref took a while (to make the call) As I wa son the floor I was thinking, ‘I hope this is not an And 1.’ I was happy to see the ref point the other way.”
Judgment call. LeBron gets 95 percent of them. Not this time.
Noah then stripped James on a drive and the Bulls hung on despite missing four of eight free throws in the last 26.9 seconds.
“It’s great for our confidence as a young team to beat a team like this, a team that has the best record in the NBA, a team that everybody says is going to win the championship,” said Noah. “To be in a situation like this, to play in an environment like this, for us is huge From the beginning of the series, we felt like we could play with them.”