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Bulls roster madness to begin with end of season

So what happens next?
The Bulls Tuesday in losing the opening round playoff series to the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-1 concluded what generally was a successful season with a second straight 41-41 record and first round playoff elimination. Yes, even with another first round out. This was to be the appetizer.
But given injuries that cost Joakim Noah 18 games and parts of several others, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich missing another 20 combined—only Brad Miller, of all guys, and Taj Gibson played all 82 games—and the midseason trade of John Salmons, it was a positive to get to the playoffs and give the Cavs a scare, if not a seventh game.
This season with the loss of Ben Gordon as a free agent was aimed toward acquiring a free agent this summer. That process begins July 1, and the initial targets likely will be Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, David Lee and Carlos Boozer. The general belief is Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, the two elite free agents, will remain with their teams. But with Miami’s poor playoff performance around Wade and the possibility the Cavs could lose to the Celtics in the second round, their objectives could change. Free agency tends to be a financial and emotional process.
Though he was no where near the caliber, Trevor Ariza essentially took the same offer from the Rockets as he could have gotten from the Lakers because he was mad at them. The Heat doesn’t have near the players for a sign and trade the Bulls do, so if Miami comes up short, Wade could go shopping. Same with LeBron. It’s LeBron’s seventh season and if there’s no championship, maybe there’s a different itch he wants to scratch, that seven year itch.
And if Joe Johnson doesn’t have a rash the way the Hawks have fallen behind the no name Bucks 3-2 after Wednesday’s home loss, then maybe you have to wonder about him. Could he want to stay with that team under any circumstances if they lose to the Bucks?
Basically, everyone on the Bulls roster but Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah is available. It’s not like the Bulls are looking to move Taj Gibson or Kirk Hinrich, for instance, but they’d like to use a player in trade and then perhaps money to sign a free agent.
There will be dozens of possibilities. I’ve previously mentioned trading for Golden State’s Monta Ellis and signing Lee. Neither is a first tier free agent, generally considered James and Wade, and then Bosh and Johnson—but the Bulls would love to find both a shooting guard and interior scorer.
Ellis likely will be available and the Warriors during the season made various attempts at acquiring Hinrich. The Jazz also has liked Hinrich and there’s some talk they might resign Boozer and trade Paul Millsap. The Timberwolves will be active, as they’ve promised, and given the rough relationship between Kevin Love and coach Kurt Rambis, Love probably could be gotten. The team, for now, seems to be asking way too much for Al Jefferson, namely an All-Star or someone like Noah.
There also will be other free agents who would come more cheaply, like Anthony Morrow, Brendan Haywood, Raja Bell, Steve Blake, Drew Gooden, Jermaine O’Neal, Al Harrington, Juwan Howard, Roger Mason and Kyle Korver. Maybe you take a shot at a restricted free agent like Rudy Gay or Randy Foye.
And the Bulls finally will bring in 2008 draft pick Omer Asik. He is a seven-footer who has been injured the last two years with knee surgery and a broken collarbone but has ranked among the best shotblockers in Euroleagus history. The Bulls will get a good look at him at the World Championships in his native Turkey this summer. He is expected to be available to the Bulls for next season.
So there will be plenty of potential permutations before the Bulls have a roster for the 2010-11 season.
Here’s a look at what will happen with this group:
Derrick Rose: He’s the anchor of the team’s future as even LeBron James after Game 5 was calling Rose maybe the league’s best point guard. Deron Williams, by the way, objected, and said at shootaround Wednesday he was the best. Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah. Rose has one more season before he can negotiate an extension, which will be at the maximum salary. He’s not available to anyone. He earned $5.2 million this season and will be under team option one more season, unless he adds an extension after the 2011-12 season.
Chance of returning: 100 percent.
Joakim Noah: He’s the other untouchable. The organization will not even listen to any sign and trade offers with the possible exception of LeBron James, and then only possibly because of James’ bum elbow. Noah earned $2.5 million this season and is eligible for an extension this summer. I assume he signs one as players will want to get in under the old rules as the current collective bargaining agreement expires after next season and long term deals are expected to be reduced. The Bulls can get free agents first, but that’s why they will spend their money this summer because they likely won’t have for beyond once Noah commits. They could make some short term deals to go into 2011 free agency, but with the labor uncertainty it’s not likely. So what’s Noah worth? He’s made himself a star player, though still as an eight figure earner will be one of the only NBA players who probably won’t make as much as his father, former tennis and now European music star Yannick Noah.
Chance of returning: 100 percent.
Luol Deng: After all the preseason uncertainty coming off his stress fracture, Deng had a good season, averaging 17.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in 70 games. He makes $11.3 million next season and has a contract through 2013-14, the team’s longest now. He’ll likely be dangled in sign and trade talks as that will be a key in trying to attract someone like Bosh or Johnson. He has value around the league, but his contract length limits that with no one sure what will happen with the labor talks. And then the Bulls would need a small forward, so they won’t give him up easily.
Chance of returning: 75 percent.
Kirk Hinrich: He is fairly unflappable and sounded the most after Game 5 like he didn’t know if he’d be back. As Hinrich acknowledged, his name has come up in rumors for years. The reason is so many teams like what he brings and he has a descending contract that ends at $8 million in 2011-12, not much above the mid level for a guy who can play point guard and defend. With Joe Johnson and Rose, he’d give the Bulls likely the best guard rotation in the league. But it could cost the Bulls Hinrich in a sign and trade to get someone like Johnson. His name will come up in numerous scenarios starting at draft time, though the Bulls would like to have him back.
Chance of returning: 25 percent.
Taj Gibson: Along with Noah, he was the surprise of the season coming from the 26th pick in the draft to starting 70 games, second most to Rose. He made $1 million and was one of the league’s best bargains. He averaged nine points and 7.5 rebounds and with Noah made the Bulls one of the league’s best rebounding teams. He does have trouble against bigger players, but is a relentless worker. He’s got to improve his shooting and strength. If the Bulls can get Bosh, he’ll either be in a sign-and-trade or make up a heck of a front line with Noah. He gives the Bulls the option to explore fixing their shooting issues first because he can be a starting power forward, if not at an All-Star level.
Chance of returning: 70 percent.
James Johnson: The sixth player the Bulls have under contract for next season. He made $1.6 million this season, but barely played the first half and then sparingly as that was one of the key issues between management and coach Vinny Del Negro. He was a risk/reward draft pick, selected to make a hit or bust. He had a rocky start with punctuality issues and maturity, but has begun to come around. He’ll likely go to summer league, which can give him a chance to gain confidence. He probably would have been in the D-league at times if the team had more depth. The Bulls still want to give him a chance and feel he’ll virtually be a rookie again.
Chance of returning: 90 percent.
Brad Miller: He’s coming off a $90 million long term deal in which he made $12.25 million this season. Remarkably, he played all 82 games, albeit slowly. He really liked his teammates and bonds well with the support staff, though he was closest with Hinrich. Career wise his numbers are in decline at 34 as he shot a career low 43 percent and 28 percent on threes. He had some big games, but generally takes a few months to get back into condition. He’s a good backup center, though the Bulls won’t have much money after signing free agents and won’t get into a bidding fight for him. They’d probably give him a few million dollars for a year with a team option and would like to have him back. But at his age he remains a risk.
Chance of returning: 25 percent.
Hakim Warrick: He was acquired in the John Salmons deal and seemed like he’d be a good fit, but he quickly fell out of favor with Del Negro, who never quite found a role for him. He made $3 million this season and probably will look for something in that range or a bit less. It probably would be too much for the Bulls. He averaged 8.7 points and 3.6 rebounds for the Bulls, but in just 19 minutes per game when he played and rarely in the playoffs. He’s not a physical player, but can score with a decent mid range jumper and is a good athlete.
Chance of returning: 10 percent.
Flip Murray: He came in the Tyrus Thomas deal and became a relatively trusted sixth man type as an instant scorer. He got more time than Warrick, but not consistently. He averaged 10.1 for the Bulls, but shot just under 40 percent and 31 percent on threes. The Bulls would like to him have back as he’s a pro shooter and scorer, if streaky. But teams like him as a bench player and he’ll probably command more than the Bulls feel is worth paying.
Chance of returning: 10 percent.
Jannero Pargo: He never gained the regular trust of Del Negro and, as a result, had a tough shooting season with erratic playing time, shooting just 27.5 percent on threes. He got the $1.9 million mid level exception this season. With a bit more discipline and accountability, I think he could be a better average shooter. He’s a popular locker room guy and if he’d take close to the veteran’s minimum might be worth another look.
Chance of returning: 25 percent.
Acie Law: He came with Murray in the Thomas deal and never got much chance to play, 12 games and one start and mostly DNP’s. He’s a clever ball handler who can get to the basket, but he’s determined to get a chance, which he’s never had in being shuttled around. He made $2.2 million on the end of his rookie deal as 11th pick in 2007. I talked to him and he says he can see the Bulls getting Johnson and with Rose and Hinrich there’d be no minutes again. He doesn’t fit with Rose since he’s a penetrator and is more a scoring point guard. If he gets a chance several teams may regret giving him up.
Chances of returning: 5 percent.
Joe Alexander: Came in the Salmons deal and is an unusually gifted athlete who dominates the one-one-one games in practices. When it gets to full court something seems to change. He’s a dedicated worker and one of those guys coaches don’t seem to know why he’s not better. He says it’s been injuries and the lack of a chance. He made $2.6 million as the eighth pick in 2008, but the Bucks passed on his team option. He’ll likely take a minimum deal and the Bulls will be looking for players who’ll take a minimum but have had experience.
Chance of returning: 50 percent.
Chris Richard: The power forward from Florida became a popular guy around the locker room, easy going and friendly. He can bang around and was back and forth on some 10 day deals. He could be an asset in some sign and trade possibilities and might get a shot with the summer league team.
Chances of returning: 20 percent.
Rob Kurz: Picked up late so the team could take a look at him for perhaps a minimum deal as one of those shooting, so called stretch four forwards who can play a guy like Antawn Jamison, if not quite in that class. Also could be in a sign and trade and likely summer league as well.
Chances of returning: 20 percent.
Devin Brown: Came for Aaron Gray and pretty much got forgotten about once the team added Murray. Never got a chance to shoot himself out of his poor start, which was a long way from starting with the Hornets and making about $1.2 million.
Chances of returning: Zero.

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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.

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.

Bulls go down 2-0 to Cavs, but may have a plan

The Cleveland Cavaliers Monday needed probably the world’s best basketball player having one of his best ever playoff games to beat the eighth-seeded Bulls at home, the 112-102 victory sending the Cavs up 2-0 in this playoff opening series.
So if you are the Bulls you don’t feel great about losing, but you know now you can play with this team and you’ve come up with a game plan to beat them.
Now all you have to do is take it back home for Game 3 at the United Center Thursday.
“I think we played real hard tonight,” said Joakim Noah, who led the Bulls with 25 points and 13 rebounds, seven offensive. “They hit some real tough shots down the stretch (15 of LeBron James’ 40 in the last eight minutes). They did not get fazed by our runs. We can’t get discouraged. We’re down 2-0. They did what they were supposed to do.
“They just took care of what they had to,” said Noah. “At home, we’ll have our fans ready for the next game and we’ll be ready to go.”
If the Bulls attack the Cavs as they did Monday, running the floor before the defense could set, switching effectively on the inside to ward off penetration, making James work on defense so he couldn’t play free safety and cause turnovers for fast breaks, stay away from the jumpers as Luol Deng was slashing more for 20 points and get a boost from the bench like Flip Murray’s 14, then, perhaps, there’ll be a series here.
This is supposed to be just a warmup appetizer for the top-seeded Cavs, and so far they do have two double digit wins.
Now, they have to take it on the road, and we’ll see whether they have that championship look they insist is theirs and whether the Bulls have the moxie to stand in the way and at least take the series back to Cleveland.
Of course, the joke is no one wants to go back the way Noah playfully inflamed the locals with mocking comments about Cleveland. You had to be there at practice Sunday as Noah said it all with a laugh and a wink, as he does many things, but it also was another impressive sign of leadership.
Everyone knows what that brings: The wrath of the community. They make fun of their city, as anyone living in Cleveland would. After all, as someone noted, the fish can’t even stand the smell of the lake. Don’t let some outsider do it, though.
But the subtle message was lost on the Clevelanders.
After the Bulls were dominated in Game 1 Saturday and Shaquille O’Neal was celebrated as an actual, living NBA player with 12 points and five rebounds, Noah was, in effect, saying to his teammates he’d take the wrath of the community and the pressure of the game and you all can relax because he’d be there.
So after a pedestrian 10 points and eight rebounds and foul trouble in Game 1, Noah ran Shaq out of the game, and ran by just about everyone on the Cavs, almost all the way to an improbable victory.
“He was great,” said Deng about Noah. “He played hard. He gets rebounds and gave us second chance points. That’s what he’s done all year.”
The Bulls were tied at 77 entering the fourth quarter and trailed just 91-88 with six minutes remaining.
The Cavs then scored on their next seven possessions with unlikely Jamario Moon hitting his third among four three pointers in five attempts, and James with three back breaking scores, a drive and step in fake by Noah for a layup, and then a pair of 20 footers isolated on the right wing, both defended well by Deng and Kirk Hinrich.
That put the Cavs up 107-98 with about 90 seconds left, and Moon clinched it with another three.
“He was probably the main reason we won,” said James, generously.
It was a heck of a run for the Cavs and mostly by James, who was jawing with the Bulls bench as he knocked in those jumpers, the Bulls taunting him to shoot as he’s not known for his perimeter game and James, to his credit, answering.
“They were talking the whole game,” said James. “Every time I caught the ball there (Bulls bench), they were daring me to shoot the ball, telling me I couldn’t shoot or ‘You can’t make jump shots, so take the shot.’ So that’s what I did. They asked me to shoot a jumper and I did that, over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.”
You gotta give it to him as the Cavs fans had to give it to the Bulls No. 23 two decades ago.
“It’s a sight to see,” marveled Antawn Jamison. “To see how close the game was and to see him take over you have to realize you are witnessing history.”
I know, I know, we are all witnesses. Boring.
“You could see it in his eyes,” said Jamison. “Guys like that strive off those moments. He was in a zone.”
But it took that from James and unlikely shooting from Moon for the Cavs to escape.
“That’s shots you want (James) to take,” said Deng, who also had six rebounds and five assists. “We did a good job keeping him out of the paint. He was hitting some unbelievable shots, fading back. You’ve got to live with that.”
I agree, and I thought Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro played it right. You can second guess taking the ball out of James’ hands. But the Cavs are best when James involves his teammates, as he did in Game 1. When he had to pretty much go it alone you’ve got your best chance because he has to be super. It was the Bulls bad fortune he was.
“We wanted to win (and are disappointed),” said Deng. But we are (also) happy. We’re going back home and the way we played is encouraging. We’ve got to come out and play like that again. If he keeps hitting shots like that the whole series, we’ve got no chance. We just have to play him like we did tonight.”
I agree. I thought the Bulls had a good plan and it produced results.
For one, Deng got off that line at 20 feet and began going to the basket against James. It was illuminating in the locker room to listen to he and Rose before the game discussing the angles of where Deng could cut from in order to get a slashing score from Rose and when he has to stay home to spread the court better for Rose.
After they finished a 10-minute discussion on it, Deng said, “I have a good feeling about tonight.”
And Deng played a big part.
One of the things you have to do with James is keep him active on defense. He likes to cheat and play the lanes like a free safety, drop down toward the post, stunting and disrupting plays. The Bulls committed 14 turnovers in Game 1, and James was a big part of that by dropping low off Deng to squeeze the court.
Deng went aggressively at James, who had to work hard to stay in front of Deng. And while Deng had a good game, what was more important was James could not help out and the Bulls committed just four turnovers.
“I did a good job slashing in there and not settling for jump shots like I did in the first game,” admitted Deng.
The Bulls made a few subtle switches, and I thought they worked out well. In Game 1, they played a cross match with Kirk Hinrich on Mo Williams because Williams is the better scorer and Rose is the weaker defender. But the result was Williams with 19 because the Bulls use Hinrich as a help defender on the big men.
By guarding Williams, Hinrich was too far on top. So the Bulls switched Rose to Williams. Rose has been better on defense lately, and Williams was just two of eight for 12 points while Hinrich played Anthony Parker. Parker did have three three pointers, but Parker plays below the foul line in the corner, so Hinrich was able to help more inside by not having to go so far and the Cavs bigs were less effective as Anderson Varejao, Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas combined for 18 points and 16 rebounds after 22 points and 22 rebounds in Game 1.
It, obviously, was more than that helping as the Bulls switched the bigs on screen rolls since Taj Gibson, Noah and Brad Miller aren’t particularly overmatched by the slow Cavs bigs and it didn’t compromise the defense with the screen rolls, thus keeping the Cavs more on the outside.
Yes, they hit shots, but that’s way more difficult on the road, especially for reserves like Moon.
“If anything,” said Rose, who had 23 points and eight assists, “we’d rather have (James) hit those shots than drive to the hole and get other people involved.”
Another key was transition.
The Bulls got out and pushed the ball much more, which enables Noah to use his edge running the court, and also doesn’t allow the lumbering Cavs’ bigs to set up their defensive wall that so inhibited Rose.
Rose was 10 of 24, but he also had those eight assists with just one turnover after seven in Game 1, and especially in the third quarter the Cavs spent a lot of time chasing. The Bulls want to get the game over 100 points, which they did, and then it changes the personnel and the Cavs have to rely more on modest talents like Moon, Delonte West and Parker. Del Negro also did a nice job getting Murray in against West, whom Murray was able to overpower and finally get some scoring off the bench.
“I’m pleased with the effort, not the result,” said Del Negro. “I think our guys feel better than they did the other (game) in terms of how we played. We were sharper and much better off the glass. If you go into the fourth quarter tied (on the road) you have an opportunity, which is what we were looking for. I thought we played well enough to steal a game, but they earned it.”
If I had a quarrel with the Bulls, it was they weren’t as physical as I’d like to have seen them. But they don’t have the depth to match the Cavs, so that’s an issue. You wear guys down in the playoffs with hard screens all game and it catches up to you late. The Bulls don’t do enough of that and the Cavs enjoyed 66.7 percent fourth quarter shooting.
Though there’ll be replays of James huge slam dunk over James Johnson in the first quarter, I thought Johnson came in with the right attitude to play James aggressively. I thought he did a good job staying in front of James most of the time and should get some time on James the rest of the series. He committed fouls, and James felt them. That’s what you have to do.
“He came out with a lot of energy,” James acknowledged of Johnson. “Bench players do try to make their mark on the game. I felt I could slow down and counter his energy. I did that and got in attack mode.”
The Bulls also made a point to not allow Jamison to rest and roam around like he did in Game 1, and had Taj Gibson go at him. Gibson had 11 points and seven rebounds, and Jamison played just three minutes in the fourth quarter.
“Taj has been huge for us all year,” complimented Noah. “He’s someone who works hard on his game. We wouldn’t be in this position if not for Taj Gibson. He is an underrated player with what he brings to us.”
The game began with the expected booing of Noah, who’d had some fun at Cleveland’s expense with some derogatory comments about Cleveland not necessarily being a great place to visit. Or live. All in fun, though.
Noah was booed on introduction and most every time he touched the ball, and the scoreboard posted his quotes from Sunday’s practice of Cleveland, “I don’t know about Cleveland, man. There’s nothing going on. It’s bad, man. It’s bad……What? That Cleveland sucks?”
Noah said he’d been booed many times before.
“My whole life,” said Noah. “College. Boston, they don’t like me there. They don’t like me here, either. It’s OK. I have my friends. I don’t care.”
Noah also joked when asked whether he regretted what he said that it’s not like people are vacationing in Cleveland.
“What’s so good about Cleveland?” Noah asked.
Oh, right. The Cavs.
They got ahead 28-22 after one quarter as James had 10 points, including that hammer dunk after blowing by Johnson.
But this wasn’t the same, tentative Bulls team from Game 1, and they showed in an impressive stretch midway through the second quarter that turned the game.
Noah sealed O’Neal and scored, Deng jab stepped LeBron and shot over him, Deng ran out on a forced James jumper and dunked as James got no help, Rose hit from on top, Noah scored on a clever interior pass from Deng and Noah tipped in a Rose drive, again the Cavs unable to build that defensive wall against Rose as the Bulls’ transition left the court more open.
The Bulls pulled within 52-50 at halftime, and James was the only Cav in double figures. Good sign.
When he scores and doesn’t involve his teammates as much, the Cavs stop moving on offense and it makes their defense more passive.
The third quarter was a beauty with 15 lead changes and seven tied as the Bulls continued to push the ball, and Gibson scored twice inside down the stretch of the quarter while Noah blew by Varejao for a layup to tie the game at 77 after three.
But the Bulls could never get the lead after the Cavs opened the fourth with a Jamison runner, a West spin by Hinrich and a Moon three.
“We had a lot of guys (five in double figures) make big plays and big shots, and that’s what we need,” said Rose.
The Bulls never backed down, and there was one impressive sequence when Moon blocked a Noah shot with the Bulls down 89-84. But then Deng hustled back and blocked a Williams fast break and Noah ran out and scored to get the Bulls back within three, the closest they would get.
“We couldn’t pull away,” lamented Rose. “They’d make a big shot or make a big play.”
J.J. Hickson, who’s been benched with Shaq back, signaled like a baseball manager signals for a closer—James was actually asked by a Cleveland sycophant after the game if he discusses these things with baseball’s Mariano Rivera—and James came in and did close it out.
“I feel the fourth quarter is when I make my mark as an individual. I’ve always been a confident player. It’s a great feeling on every shot to believe it is going in no matter who is guarding you. They call me The Closer every time I come in in the fourth quarter,” said James, who made 16 of 23 shots. “That’s my time to put the game away or do what I do best, and that’s just try to close the game the right way. Am I always successful? Not all the time, but it makes me stronger when I’m not always successful. I know how to react the next time I’m in that situation. So it’s great to actually live up to what those guys now are starting to call me, The Closer.””
It was 85-82 when he reentered and the Bulls scored on eight of their next 10 possessions. But James answered every time, including a big three over good defense from Noah at the 24-second clock for a 99-93 lead with 4:20 left. James followed that with a pair of free throws, a drive and those two jumpers, scoring on five straight possessions to refuse to let his team lose.
“I don’t think we’re discouraged,” said Noah. “If anything, we’re motivated and think we can win, especially oin our home court. It will be exciting to play in front of our home crowd in Chi. We’re looking forward to it, enjoying the competition, living in the moment and trying to win against one of the best teams in the world.”

Bulls lose Game 1 to Cavs; need to make changes

The first game of a playoff series is something of a feeling out process, getting a sense of what your opponent will do and where you are.
The Bulls, in losing Saturday 96-83 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, not only are trailing 1-0 in the series. But it should be obvious—and to no one’s surprise since the Cavs had the best record in the league—the Cavs are a much better team with LeBron James casually scoring 24 points, Mo Williams adding 18, Shaquille O’Neal returning with 12 points and three blocks and Anderson Varejao with 15 rebounds off the bench.
The Cavs took away the Bulls hopes and strength with a 50-38 rebounding edge, matching them in fast break points and holding a 38-14 edge in inside points through the first three quarters before finishing 42-26.
“They’re big,” noticed Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “They keep coming at you.”
That’s because the Cavs loaded up for a championship drive after last season’s conference finals loss by adding O’Neal and Antawn Jamison, and they feel it is their time.
“We’re confident,” said James, deigning to remove his sun glasses as he spoke to reporters after a long post game break. “Our goal now is to win an NBA championship. We have the look of a champion.”
There was little doubt of that Saturday as the Bulls had the look of a team just grateful to be there, satisfied about having closed the season strong with 10 of 14 to vindicate themselves after a 10-game losing streak in March.
So you say, maybe it was just nerves as the Bulls fell behind by 22 early in the third quarter before getting it together and getting within seven a few times midway through the fourth quarter.
“We can’t wait to play (Game 2 Monday),” said Derrick Rose, who led the Bulls with 28 points and 10 assists. “I know I can’t (wait).  It’s going to be a fun series. This is something I live for. I think about every day, every minute of the day, playing against the best team in the NBA, one of the best players in the NBA.”
But if the Bulls have any intention of winning—after all, what are you here for otherwise?—or making it a competitive series, there are going to have to be some major changes.
Look, you can say the Bulls outplayed the Cavs in the second half, outrebounded them 20-19, outshot them 45-41 percent, held them to four of 14 on threes after halftime and forced eight turnovers. If only the Bulls could have hit a few more shots, eh? But you are kidding yourselves. The Cavs aren’t quite the truly great team yet, so they took their foot off the gas a bit and began casting jumpers with a 22-point lead.
“It doesn’t matter,” said James when asked about maybe giving the Bulls life. “We wear down teams. We don’t always win by 20, 30. In the end, we won by 13. That’s still psychological (because) it was a tough game for them. We let them back in the game because we turned the ball over 18 times. Probably 14 were unforced and they were able to convert when we missed easy jumpers. Winning by 20, 10, five, if we take care of business we’ll be fine.”
No, the Bulls didn’t put the slightest scare into the Cavs, and, frankly, didn’t come at them very hard. So much so that James almost was apologizing for them.
Yes, there was some yakking late in the second quarter when Brad Miller took a James elbow that cut his chin and drew a foul.
“Just taking an elbow to the damn chin and bleeding. My foul,” Miller observed wryly.
Joakim Noah, who was booed relentlessly because of a few runins he had with James, including daring to challenge James for acting like a horse’s behind when James was dancing during one big win over the Bulls, exchanged some words with James. And given it was the playoffs, at least the players finally stopped hugging one another after the game.
“At the end of the day I have no friends in that locker room except Danny Green,” said Noah. “I don’t know nobody on that team and I don’t care. I just want to win.”
It was a rough game for Noah, pushed around by O’Neal, and victimized by a pretty O’Neal spin move that was reminiscent of the days when Shaq could shake.
“That’s the patented move,” offered O’Neal, proud of his return after being out almost two months with a thumb injury. “I’ve been doing it for years. That’s the ‘Diesel Truck with No Brakes’. You see when I get into that move, people get out of the way because they know I’m (going) and don’t have any brakes.”
Noah was flummoxed trying to deal with O’Neal, getting into foul trouble and with 10 points and eight rebounds.
“He knows how to use that 350 pounds,” Noah sighed.
Which is where the changes have to start. I doubt after all Noah has done this season to help the Bulls into the playoffs, Del Negro would try, but the Cavs made it clear they are better, they know they are better, and the Bulls played like they know the Cavs are better.
Again, it has to be about so called “junking up” the game when you are such a big underdog, doing the unexpected and untraditional, and forcing the opponent into radical adjustments.
The Cavs responded with the better subtle adjustments Saturday, like getting Noah stuck on Jamison a few times and Jamison getting easy looks and James going right at Hakim Warrick when he got into the game as Warrick really cannot play threes.
So start with Noah. Or, actually, don’t start him.
Change the lineup—no offense to Noah—and start Brad Miller, who is better on Shaq and whose foul trouble won’t matter as Shaq was tiring at about 20 minutes and limited to just under 25.
The Bulls need to get Shaq moving on screen rolls as he doesn’t play them, though when asked about it after the game he said he was great at it.
“I’ve been here 17 years and I haven’t been beaten on screen/roll yet,” insisted O’Neal. “Not that I’m a great pick and roll defender. It’s just the game is called differently for me, so I have to be careful (read that unaggressive). I’ve been around. No one has beaten me with that yet. They want to run. We can run. It’s gonna he hard for people to run and bang with me. I’m built for both.”
OK, I’d take that chance.
Publicly, it would be viewed as a demotion, but I believe Noah is too much a team player to care. Miller matches better with Shaq and can pull him out on the pick and pop. Or not, as Shaq doesn’t go out to contest shots.
“I think Noah is a valuable piece,” reminded Cavs guard Williams. “And he has to go to sleep worried about what he has to do with Shaq on Monday.”
Instead, Noah can match against Varejao, who killed the Bulls with that game high 15 rebounds, four offensive as the Cavs doubled the Bulls on second chance points.
“Varejao’s activity,” noted Del Negro. “You always have to know where he is. You have to get a body on him.”
Noah has the body for that.
The Bulls have to win that hustle board to have success against a team like the Cavs, and they were dominated instead.
I’d change most of the matchups because the Bulls stayed traditional and it was fatal.
Taj Gibson cannot play Jamison, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Deng cannot play James. Look, no one can play James, but you have to also put your players in position to succeed.
Rose, even with some questioning about 28 shots and seven turnovers, was breathtaking and the only serious scorer for the Bulls. And this was with the Cavs playing bumper pool with him. No one came out on Noah. They left Gibson alone. Sometimes Varejao came out and trapped Rose near halfcourt. Whenever Rose went inside, the Cavs closed with multiple big men and Rose took a pounding.
He desperately needs help and didn’t get much Saturday. And he still scored 28 points! Remarkable.
Hello, Joe Johnson. Help!
Right now, they’re keeping that guy on me until I pass the ball,” noted Rose. “Joakim was a little bit off in the beginning of the first quarter (shooting unguarded) and the first half, but those are shots that they are going to have to take. Brad, Joakim and Taj, if they make some shots, it frees me up and frees everybody else up.”
If “if’s and buts” were candy and nuts…
They don’t generally make those shots.
As I said to open the series, I’d get Kirk Hinrich on James. Not only to draw him into ignoring his teammates, but Hinrich will play him tougher than anyone. It was disappointing to see the Bulls play the Cavs with too much respect, so much so James almost apologized for them.
“I’ve been in playoff series before where guys tried to hard foul me, put me on the ground,” said James, suggesting this wasn’t one. “I’m not saying Brad was trying to do that.”
It’s OK with us. Go ahead.
As LeBron said, “Harness our emotions? There’s no such thing in the playoffs.”
So I’d play Hinrich on James, and though it probably isn’t fair to him because he’s played so little—which is a lost opportunity for this time of year and this situation—I’d probably give James Johnson a run at James because Johnson is big and athletic and maybe can bother him and will play physically if asked. He’ll probably get foul calls, and the Bulls got more than their share, especially Noah.
“I know we’re playing against an All-Star like Shaq, somebody who has been in this position many times, won a lot of championships, but if I say anything about calls, is that a fine or something like that?” Noah wondered. “I’m not criticizing anybody. Of course I’m biased. Overall I don’t think some of those calls were fair.”
Then I’d put Deng at power forward to play Jamison.
The Bulls got tricked on matchups several times, Noah caught on Jamison when Miller was in guarding Shaq, and Jamison had a few key scores coming up on top off screens.
Deng is more similar to Jamison and can follow him outside and give him trouble with those inside flip shots. Plus, you have to get Deng some confidence as he was five of 15 shooting for 12 points, again often stuck on the weak side watching too much. He’s a good rebounder. Let him get inside.
And then you also make yourself a bench.
The Cavs reserves, particularly Varejao, were far more effective while Del Negro doesn’t use his bench much. But you mix up the starting lineup and that gives you some different looks off the bench. Then you play Flip Murray with Rose as Murray can space the court reasonably well with his shooting and the Cavs quietly respect him as one of the Cavs told me he was one of the toughest players they’ve ever had. Also, he had a nice run Saturday with nine points in 11 minutes.
The Cavs off guards don’t beat you, anyway, and you have to get Rose more space.
I’d isolate him more on the side or on top and not put him that screen/roll so much as well.
The Bulls just made it too easy on the Cavs Saturday.
Jamison abused Noah late in the first quarter after Deng actually got a call on a charge against James. We thought that was illegal. But the Bulls got caught in a bad mismatch right away as the Cavs went with their quicker, smaller lineup while the Bulls got stuck with Miller on Varejao and Noah trying to corral Jamison. It was a disaster as the Cavs went from leading 13-10 to a 32-18 lead after the first quarter. As Jamison had nine after Shaq had seven to open the quarter and the Bulls seven turnovers with the Cavs smothering Rose.
“I wasn’t really happy with the way I played today,” said Noah. “I feel like I have to come out and bring a little more energy. We had that one stretch where we kind of lost it a little bit in the first quarter, but besides that, we fought pretty hard as a team. We just have to really understand that we can play with this team, and we can compete, but at the end of the day, they won the game. It doesn’t matter if we lost by 20 or one, we lost, and we’ll be ready to play on Monday.”
James wasn’t unusually aggressive in the game, though he got into it  a little bit with Miller in the second quarter when they both got technicals as James pushed off hard when Miller was grabbing him to stop a score. The Bulls went with Warrick, who tried to post LeBron, and made one score. But LeBron caught him right away on a back cut for a slam dunk, which you have to avoid to keep the fans from their frenzy.
Gibson got welcomed to his first playoffs with a couple of blocked shots with James coming from behind as James got  four of the Cavs’ impressive 12, and the Cavs led 56-41 at halftime.
It looked over when the Bulls got caught helping—bad idea—and Williams and Anthony Parker opened the third with a pair of threes, Shaq got that spin on Noah and Jamison got a runout as the Cavs went up 68-46.
Yes, the Cavs seemed rested and ready and a little prickly about the criticism they took for sitting James to end the season.
“I think there were a lot of things written, a lot of opinions that people had,” said Williams.   “I think with us, we have a bunker mentality where we are worried about home (and) the 15 guys in the locker room, including the coaching staff.  We knew that a lot of things were going to be written and a lot of things were going to be said, and we knew that the rest was good.  It showed today.”
And James insisted he let everyone know in a pregame speech what this is all about.
“This is what we all have waited for,” he said he told the team.  “‘This is why we play hard – throughout the whole season, throughout the regular season and throughout practices – is to get to this point.’  As much as we loved the regular season, we love the postseason even more. Once we got here the day before the game, we were all prepared.  We were all mentally focused and I knew the guys were ready to play.”
Though they seemed to lose some interest with that big lead. We’ll see if that helps the Bulls’ confidence or helps wake up the Cavs to finish.
The Bulls threw some zone at the Cavs in a nice adjustment, and the Cavs fell for it with a lot of jump shots and a scoring drought of more than seven minutes. The Bulls got some amazing drives and floaters from Rose, and suddenly it was 68-58 with a murmur in the crowd.
Gibson missed a wide open jumper to try to get it to eight, and then James scored on a pair of drives to close the third with the Cavs up 13.
Deng finally got a nice cut and score on a Rose pass and Noah began to feel confident in that unguarded elbow jumper. Murray hit a three and Gibson a 15 footer to get the Bulls within 78-71 with 7:25 left. Still, you felt it was the Cavs’ game.
Jamison hit a 20 footer, but Murray got a runout slam on a pass from Rose after Varejao missed a small. Still seven with 5:36 remaining. But Delonte West and Williams answered with jumpers, Rose was still out of bounds in just missing a terrific inbounds play Del Negro drew up, and Varejao began getting open diving to the basket as the Bulls reacted too slowly to his roll. The Bulls defensive philosophy is to blitz the screen/roll, but Varejao cut them up diving quickly and there was no rotation to help.
The Bulls also continued to switch the pick and roll too much, leaving some bad matchups, instead of playing hard over the screens.
And when James ran out and was fouled after a Deng turnover, he signaled with his arm extended, so at least the Bulls kept him from dancing. That three point play gave the Cavs a 91-79 lead with just over two minutes left to effectively clinch the win.
“Give Cleveland credit,” said Del Negro. “It’s a long series (they hope). Our guys are excited about it. They know we can play better than we did tonight. We have to get off to a better start. We were back on our heels a little bit. We fought back and cut it (the lead) a little bit and then LeBron made a couple of plays.”
That’s not enough. Make them react. Make them think. Make them adjust. What have you got to lose but a series you are supposed to lose?

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.