Current Chicago Bulls players have known quite a few playoff disappointments against LeBron James. In game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler seemed to be taking the first step towards getting over a hurdle that’s been very difficult for them over the years.
The Bulls beat the Cavaliers 99-92, and you can look at the win in two ways. A good, well coached and strong defensively Bulls team that played on the road against two of the best players in the league, dominating them, or perhaps of how a team without two starters (injured Kevin Love and suspended J.R. Smith) managed to make it difficult for their opponents managed to stay close until the very end.
The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. The Cavaliers seemed completely shell shocked on both ends of the floor with a lineup that included Iman Shumpert and Mike Miller, and looked very confused defensively. The Bulls took a 12-point lead at the end of the first and never really let it slip away, despite the Cavaliers making a close game of it in the fourth quarter.
Mike Miller was the weak spot, especially early on. Mike Dunleavy kept escaping him, finishing with 14 points. Miller missing his man caused other problems for the Cavaliers, with James forced to guard almost every player on the Bulls’ team at this or that point in the game. It created open shots for the Bulls, who made 10-of-18 from beyond the arc. Remember what we said? Field goal percentage and 3-point shooting win games, and the Bulls were better in both aspects.
Derrick Rose led Chicago with 25 points in a very nice point guards duel. Rose was for a short moment the best point guard in the NBA, but maybe he can get that back? It’ll be enough to be the best point guard in this series actually, although it doesn’t come through great ball movement and coaching on offense. Chicago, like the Cavaliers in this game, leave it up to individual ability, which they might have the advantage in at the moment. Pau Gasol did well with 21 points, Jimmy Butler scored 20.
On the other end, LeBron James had a rough game, scoring 19 points with 15 rebounds but shooting just 9-of-22 from the field, taking too many tough threes and struggling with Butler and the Bulls’ team defense. Kyrie Irving scored 30 points and Iman Shumpert finished with 22, but there was too little team play in what the Cavs brought to the game. Sure, James can and will have bigger and better nights, but trying to win this thing on his own won’t work, not against this Bulls team.
As for Chicago, not everything is perfect. The bench continues to be grossly underused by Tom Thibodeau, which has always been a weakness of his. Right now the Cavaliers seem short on their end but it won’t be like this for the entire series. Nikola Mirotic needs to play more than two minutes. Aaron Brooks can give more than 9. Tony Snell has something to contribute. This will all collapse if Butler keeps playing 44 minutes a night and Rose doesn’t get some rest.