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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.

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Bulls lose to Cavs to fall one game from end of season

The Bulls players and coaches were trying to explain what they thought happened in Sunday’s 121-98 Cleveland Cavaliers playoff win that gave the Cavs a 3-1 lead in this opening round series, the game that could be the final Bulls home game of the 2009-10 season.
Joakim Noah, who had the first 20/20 playoff game in franchise history with 21 points and 20 rebounds, thought the Bulls gave in mentally when the Cavs put a big blitz on them late in the first half into the third quarter, a 21-6 run over about five minutes that broke open a close game.
“I think we weren’t very tough mentally,” said Noah. “I think we were playing good basketball and all of a sudden it collapsed. When things aren’t going our way we can’t out our heads down. When things weren’t going our way, everyone had their head down. Even myself. I have to do a better job of bringing energy, making sure everyone is on the same page. From players to staff, everyone had heads down. To have a performance like this in this kind of game is disappointing.”
Derrick Rose, who had 21 points and five assists in facing a multitude of switching Cavs defenders, said the Bulls could have attacked more when the Cavs were in the penalty with almost six minutes left in the third quarter instead of shooting jump shots and could have come up with more variety on offense.
“When we had the lead (45-44 with 3:50 left in the first half), we should have run more effective plays,” said Rose, “guys scoring from certain spots or get fouled or run something to get more ball movement while we were in the penalty and attack, run some pick-and-rolls and attacked the basket. And even if you couldn’t make the shot, you could dump it off to a big and maybe they could get to the line.”
Kirk Hinrich, whom LeBron James had labeled before the game the Bulls’ X-factor whom the Cavs had to stop and who had 10 points on three of 13 shooting, said the Bulls just weren’t able to match the Cavs fury, especially on defense, and, of course, James, who had a fifth playoff triple double with 37 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.
“There’s a lot of stuff we could have done,” said Hinrich. “Most of the shots he made were tough shots. They took it to us, especially in the second half. They cranked up their intensity. The result was we got a little out of character on offense. They were putting up points fast. We haven’t been that type of team. When we feel the pressure to do that we struggle, settling for jumpers, not sharing the ball. They made some big jump shots, (Anthony) Parker, (Mo) Williams. They really took it to us.”
I was listening to all this and thinking I’d heard this many times before.
This, by the way, was not déjà vu, perhaps the most misused term in the English language, though since it is French we can understand since we never know what they are talking about. Though we are catching on with Noah. Déjà vu, by the way, is feeling you have experienced or witnessed something and actually have not. I am here, of course, to educate and inform.
Anyway, as for the past, I have heard these things said many times before by opponents of the Bulls and Michael Jordan explaining why they lost and what could they have done differently.
When, in fact, there was nothing because Jordan was better and James is better.
The Bulls tried, and did the best they could. You can pick at these things like rushed shots and open shooters and sagging confidence and certain substitutions. But the Bulls led the Cavs in fast break points 23-12. They led in second chance points 24-10. They outrebounded the Cavs 49-41 and 17-5 on the offensive boards, and attempted 12 more shots.
They didn’t play a bad game, though the Bulls shot just 37.4 percent. But the Cavs upped their defensive energy and James was just too much.
He faded back and hit threes, six of 9 among the team’s 12 of 25, including one stepping into a 45 footer to end the third quarter he called a regular jump shot.
“I can comfortably shoot that shot, probably half court or beyond.” James said. “I mean, it was a regular jump shot for me. Comfortably, I can walk and dribble into a halfcourt three. I’m doing pretty good so far with that shot.”
I asked James why, then, he didn’t shoot it more often. He did admit his percentage would go down some. The guy is playing an altogether different game form everyone else.
It would be bragging if you couldn’t do it.
“Those are definitely back breaking shots,” said James, wearing a “Witness” polo shirt as he talked with reporters. “I felt good, focused on this game as the most important game of the season for us. I wanted to force my will and get us the win. Now the most important game of the season is Game 5.”
It’s been something of a mantra for James, who is taking these playoffs far more seriously than he has any before, and certainly the regular season. I saw Jordan like this as well in 1991, sensing something the rest of us were uncertain about and putting everything into each game and making sure everyone else did.
James also closed the half holding onto the ball for a 22 footer with a second left to end an 18-7 run over the last four minutes to make it 62-52.
“Overall in the second half of the second quarter we took quick shots,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “They got out on the break and that put us on our heels and they got into the penalty with a couple of fouls. They got that cushion at half time. Momentum is a big thing. In the third quarter, we were just one pass and a shot. We were not making them guard enough. They got in the open court and they made shots.”
James made shot after shot, and then when the Bulls tried to collapse on him he fanned the ball out to Williams, who was three of six on threes for 19 points, and then ran the same pick and roll play with James and Antawn Jamison at least a half dozen straight times, and the Bulls couldn’t do much as they switched it often and Jamison posted or ducked under Luol Deng and finished with 24 points.
Talk about your X-factors, your Scottie Pippen guy. Does LeBron finally have him? Is it enough now to win a championship?
“Antawn was great,” said James. “His ability to shoot the bal from outside and drive. He’s one of those hybrid fours we have in this league like Rashard Lewis, Josh Smith, guys who do multiple things. Fours have a tough time guarding him and smaller guys hav a tough time because he posts and can shoot over. He’s a great X-factor. I do my job and Mo does his, and ‘twan is the X-factor and we have to have those games from him.”
This series reminds me of the Bulls in 1991 when they won their first title.
In the second round, they faced a team somewhat like today’s Bulls, the Philadelphia 76ers with Charles Barkley, one star, and a bunch of role players like Hersey Hawkins, Ron Anderson and Armon Gilliam.
The Bulls won the first two games at home and then went to Philadelphia for a raucous Game 3 in which they fell behind by 20-plus points and then came charging back only to lose by two points. But like the Cavs in their two point loss in Game 3 in this series after trailing by 21, the comeback was a lesson for both teams, a wakeup for those Bulls to concentrate and a message for the 76ers you had to play your best just to barely win at home.
Back then, the Bulls came back and won Game 4 by double digits in Philadelphia and closed it back home in a tough Game 5. About a month later, the Bulls and Jordan had their first ever NBA championship.
You sort of get the same sense with these Cavs, especially with the mish mash of results going on in the Western Conference. Yes, Orlando remains a major obstacle in the Eastern Conference, but James, for all his dancing and posing, seems to be taking this quest seriously.
He showed up at the United Center for the Sunday afternoon game two hours before the rest of his teammates to shoot and practice.
“We just got fed up,” said Jamison. “After Game 3, our team was generally so frustrated knowing we didn’t come out prepared enough and put ourselves in a difficult position. We did a good job making it close at the end, but you can’t let a team like this (Bulls) get momentum and confidence. You saw what they did last year against Boston. I know (LeBron) was in a zone, really focused. Right before the game, he had that eye knowing he needed to go out and play a great game. He puts pressure on the defense, is a great defender, leader, communicating on the court, in the huddle. He did a great job setting the tone.”
I didn’t think so early as James had more rebounds and as many assists as shots in the first quarter as the Cavs led 24-21. Deng’s shot was pure and Noah had one of several instances where he got the rebound and either started or ran the entire break.
“We started off the game really well,” said Noah. “In the second quarter we were playing at a fast pace, putting Shaq in a lot of pick and rolls (five fouls in 17 minutes), and then we collapsed those last three minutes.”
The Bulls were ahead 45-44 thanks to 10 in the second quarter from Hinrich as James knew his stuff. The Bulls were 14-0 this season when Hinrich scored at least 16 and when Rose scored 31 and Hinrich 27 in Game 3, it was only the Bulls’ third playoff game in which both starting guards scored at least 25. The others were Jordan (36) and Sam Vincent (31) against Detroit in 1988, and Jerry Sloan (27) and Norm Van Lier (26) against the Lakers in 1973, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
But in that stretch with the Bulls ahead 45-44, James hit a three and then hit Anderson Varejao on a pick and roll. Varejao was fouled and missed the second, but Jamison got the rebound and scored. Deng missed a jumper and Varejao blocked Rose as the Cavs did a better job of closing on Rose in the lane.
“They were playing great defense,” said Rose. “And they were hitting all their (contested) shots. LeBron was penetrating and kicking and he was hitting great shots, crazy shots. That’s why he’s one of the best players in the NBA, if not the best. If anything, they outhustled us and we were settling for jump shots. They kept switching and putting different people on me throughout the game. One person would contest the shot and then there’d be a different one. We’ve got to find a way and do it quick.”
Rose sprained his ankle early in the third and the Bulls called a timeout, but Rose came right back and said he’d be fine for Game 5 in Cleveland Tuesday.
The Bulls had a chance, but started the second half missing their first six shots, all outside jumpers, and then the Cavs took over.
“I’ve done some great things in the past, I’ll do some great things in the future,” said James. “But we’re in the present now, and I’m feeling pretty good.”
Shaq, who was ineffective again and LeBron got his wish with J.J. Hickson playing as much and scoring 10 off the bench, did get a dunk. Jamison got a three-point play getting that switch onto Deng, and then Jamison had a driving score. He had a dozen in the third and James 11, the Cavs hit 12 of 18 shots and only Noah was able to do much with 14 points. But it was over.
“It came down to LeBron and Jamison. We could not control them,” said Del Negro. “We had been doing a good job of keeping them (especially James) from the middle. Their other guys made some plays.”The Cavs took a 21-point lead five minutes into the third, kept it throughout the quarter and never led by fewer than 20 the rest of the game and by as many as 29 long after the starters had departed.
And now it may be down to the last game for the Bulls. James is averaging 35 points, nine rebounds and eight assists and the Cavs are going back home for Game 5.
“We definitely don’t feel sorry for ourselves,” said Noah. “We’ve been pretty tough and resilient all year. That’s something I’m proud to be part of. I feel we got through a lot of adversity this year. Right now it’s tough because we just lost a game, but we’ll have practice and be ready to go to Cleveland.”
They hope not to be another step on the Cavs climb to a title. Win or Cancun for the Bulls. The Cavs have greater ambitions.

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.

Bulls get Cavs’ attention with big Game 3 win

The NBA’s winningest team, the championship favorite with the certain MVP and one of the league’s defensive rocks has needed LeBron James to hit an extraordinary and unexpected number of fourth quarter jump shots in Game 2 for the Cavs not to be trailing the Bulls in this first round playoff series.

Could this be Boston 2009 redux? Is the year old starring series coming back?

Can the Bulls take the powerful Cavs to the limit after winning Game 3 in the United Center Thursday, 108-106?

“We knew. We believed we can play with them,” said Luol Deng, who had his second straight 20-point game and drew a potentially game changing charging foul on James with just over a minute left. “A lot of people didn’t. A lot of people looked at the game and the team and the stars and were questioning. Now we forget about this game and focus on the next one.”

It’s 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the United Center, and if you are the Cavs maybe you are beginning to sweat a little bit.

Sure, the Cavs hold the 2-1 lead, but the Bulls have mostly outplayed and outcoached them, the Bulls shredding the vaunted Cavs defense with a solid game plan that is enabling James to have big games—he added 39 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, three blocks and two steals Thursday—but is isolating his teammates.

Derrick Rose, with 31 points and seven assists with zero turnovers, has, amazingly, been just about offsetting James in averaging 27.3 points and 8.3 assists in this series.

“DRose was huge for us,” said Joakim Noah. “Those floaters. They are huge. They better try to find a way to get the ball out of his hands because he is doing his thing.”

Kirk Hinrich came through with 27 points, five rebounds, five assists and four of four three pointers.

“I think he was really the X-factor tonight,” said Mo Williams. “He made plays off the ball, he made shots, he also got the ball off the screen and roll.  We have to make an adjustment going into Sunday about how we’re going to play against their guards.  Both of those guys get them going.  When you have both of those guys playing particularly well, you’re going to have a long night.”

The Cavs pulled out all their tricks, including James defending Rose, not successfully, down the stretch, and scrapping their size advantage for a small lineup to get back in the game after trailing early in the third by 21.

“He does a lot of ballhandling so as a team, we don’t want to put me on him for a long period of time,” James said. “But in a game like this I felt like we had an opportunity to win and he was playing particularly well, so I wanted to switch off on him. He’s a tremendous player. It was a great game by him, a great game by their team. But we’ll see as the series goes on if I do move onto him a lot or if I don’t.”

Yes, the Cavs did make a terrific run as they ended up launching 35 threes, 15 in a desperate fourth quarter which ended with an Anthony Parker’s half court heave for the win that went off the side of the rim.

But the Bulls were better virtually all game, really, the better overall team for the last two games but for that fabulous James closing stretch in Game 2.

During the regular season, the Cavs were sixth in fewest points allowed, fourth in best defensive field goal percentage and second in overall defensive rebounding. The Bulls, conversely, were in the bottom third in scoring and shooting.

But the Bulls have averaged 105 points the last two games. They’ve shot 46 percent and had 24 more field goal attempts than the Cavs the last two games.

They are outworking the Cavs, and the Cavs have to be asking themselves some serious questions:

— Can they continue to play Shaq, who has been ineffective verging on pathetic the last two games, averaging seven points and 5.5 rebounds and again having to sit out the fourth quarter. Even James admitted the Cavs were better playing small when they got back in the game, and the Cavs might go back to athletic J.J. Hickson instead of Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

— Can LeBron get enough help? Yes, Mo Williams had 21 points Thursday and Antawn Jamison 19, but most came late when the Cavs were clawing to get back in and firing threes. The Bulls strategy of playing James straight up with Deng, who has done a good job, and staying with the others has left James scoring too much and the others watching way too much.

“We felt like in Game 2 they hit a lot of shots and those guys were not going to hit those shots throughout the series,” said Noah. “Our defense was good. We stuck to our game plan. LeBron coming down the lane, we tried to take that away as much as possible and force other guys to make jump shots.”

— Can the Cavs stop Rose, or do they have to change their trapping strategy the way Rose has dissected their defense. For the second straight game the Bulls have had five players in double figures while the Cavs Thursday had just three.

“They do a good job of exploiting what we do defensively,” admitted James.  “We are a spread the floor team.  But they did a good job getting into the paint and they’re hitting jump shots right now.  Derrick Rose is hitting a lot of jump shots, Kirk is hitting a lot of jump shots.  (Giving up) 104 points is not our M.O.  Shooting over 50 percent against us is not our M.O.  They shot the ball particularly well.
“They had a small line-up,” noted James, who said he decided on his own to switch defensive assignments late onto Rose.  “We’ve been really, really good this year when we play small.  We become more athletic, we become faster and that helps our rotation move faster.  That doesn’t take away from our big line-up because we can also go big, but we play really good basketball when we’ve been able to go small.  If that’s something that’s going to be successful for us, then we have to do that.”

James is said to be a coach on the floor, and more.

Yes, the Bulls have the Cavs questioning themselves, and not just because the Bulls won a game.

But after that devastatingly poor start in Game 1, the Bulls outscored the Cavs by one point in the last three quarters of Game 1, were within three points with under five minutes in Game 2 and tied going into the fourth quarter, and outscored the Cavs by a wide margin the first three quarters of Game 3. The Bulls are not exactly getting blown out.

No one is changing their predictions, but the Cavs have to realize now this is a series.

They have the best player, but in Rose and Noah, the latter with 10 points and 15 rebounds, the Bulls have the next two. And Deng has outplayed Jamison, the supposed final Cavs championship piece.

The Cavs plan has been to put up a big defensive wall against Rose early with their big bodies, and then late use an aggressive trap picking up him at half court. The Bulls took advantage, and made some nice adjustments that got Hinrich going after a slow first two games.

The Cavs bigs can’t play the pick and roll no matter what Shaq says in his fantasies.

They tend to lay back and zone the middle. So the Bulls took advantage of that by deploying Hinrich off more middle screens and dribble handoffs to get shots with some room and Hinrich responded with a brilliantly, efficient shooting game, nine of 12 field goals for those 27 points.

“I was feeling good,” said Hinrich. “Guys were finding me. I felt the first couple of game I was not asserting myself. I really didn’t give myself a chance to have an offensive game. It was a different mindset for me tonight.”

The Bulls also used Noah effectively again as a middle decision maker.

There’s a lot of criticism of Noah in the screen/roll with Rose given Noah is not a great shooter, though he is improved and was four of four on free throws as the Bulls shot 25 to 31 for the Cavs, a much better ratio than in Cleveland.

When the Cavs trap Rose on top, he releases the ball to Noah near the free throw line, and Noah has been able to pick apart the Cavs slow defensive rotations with crisp interior passing, an impressive skill as Noah had five assists and Taj Gibson a pair when he filed that role with Noah in foul trouble parts of the game.

The Bulls also did a good job fronting the post, which slowed the Cavs tremendously to start.

“We allowed them to get in a comfort zone,” James said about the Bulls 32-21 first quarter. “They were making jump shots and we allowed them to get rebounds. We did not have a lot of energy to start the game. We started the game too lax. I don’t know why. We didn’t have a sense of urgency to start the game.”

That’s nonsense.

What happened is the Cavs plan is to go into Shaq to start, a traditional strategy to open the floor and get the defense to sag in. But Noah and later Brad Miller did a terrific job fronting Shaq, who doesn’t move well, denying the initial postup and getting the Cavs trying to repost, which takes time and gets everyone standing.

It’s not a good strategy anymore because Shaq is petrified wood.

That game lulls your offense to sleep and is only effective if Shaq can score. He couldn’t, and the Bulls burst out 8-2 as Rose was simply exploding through the traps for 15 first quarter points, even an off balance three with the shot clock going off.

The home crowd among some not so nice shouts were chanting “MVP” for Rose to counter James’ supporters back home.

“Did not listen to them,” Rose offered with a shy laugh. “Almost passed out. Hopefully one day. Not this year. I’m just worried about winning right now.”

The Bulls’ goal, even though the Cavs were 45-5 this season when scoring more than 100 points, was to speed the game, and they pushed effectively, Deng running out when James beat him and the Cavs poor in transition defense with their loafing big men.

Shaq even missed an open slam dunk late in the second quarter and the Cavs obviously felt so badly for the ancient warrior Delonte West later had a steal and open layup but waited to give it to Shaq for a dunk so Shaq could have some points.

Del Negro also got his point across as when Shaq led with his elbows, he was called this time for the offensive foul.

Though after the game I wondered if the Bulls were getting a raw deal as I saw league vice president Stu Jackson, who supervises officials and games, in private conversations with Cavs GM Danny Ferry and then with coach Mike Brown. It didn’t seem right the Cavs could do that much private lobbying after the game with the league official who potentially can have so much influence on the way the game is called.

Though earlier in the day, perhaps it was balanced off as NBA commissioner David Stern, after meeting with sports editors, declared the Bulls back.

“We’re doing great in L.A., Boston’s setting records, the Bulls are back, Dallas is an exciting team,” Stern said in responding to a question suggesting the league is helping New York. “People are saying,’New York who?’

“The Bulls have done a terrific job, probably the best job on an ongoing basis,” Stern said of the team’s marketing efforts. “The Bulls’ attendance is wonderfully out of sync with their record. They have marketed to their fans. They have persuaded their fans that they are in this for the long run. They’ve built a roster of players that are going to be there as the team improves.

“As impolitic as Joakim may be, he’s a hell of a player,” Stern continued. “And Derrick Rose isn’t so bad himself. … They’re playing exciting basketball.”

It was a terrific game, though not so easy on the nervous fan.

After going ahead 68-47 midway through the third quarter with Noah imploring the fans to get up and cheer as the Cavs went into a timeout, Noah soon got a third foul—”stupid, stupid, stupid,” he said of himself later–the Bulls fell into their rut of shooting jumpers and the Cavs went on an 11-0 run to get back into the game.

Deng helped hold off the Cavs at the end of the third with perhaps his best move ever as a Bull, a cross over to leave James swiping at air, drive to the basket and reverse for a score, the crowd gasping in appreciation.

“I tried to drive middle, he reacted and I put it behind my back and went to the basket,” said Deng a lot less interestingly than the play.

The Bulls were still hanging on ahead 84-73 after a Hinrich three with about nine minutes left when James blew by Hinrich for a dunk and Noah committed his fifth and West hit a three to make it 84-78 with 8:48 left. Uh oh.

Parker hit a three off James’ penetration to get it within five with 7:40 left.

But the Bulls made play after play to keep the lead, Rose finding Deng for a dunk, Rose with another floater. The Cavs had gone small by then with James and Jamison their tallest players and the game became more thrilling.

James went onto Rose with the Cavs trailing 94-90 with 4:39 left and stopped his first shot. But Rose then made two straight for a 98-92 lead.

“I just tried to get him off balance,” said Rose. “Usually my speed really gets people off balance. He’s big, but he’s got quickness. So it is kind of hard. We wee just trying to keep the pressure on.”

James then scored twice and Rose missed on a drive. LeBron came roaring down the left side and Deng stepped in and got the charge. LeBron said block. The referee called charge as the ball went through with the Bulls ahead by six with 1:18 left.

“I saw me and Luol, I saw Luol backpedaling,” recounted James .  “Me, as a driver, I’m watching his feet to see if he’s stationary or moving.  I thought he was still backpedaling.  As soon as I saw him backpedaling, that’s when I decided to take off.  They called a charge.  I haven’t seen a replay, but I know exactly what I’ve seen on the court with the defender right in front of me.”

“I just wanted to get in front of him,” said Deng. “The ref took a while (to make the call) As I wa son the floor I was thinking, ‘I hope this is not an And 1.’ I was happy to see  the ref point the other way.”

Judgment call. LeBron gets 95 percent of them. Not this time.

Noah then stripped James on a drive and the Bulls hung on despite missing four of eight free throws in the last 26.9 seconds.

“It’s great for our confidence as a young team to beat a team like this, a team that has the best record in the NBA, a team that everybody says is going to win the championship,” said Noah. “To be in a situation like this, to play in an environment like this, for us is huge From the beginning of the series, we felt like we could play with them.”

Bulls are kings for this day in beating Cavs

The Cleveland Cavaliers after losing 108-106 to the Bulls Thursday in the opening round playoff series have decided to stay in Chicago and wait for Game 4, now a 2-1 lead in the series.
That’s right, the Cavs don’t want to go Cleveland, either.
But the Bulls have guaranteed at least a return trip for Game 5 with the victory.
“Can’t wait,” deadpanned Joakim Noah. “We can play with this team.”
The Bulls showed it for the second straight game, and this time got the victory and perhaps put a little concern in the heads of the Cavs by taking a 21-point third quarter lead and then holding on and making big plays down the stretch, including LeBron James trying to take on Derrick Rose and the Bulls All Star guard beating James twice in a row, first with a double fake move beating James and score and then a pull up jumper as Rose glided left across the lane and scored.
Those two scores gave the Bulls a 100-92 lead with 2:46 left, and then Luol Deng drew a charge against James and Joakim Noah stripped James on a drive and the Bulls were able to withstand three straight missed free throws to hang on for the victory.
“I was feeling good for the best player on their team to be sticking me,” said Rose, happily. “The best player in the NBA to be sticking me feels good. So why not take your shot at it.”
The Cavs did and Rose with 31 points, seven assists and zero turnovers won that mini battle as James scored 39 points, including 24 in the second half.
“We started the game too lax,” said James. “We didn’t have a sense of urgency. We didn’t have a lot of energy to start the game. As much as we crawled back in, it didn’t matter.
“I put myself on (Rose),” said James, whom many joke does coach the team. “They do a good job of exploiting what we do defensively. They did a good job of getting into the paint and hitting jump shots. Derrick Rose is hitting a lot of jump shots. Kirk (Hinrich, with 27 points on nine of 12 shooting) is hitting a lot of jump shots. (Giving up) 104 points is not out m.o. Shooting over 50 percent against us is not out m.o. They shot the ball really well from outside.”
The Bulls finished shooting 50 percent against a Cavs team that prides itself on defense.
They were virtually even in rebounding and the Bulls made five of 12 threes, with Hinrich a smokin’ four of four.
Deng scored 20 points while Shaquille O’Neal was again ineffective with six points and four rebounds and left on the bench in the fourth quarter as the Cavs tried to steal the game back playing small and spreading the court.
The Cavs did get within 94-92 with 4:17 left, but the Bulls never gave up the lead as Deng answered there with a drive past Anthony Parker and pullup seven footer before Rose’s two plays scores against James.
It was great theater as the two best players on the floor went at it, and Rose triumped.
“It surprised me a little bit (James guarding him),” said Rose. “But it was fun out there.”
Rose even was serenaded by fans with “MVP” chants after that sequence with Noah, typically, urging the fans to stand and yell as Rose outplayed the expected MVP, James for those moments.
It was special to see.
“I almost passed out (hearing that),” laughed Rose. “Maybe one year; not this year. I just want to win games right now.”
Hinrich did miss a pair of free throws with 36.9 seconds left and a 103-96 lead, and then Rose split a pair after a James there. Anderson Varejao then made one of two to pull the Cavs within 105-103 with 10.1 seconds left as coach Vinny Del Negro called for the intentional foul.
Brad Miller, probably the team’s best free throw shooter, then made two for a 107-103 lead with 6.2 seconds left. But the Cavs didn’t quit. Mo Williams knocked in a three, and then Deng was fouled and made one of two for a three-point lead with 3.5 seconds left.
But the Cavs were out of timeouts and Parker had to try a half court heave that grazed the rim to end the game.
“Usually when you bring good energy and a sense of urgency good things happen,” said Del Negro. “We shot it better. But Cleveland is No. 1 seed for a reason. We’re going to have to play our best basketball Sunday to even the series up. We put a little pressure on them.”
Now the Cavs have to respond. We’ll see what they have.

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):