As the Cleveland Cavaliers took another step in their almost inexplicable post All-Star break decline, the Chicago Bulls find themselves in a very unique position: Sweeping the defending NBA champions, and not making the playoffs.
Setting the Cavs problems aside, the Bulls didn’t have the most brilliant of games, shooting 42.2% from the field. But they had a rare night of good outside shooting while Rajon Rondo made up for his 3-for-13 shooting with 9 rebounds and 15 assists. Nikola Mirotic, suddenly flourishing in the lineup, led the team with 28 points in perhaps the best week of his career. Jimmy Butler scored 25 points and even Denzel Valentine, in a slightly disappointing rookie season, helped out with 12 points.
The Bulls have had the Cavs number for quite some time, even when they haven’t been very good. This is something that’s been part of LeBron James career ever since he left the Cavs back in 2010 to the Miami Heat, and then returned. The Bulls, now without Derrick Rose for the first time since 2008, have always had his number during the regular season, or at least put up the best fight among teams in the conference. In the playoffs, however, it hasn’t worked out. James had led his teams to six consecutive NBA finals, meeting the Bulls three times on the way there. The Bulls got knocked out all three times.
But as impressive as it is for Chicago to beat Cleveland four times this season, it might not be enough. They’re still only 9th in the East, sitting one game behind both the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat. They’re without Dwyane Wade for the rest of the season. They have a very limited bench, and a frustrating inconsistency when it comes to playing fluid offensive basketball, good for more than short stretches during games. They’ve struggled generating momentum or maintaining it for more than one week all season long, perhaps the last two.
With all that being said, the Bulls are still in the picture, with 7 games to go. The same can be said for the Cavaliers, who despite their 8-11 record through the last 19 games, are still only 0.5 games behind the Boston Celtics for 1st in the East, and need to win their missing game (played one less than Boston) to regain the first spot. We might end up getting another four-to-seven games between the Cavs and the Bulls in the playoffs – it’s quite likely. But despite the Bulls dominance from October to early April almost yearly, it does feel like LeBron James, in a series, will end up gaining the upper hand once more.