Category Archives: Pre-Game

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.”

Cavs acknowledge defending Rose no easy task

At just 21 years of age, Chicago’s Derrick Rose has already proven he is capable of excelling when it matters most – in the postseason.
In Chicago’s Game 3 win over the Cavaliers, Rose posted team highs with 31 points and seven assists. The second-year pro is averaging 27.3 ppg, 8.3 apg and 3.7 rpg in 42.7 through the first three games of the playoffs.

In 10 career postseason games for Rose, he has scored 20 or more points six times, including two contests with 30 or more points. While the best player on the court clearly is Cleveland’s LeBron James, likely to win his second straight MVP award, Cavaliers Head Coach Mike Brown is aware stopping Rose is their best bet to keep Chicago from tying the series at 2-2.

“We’ve just got to keep mixing up our coverages,” said Brown of defending Rose prior to Game 4. “He’s a great player. We threw double teams at him and played him soft. The one thing he’s doing now is hitting that jump shot. When he hits that, as quick and powerful as he is and as well as he passes the ball, he’s really a handful to handle.”

Bulls Head Coach Vinny Del Negro knows that a new game plan for defending Rose could be in store.

“A lot of teams try and handcuff Derrick,” he said. “We’ll try and handcuff some of their players as well. It’s easy to talk about, but it’s hard to do. There are adjustments you can make, but guys have to make plays and hit shots. We’ve won all year with our defense and rebounding and we’ve got to do a much better job on the glass. Their offensive rebounds really affected us last game.”

Del Negro believes one of the keys for his team to even the series is getting off to another quick start. In Game 3, the Bulls held a 32-21 advantage after the first quarter and withstood a late Cleveland rally for the win.

“We’ve got to come ready to play and I know we will,” said Del Negro. “We’ve got to start out playing well at both ends. We expect them to come out hard and we’ll come out hard. The sense of urgency is there and we know how important this game is and so do they.”

More items on Chicago’s first round postseason series with the Cavaliers from the team’s game notes:

MISCUES TO A MINIMUM
Chicago’s four turnovers in Game 2 set a franchise record for fewest turnovers in a playoff game, and tied an NBA record for the fewest turnovers in a loss. The Bulls then followed that up with eight turnovers in Game 3. The 12 total turnovers is the fewest by the Bulls over a two-game span this season (previous two-game low was 16).

“We’ve put an emphasis on that all year,” said Del Negro. “The guys have really done a nice job understanding we need to control tempo. If you give them extra opportunities, they’re going to make you pay for it. It’s been a conscious effort and hopefully it will continue.”

On the year, Chicago committed nine or fewer turnovers in game 10 times, but never in back-to-back games.

“We’ve never been a steal or deny team,” said Brown. “The playoffs are about possessions and right now, it’s not even close. are beating us in that area. I think they have seven more possessions a game than us because of the lack of turnovers they are having and the ones we are having. We have to do a better job of taking care of the ball and not having as many unforced turnovers as we’ve had in the last couple of games.

DYNAMIC DUO
Derrick Rose scored 31 points and Kirk Hinrich added 27 in the Bulls’ 108-106 victory over the Cavs in Game 3. It was only the third playoff game in team history in which both starting guards scored at least 25 points. Michael Jordan (36) and Sam Vincent (31) did it against the Pistons in 1988; Jerry Sloan (27) and Norm Van Lier (26) did it against the Lakers in 1973 (Elias Sports Bureau). Rose and Hinrich’s 58 combined points accounted for 53.7 percent of Chicago scoring in Game 3.

FROM WAY DOWNTOWN
After scoring a total of 13 points (6-18 FG, 1-5 3FG) through the first two games of the season, Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich erupted for 27 points (9-12 FG, 4-4 3FG) and added five boards and five assists in Chicago’s 108-106 win over Cleveland in Game 3 Thursday night. Including the postseason, Chicago is 14-0 this year when Hinrich scores 16 or more points in a game. The Bulls also are 10-1 when he makes three or more three-balls in a game. On the year, Hinrich averaged 10.9 ppg.

SEEING DOUBLE
In Game 3 on Thursday night, Joakim Noah posted his second double-double of the series (fifth career playoff double-double) with 10 points, a team-high 15 rebounds, five assists (playoff high) and two blocks. In 10 career playoff games, Noah has tallied 10 or more rebounds in eight games and 10 or more points six times.

Audio—Bulls Head Coach Vinny Del Negro talks about taking on the Cavs in Game 4, whether he’s surprised how well his team has played Cleveland, and the postseason contributions of Luol Deng (04.25.10):

Game 4 looking bigger for both Bulls and Cavs

Change seems to be coming for Game 4 in this playoff series between the Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers.

But could it be LeBron James or Mike Brown leaving the Cavs?

Tune in Sunday. This is starting to get very interesting.

The Bulls Thursday drew within 2-1 of the heavily favored Cavaliers in the first round playoff series with the Bulls 108-106 victory.

The Bulls for the second straight game against the supposedly rugged, defensive oriented Cavs scored more than 100 points, averaged 12 more points in the paint per game and totaled 25 more field goal attempts.

Playoffs are said to be all about adjustments, and so far the Bulls are easily winning that battle with a solid game plan that invites James to score—he’s averaging 34.3 points—while controlling his teammates and accelerating the game against the Cavs dinosaurs inside.

“I think they shot the ball very well in the fourth (coming back from a 21-point deficit and almost stealing the game),” said Joakim Noah after Bulls practice Friday. “They were hitting contested threes. That’s our game plan.

“LeBron talked (after Game 1) about making his shot again and again and again and again,” Noah said about James suggesting the Bulls taunting from the bench goaded him into a big shooting finish. “‘You’re going to keep shooting them again and again and again and again, too. Keep shooting the ball.’ We’d rather that then that tractor coming at us.”

That strategy has worked well. But the Cavs late in Game 3 countered with a “No-Shaq, No-Z, No-V zone” small lineup that scored 38 fourth quarter points on 54.2 percent shooting in a furious comeback that barely fell short only because of huge plays down the stretch by Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Noah.

After the game, James talked frankly about the effectiveness of the Cavs small lineup.

“We’ve been really, really good this year when we play small,” James said Thursday night.  “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.  We have to look at match-ups, but it’s a really effective line-up for us.”

James is a very bright basketball player, and it perhaps was no coincidence when he was asked about playing Rose late in the game he said it was his idea.

The joke, of course, is he is the league’s only player/coach.

James, particularly because he can be a free agent this summer, has an unusually strong hold on the Cavs’ franchise, and they perhaps are facing more than a strategy adjustment for Sunday’s Game 4 than a referendum on James and James’ and Brown’s future with the franchise.

The Cavs didn’t practice Friday, but met with reporters at the team hotel.

James was quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer saying he wanted J.J. Hickson to play more as Shaquille O’Neal has slowed the Cavs and enabled the Bulls to take a big lead in Game 3. Hickson also has been a favorite of Cleveland fans, who have been bombarding the media and team with pleas for him to play as when Shaq was out most of the last two months the Cavs played better with a smaller, quicker, more fluid lineup.

“I think personally I would love to see J.J. on the court,” said James, who has made Hickson a personal project. “I don’t know if he’s ready, but I think he will be.”

Hickson has played 96 seconds of garbage time in the three games.

In the last 11 games with O’Neal out, Hickson averaged 12.7 points and 7.6 rebounds on 56 percent shooting with three games of at least 20 points and another with 16 rebounds against the Hawks, an athletic team like the Bulls. Hickson had a double/double against the Celtics and the Cavs were 16-3 with Hickson playing more and Shaq out until James sat out the last four games and the Cavs lost.

“Is there any plan of going to J.J. for a few minutes? Not right now,” said Brown in response to a question. “I’ve got to get Shaq on the floor a little bit more and other than that, that is my main goal right now with my bigs. We’ll go small if we need to. That is something we always have done in the past if we think it is effective. I’ve got to get (Shaq) more involved in the series. He had some great looks that popped out but those will go down. He can be a big factor for us.”

LeBron?

“For me, I’m not going to say what lineups we should use,” James said. “But I know the game, I know the feel of the game. I’m not trying to make a pitch for J.J., but we all saw what he was able to do during the regular season: With his size, his athleticism and his ability to put pressure on the rim. That is something you can’t substitute. I said before the series started that we’re going to need J.J.”

I don’t know what ring they are in, but I’m taking LeBron.

Get ready for Hicksonmania.

The general consensus around the NBA is the Cavs are best when they spread the court for James. Opponents cannot then crowd the lane. You then almost have to bring help against James, which the Bulls mostly have not had to do. And if you do, he can find his shooters and drivers, involve his teammates and become the power team that led the league in wins.

But the Cavs brought Shaq in with the future in mind. They believe they need Shaq to have a chance to beat the Magic with Dwight Howard. And since Shaq has been out with a thumb injury for almost two months, Brown knows he needs to play him to get him back in game shape for the rest of the playoffs.

Is it worth giving up another game to do that?

Clearly, James, the competitor, doesn’t think so.

James is trying to be delicate about Shaq, but he sees what we all do, that the great center has little lift anymore and is a plodding figure whom the Bulls can control with their aggression and energy. And while Shaq is laboring for position, the Cavs’ offense comes to a standstill.

This, perhaps, is as direct a challenge as James has made to Brown, which suggests he recognizes the fear of allowing a young team to get too much confidence and knows what happened to the Celtics last season against the likes of Derrick Rose and Noah, who are playing better than any of his teammates.

“It shows the kind of player Derrick is taking on the challenge (of James guarding him),” noted Noah. “People talk about LeBron on D. Rose and guarding him. He did not really do a great job. D. Rose was giving him buckets.

“We can’t control what they do (in matchup changes),” said Noah. “We can control what we do. Our best can beat them. So we just focus on the things we can control. I think we’ll be fine (if they go small). It kind of works to our advantage. I think right now we’re really confident and really loose. I like our chances.”

There also seems to be a philosophical rift developing with the Cavs.

Brown is a defensive minded coach who pays little attention to the offensive side and mostly lets assistants handle that. Defensive guys like bigs and size in the lane, but Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas have been too slow for the Bulls front line. And Antawn Jamison is not regarded as a top defender.

James is basically saying these guys against a team like the Bulls aren’t good enough for us to win as defensive team. Which is obvious the way the Bulls have shot and scored the last two games.

I also don’t think the Cavs defensive plan has been very good.

Their traps on Rose are too high and away from the lane. It’s enabled Rose even when he’s given up the ball to find Noah, who is a good decision maker in the lane and make passes or attacks a defense out of position. Also, those Cavs bigs are poor on the pick and roll and generally lay back to zone the lane, leaving pretty open jump shots, which Kirk Hinrich feasted off for 27 points in Game 3 to go with Rose’s 31.

James is a competitor and looks at those two and says something like, “If that’s what they have, we can take that.”

But the game has to be faster and the defensive players quicker.

Brown is a more traditional defensive guy in creating a shell in packing the lane and seeing if a poor jump shooting team can beat you over the top. It sounds right. Just not to the most important man in the Cleveland organization.

What will Mike Brown do?

What will LeBron do?

What will the Bulls do?

I can’t wait.

Del Negro says Bulls playing with a sense of urgency

By Adam Fluck
This season marks the 29th appearance by the Bulls in the NBA Playoffs, their fifth appearance in the last six years. But is just getting there enough? It isn’t for Head Coach Vinny Del Negro.
Down 2-0 to the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in their first round series and back home for Games 3 and 4, Del Negro and the Bulls face a must-win situation to keep this a competitive series.
“The guys know we need to win this game,” said Del Negro. “We played well enough in Game 2 to steal a game and we didn’t get it done. Here’s an opportunity. I don’t care if we’re at home or not, you still have to go out and play well. You have to execute. They’re the number one seed for a reason; they’re very difficult to beat, home or away. We’ll have to play really well. The guys know that and they’re excited. Hopefully we can control our emotions and use that energy wisely.”
No team in NBA history has ever bounced back from a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven series. In fact, only eight teams have been able to wipe out 3-1 deficits and only 14 have come back to win after being behind 2-0.
Thus, the odds are stacked against the Bulls should they fall in Game 3, but Del Negro stressed his group is well aware of the importance of the game and will come ready to play.
“For our guys, there seems like there has always been a sense of urgency just because of the last few weeks of the regular season,” he said. “They got us back on our heels the first game and then we made some adjustments and the guys really responded.
“We have to be sharper tonight and that sense of urgency is going to have to kick in somewhere,” Del Negro added. “Obviously we can’t go down 0-3. This is a huge game for us to get back in the series and the guys know that. It comes down to executing. We know where the ball is going to be in the fourth quarter and we’re going to have to be sharp. We can help our defense by putting pressure on them offensively by making shots and not turning it over. If you can take some of their easy baskets away, sometimes you can live with some of the difficult shots they make, especially LeBron.”
Meanwhile, Cavaliers Head Coach Mike Brown said he and his team are not taking the Bulls lightly.
“Chicago has given us fits the entire year,” said Brown. “Not only that, they were all in tune the last ten games of the regular season. Watching Toronto and watching Chicago, Chicago went 10-4 down the stretch. Everybody saw that and everybody felt it. Our guys are speaking the right language right now, so there’s no reason to put extra emphasis on it.”
For the Bulls to get back into the series, they’ll likely need more stellar play from their leaders, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
Over his first two games of this series, Rose has averaged 25.5 ppg, 9.0 apg, 4.5 rpg and 1.50 spg in 43.0 mpg. In nine career playoff games, Rose has tallied three double-doubles, five games with 20 or more points, two games with 10 or more assists and one game with 10 or more boards.
In Game 2 on Monday, Noah posted his first double-double of the series (fourth career playoff double-double) with a playoff career-high 25 points and a team-high 13 rebounds. In nine career playoff games, Noah has tallied 10 or more rebounds in seven games and 10 or more points five times.
“This is a good team,” said Brown, who believes the Bulls are better than what their record shows. “Noah is a very good player and Rose is on his way to being a great player. Everybody would love to have a guy as tough-minded and versatile as Hinrich is; Deng too. It’s a really good team that’s had some misfortunes with their injuries, but they stuck together through a lot of stuff and ended up making the playoffs.”
Audio—Bulls Head Coach Vinny Del Negro on the pace of the series so far, as well as Flip Murray and Kirk Hinrich’s contributions in the postseason (04.22.10):

Good guys return to wearing black

The good guys finally are wearing black.
The Bulls Thursday with Game 3 of the first round playoff series are going back to all the players honoring team tradition and wearing black sneakers after they couldn’t get everyone on board in Cleveland.
The reason for the 0-2 start? We’ll see.
As Bulls fans know, wearing black sneakers became a team playoff tradition in the first round of the playoffs in 1989 when the Bulls were big underdogs to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Bulls had finished the season 10 games behind the 57-win Cavs and were swept 6-0 by the Cavs that season. Reserve Brad Sellers came up with the unity idea of wearing black sneakers, which were hi-tops in that era.
No wonder there were so many fewer sprained ankles, but I digress.
Everyone went along and the Bulls prevailed in a classic five-game series with Michael Jordan’s game winning shot to win Game 5 and the series in Cleveland.
Through the six championship seasons and in every playoff series since the Bulls players wore black sneakers.
Last season after a one-year playoff hiatus, the Bulls didn’t have the black sneaker unity for Game 1 in Boston. The Bulls did win in overtime. Kirk Hinrich gathered the team and pushed for the return to black sneakers, and the Bulls went on to lose in Game 7 in what’s been considered one of the great playoff series in league history because of the overtimes.
But this season in the first two games in Cleveland, several players wore white sneakers.
Equipment manager John Ligmanowski said he provided black sneakers for all the players, but some demurred.
Flip Murray has difficulty with some of the sneakers he gets from Nike, so he’ll often buy different pairs at the Nike store on Michigan Avenue. Murray wore white in Cleveland, but said before the game he’d wear black at home.
“They were on me all day,” admitted James Johnson, about teammates joking with his and urging him to wear black sneakers for Game 3. Johnson also wore white sneakers in Cleveland.
Johnson said he was wearing his white sneakers because of his issues with plantar fasciitis and the importance of wearing the correct shoes.
Though there are many theories about the causes of plantar fasciitis, there’s considerable consensus that the biggest issue may be the soft shoes so many of the players tend to wear in this era.
The team has been pushing the players into stiffer shoes, though it’s a sensitive issue because players have shoe contracts and some companies don’t make sneakers firm enough.
Johnson borrowed a pair of black sneakers from Rob Kurz, who was to be on the inactive list, to wear for Game 3.
“You gotta go with tradition,” said Johnson.

LeBron is coming, LeBron is coming; is he alone?

The Bulls plan, and I agreed with it, has been to keep those other guys out of the game because James knows he needs them and tries desperately to get them going. James couldn’t in Game 2, so he took over.
It was impressive.
“The goal is for him to take jump shots,” Kirk Hinrich said after Bulls practice Wednesday. “He did that and made them in Game 2. He hit them fading away. We’re going to challenge him to take tough jump shots. We can’t have him in the paint getting wide open looks for those other guys, getting in transition.
“We want to win this series,” said Hinrich. “Hopefully, we’ll get on our home court and get some momentum and get a game.”
So, in other words, if you’re so good, LeBron, let’s see if you can get 50 on the road in Game 3 at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Perhaps he can as it was an awfully efficient 40 points for James in Game 2 on 23 shots.
Though the secret to playing the Cavs, I believe, is making LeBron beat you.
It was much the same with Michael Jordan and the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980’s. Jordan would go off for huge 40-point type games. He’d win a few like that, but never quite enough.
I remember talking to Isiah Thomas about Jordan during some of those games and he said if Jordan even truly included his teammates the Pistons would have no chance. Once Jordan accepted that fully in 1991, it was over.
Maybe James doesn’t need that to get by the Bulls. But James understands you don’t win championships trying to score 40 or 50 a game. He doesn’t want to. In effect, the Bulls want him to, though I expect there’ll be some adjustments from that strategy in Game 3.
Reserves generally have more difficulty in the playoffs on the road, so the Bulls job will be making sure the starters don’t get involved as much.
O’Neal had in this era for him a big game in the opener with 12 points and five rebounds. He’s obviously, even with a Big Invisible performance in Game 2, a concern, and Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro Wednesday sent his subtle message.
“We’ve got to somehow stay away from Shaquille’s elbows,” said Del Negro, “get our heads away from those elbows a little bit.”
Since the NBA is harsh regarding questioning officiating in the playoffs with huge fines, Del Negro was cautious. I told him to ask management for $35,000 and rip away. He laughed and said he should check with managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf.
“Shaquille, obviously, is difficult to referee and play against because of his size and where the elbow starts coming,” noted Del Negro. “The referees need to be conscious of that and hopefully we’ll be getting some calls going our way in that aspect and be aggressive to the basket.”
But there are no such limitations regarding gamesmanship on me.
It’s an embarrassment for the league the way they allow O’Neal to catch and turn in with his elbows out. It should be an offensive every time. At one time when O’Neal could jump and was graceful—OK, a little bit—he could make an athletic move on the turn. No more.
We’ll see if that changes and if Derrick Rose, who got just six free throw attempts with 52 shots in 86 minutes, gets a bit more aggressive back home.
“Derrick has done a better job attacking the basket with floaters and things. We need to continually attack,” said Del Negro.
Rose missed practice Wednesday with a personal, family issue but will play in Game 3 Thursday.
It was mostly a routine day for the Bulls at the Berto Center, though with considerably more media.
The Bulls players are not difficult, but at home practices don’t hang around much to chat. The coach is generally required by the league to talk to reporters, and Del Negro did for about 10 minutes after the closed practice.
By the time he was done, most of the players left for treatment and weight work, which are off limits areas to reporters. Hinrich stuck around and answered a few questions, and that was pretty much it.
Are the players confident? They insist yes and are looking forward to seeing if the Cavs will sweat if they lose.
Or have they mentally packed it in after playing a good game Monday despite falling down 2-0 and getting some national respect? And then maybe avoid a return trip to Cleveland next week.
Of course, it was the joke of the weekend with Joakim Noah having some fun knocking down Cleveland.
James addressed it after Cavs practice and said he loves Chicago.
“It’s an awesome city. Great restaurants, great shopping,” said James, who said he spent three summers in Chicago while in high school working out. “I have nothing bad (to say) about Chicago. I’m not saying that because of what he said about Cleveland. I’m serious. We all love Chicago.”
James drew some laughs at Noah’s comment about no one vacationing in Cleveland when he offered he vacations in Chicago.
“You all are making it a joke,” James said. “I’m being very serious. I love Chicago. I love Cleveland and love Akron, too.”
Good this is Chicago and not New York. The tabloids in New York would turn that into “LeBron Coming to New York” headlines.
I raised the possibility in my Bulls.com column Wednesday of James leaving the Cavs as a free agent and coming to the Bulls this summer if he is serious about winning long term. After all, who among the Cavs rivals either Rose or Noah?
Though after watching the Heat and Celtics Tuesday, I’d have to save Dwyane Wade is the most likely to get out of town. If James’ supporting cast isn’t that much, well, Wade’s is a nightmare.
Look, this is a tough one for the Bulls for a lot of reasons other than finishing 20 games behind the Cavs in the regular season. And that was with the Bulls straining to the finish to get in and the Cavs’ regulars taking most of the last two weeks off.
The Bulls need to get over 100 to be in the games. When they had 83 in Game 1, they were out early. When they had 102 in Game 2, it was close.
The problem is a faster game forces the Cavs to bench Shaq and the Cavs were 45-5 in the regular season when they scored at least 100 points. They were 16-16 when they didn’t. The Bulls were 22-8 when they scored at least 100 in the regular season and 19-33 when they didn’t. The Bulls want to run. The Cavs love to run.
There’s no question James beat the Bulls in Game 2 when it was close and the pressure was on. Cavs fans, as we know, have seen that picture before.
“We have to pick our spots and make it difficult for him to score,” said Del Negro.
That suggested to me we will see some more doubles on James at certain times, perhaps a late double when he goes into his move. When he holds the ball with the clock running down he doesn’t like to pass the ball then because it puts teammates in a tough position to make shots.
“We want to keep them out of transition,” said Del Negro. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s young, strong, big. I thought Luol (Deng) was solid. They made plays, but we’ll try to be more efficient and maybe we’ll shoot better at home.
“But the people in Chicago know,” said Del Negro. “You had a guy here a long time was who was pretty good who wore No. 23. You can have all the great defense you want. But some guys just make plays over the top whether you are bringing one, two or three guys. You have to get into him and make it as hard as possible.”
That reference to Jordan opened the door for me to have a little fun with Del Negro and ask who was better, Jordan or James.
I probably shouldn’t have done it.
“That’s impossible to answer,” said Del Negro trying to be diplomatic. “Michael right now because of what his legacy is and what he did to evolve his game.
“Larry (Bird) and Magic (Johnson) took it to a level, Mike to another level,” said Del Negro. “I’m not big on comparing guys because I don’t think it’s fair. Comparing anyone to Michael now is not fair because of MVP’s, championships. LeBron at this stage is only 25. He has a long career left (if he) stays healthy, is consistent. Who’s better (Bill) Russell or (Wilt) Chamberlain?”
Wilt, by the way.
“It’s different rules, different eras, players, different travel,” noted Del Negro. “(Jerry) West, Oscar (Robertson), so many guys you can talk about. Obviously, they both are great players.”
I understood Del Negro didn’t want to get into it because he is playing LeBron now. Don’t make him mad, as LeBron also suggested at practice the Bulls players harassing him from the bench about his shooting got him going.
“I understand a lot of teams would like to make me shoot jumpers and keep me out of the paint,” James said. “That’s what I would do if I was guarding me, but I wouldn’t talk to me if I was guarding me.”
But that’s also the point. James was fabulous in Game 2 with a classic playoff game. But there’s still a big question about his teammates. I believe he worries about that because he knows he’ll need them. So you don’t play off them. Make it difficult. Make them make big shots at big times while defended. I’m not sure they can.
James Johnson likely will get another brief shot at James because he can be physical. Hinrich will some because he can be pesky, and Deng will most of the time and it will be crucial—and two days of between games should help—for Deng to continue to attack on offense to keep James engaged on defense and not playing the passing lanes. Deng also can’t get too deep on shots as James will cheat and try to run out. So the Bulls have to get back and let Noah and Taj Gibson deal with the offensive boards.
The traditional theory often is to let the other guys beat you. But that’s what James wants. Because he believes he always can. So I say let see if he can beat you again and again.
Make James try to prove he’s as prolific as Jordan. It makes for a heck of a show, but it also makes the Cavs a one-man show, and you don’t win that way. Most of the time, anyway.

On second thought, Cleveland still not Noah’s kind of town

You had to like the Bulls road effort Monday, even though they lost 112-102 to fall behind 2-0 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the opening round playoff series.

And you have to love Joakim Noah’s game with 25 points and 13 rebounds, and his defiant insouciance when he was asked whether he regretted comments mildly—and amusingly—critical of Cleveland that got the Hooterville locals fuming and booing at home throughout the game.

“Not at all,” Noah responded about whether he was sorry. “You like it? You think Cleveland is cool? I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I’m going to Cleveland on vacation.’ What’s so good about Cleveland?”

Obviously, LeBron James, who scored 40 points along with eight rebounds and eight assists, including 15 points in the fourth quarter, to save a Cavs team that led by just three with under five minutes left.

“It came down to them hitting big shot after big shot,” noted Noah. “LeBron’s pretty good. He’s actually an excellent player. He hit some unbelievable shots when his team needed it the most. Yeah, he played an unbelievable game. It’s tough now. I hate to lose. I’m a little frustrated. But I don’t want to be up here giving LeBron all this credit. I don’t think we’re discouraged. If anything, we’re motivated and think we can win, especially on our home court. We have some tough fans, too.”

Though the Bulls lost, they have to like it that it took an extraordinary effort by James at home to scrape out a win.

The Bulls outrebounded the Cavs and dominated Cleveland in inside points, 56-38. They held a 21-7 edge on second chance points, making the Cavs play their game in which the Bulls forced the action and ran, didn’t allow the Cavs to set their defense and turned Shaq back into a large statue.

The Bulls had 22 more shots and committed just four turnovers, doing everything but winning.

Yes, the Cavs had the best record in the league and are the No. 1 seed, so it’s not supposed to be easy.

But the Bulls go home having made the Cavs sweat on their home court. Now, let’s see if Jamario Moon can make four threes on the road and whether the Cavs can hit 10 of 20 threes against a hostile crowd. See if LeBron can keep bailing them out.

“It’s gonna be crazy when we get to the United Center Thursday (for Game 3),” said Derrick Rose, who had 23 points while Luol Deng added 20. “It will be time to ball.”

How the Bulls can beat the Cavs

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.
Edge: Bulls
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.
Edge: Bulls
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.
Edge: Cavs
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.
Edge: Bulls
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.
Edge: Cavs
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.

Bulls ready for LeBron and have some support

Oak is bullish on the Bulls.
Charles Oakley, the former Bulls first round draft pick and longtime NBA enforcer, says he can not only see the Bulls making it a series with his home state Cavs when the playoffs open in Cleveland Saturday, but Oakley says if LeBron James is leaving Cleveland and serious about winning, his best destination might be Chicago.
“I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Oakley admits about the potential top free agent and soon-to-be league MVP. “But if they (Bulls) get LeBron, they’re the team to beat. Or Joe Johnson, they win 55 games, easy. All they (Bulls) need is one player.
“(Derrick) Rose is getting better. Joakim (Noah) is getting better,” Oakley noted. “Cleveland has maybe two more years (as a competitor). Shaq is done. (Zydrunas) Ilgauskas is done. (Antawn) Jamison maybe another year.
“He’s not going to New York,” said Oakley of James and all the Knicks talk. “They don’t have the talent. New Jersey would be better (if James does decide to leave). They have a point guard and a center. Miami has (Dwyane) Wade. Chicago’s got Rose, they have a center, they have (Taj) Gibson, a good utility guy, (Luol) Deng. Noah. He’s shooting with both hands, he’s a leader, he stands up for his teammates.”
That is one reason Oakley likes what he sees. He’s a big fan of Noah, whom he’s known since Noah was 11 and Noah’s family had a restaurant Oakley frequented when Oakley was with the Knicks. Oakley’s obviously an admirer of Noah’s aggressive and energetic playing style and defending his team, as Noah did when LeBron James was dancing around during that Cavs rout of the Bulls earlier this season.
“They’re going to give the Cavs trouble,” Oakley was saying when I caught up with him in Charlotte Wednesday after the Bulls win to get into the playoff. “Rose is a big time killer athlete. They’ve got Deng. He can (offset) Jamison. You’ve got (Kirk) Hinrich doing his thing. Brad Miller is a X-factor off the bench. They’ve got a pretty good defense. They have an opportunity.
“They don’t have a great coach,” noted Oakley, the league’s legendary enforcer and alltime straight talker who began his career with the Bulls and remains close with now Bobcats owner Michael Jordan. “But they have a great understanding of the game. That is the big thing. They’re smart, understand the game and play their roles.”
Obviously, the series for the NBA world is about LeBron as the Cavs are the favorite to win the championship coming into the playoffs.
And the guy who will be asked to be on TV trying to do something about James is Deng.
Deng had a tough finish with his calf injury acting up, but played through it in the big three game winning streak finish. Now, Deng says he’s looking forward to this series.
Deng did play 70 games, his most in three years, after not being able to play in last year’s playoffs and late season with a stress fracture. His health was one of the team’s major question marks coming into the season with the possibility of him needing another operation if he had difficulty again.
He had that little hiccup with his calf last month, but finished the season second to Rose in scoring at 17.6 and third in rebounding at 7.3 with Noah first at 11 and Gibson next at 7.5. Deng had his best season shooting threes at 32 of 83 for 38.6 percent and averaged a team high 37.5 minutes per game.
Still, Deng knows there always are questions about him and he’s ready.
“When I came back (from injury), the goal was to be 6-2 and we did that and it’s what it took to make the playoffs,” said Deng. “Last year, for me personally, being out so long and not able to touch the ball or even run, to come back and have this healthy a season (was good). When I had that injury (last season), the doctor said I might need a rod (and miss this season). It was pretty scary. I just give thanks to God I got through this season and it’s great in the playoffs you can shift your focus to one team.
“To be honest with you, since the series with Miami after they won the title and going to Detroit, this is the most excited I’ve been,” said Deng. “I want to lock in and focus and want to show everyone when the playoffs come how much I’m looking forward to it.
“Every possession I’m going to try to make it hard for him,” said Deng of being the primary defender on James. “I’ll tell you this. Every possession down it will be hard for him.”
Obviously, James is the key. So it starts with Deng.
But there also are some sweet story lines, like the Cavs with the superstar and MVP like the Bulls of the late 1980s and early 1990s and the Bulls with the more versatile, but flawed team on the rise. Can it be sweet payback for the Cavs?
And then there’s James, the big potential prize of the 2010 free agent class. Maybe he gets a closer look at Chicago in spring and Rose and Noah and a youngster like Gibson and his aging teammates and sees some spunky play from the Bulls and decides, “Hold on, maybe I ought to rethink this free agency thing.”
Oak could buy into that. It should be a fun couple of weeks.