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.”
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