When speaking to dangerously unbalanced individuals it's good to start with some simple facts to establish a consensual reality. With that in mind, we’re going to talk you down from that ledge with a few important observations. We’ll start with the most obvious one: These are the Cavaliers not the Browns, so there is at least some precedence for optimism.
Secondly, this is only the first game. This should also seem obvious but sports is a bandwagon activity and there are certain folks who leap on and off like Tara Reid does bunkmates. The TNT folks were decidedly on the Bulls’ tip last night, gobbling with delight. It’s an odd little fact, but under Thibodeau, the Bulls beat the Heat their first playoff game as well in 2011 and 2013, then proceeded to lose the next four.
We don’t expect that to happen, but it’s possible. It was pretty clear from the outset that the Bulls needed to win homecourt while JR Smith was out. Now that they’ve done that, the onus is back on the Cavaliers. They need a split, so they only have to win one in Chicago to restore homecourt advantage.
While they’re a MUCH better team with Smith on the floor (who loses two starters and isn’t seriously maimed?), winning two out of three in Chicago is an awful big chasm with which to challenge yourself.
However it’s not much of a leap to imagine a better performance from the Cavaliers. Before the game, Ethan Skolnick commented that LeBron James doesn’t typically perform well the first game back after a long rest. Can’t confirm that but Skolnick followed him in Miami so we’ll defer.
It certainly seemed provident. In LeBron’s own words, “I wasn’t very good.”
He saved us the trouble of pointing out that you don’t leave your feet to pass, something which resulted in multiple backbreaking turnovers in a game wher the Cavaliers were pretty good with the ball. Only nine turnovers is great. Six by LeBron significantly less so. While he did a great job on the boards (15 rebounds, 5 offensive) and was pretty good on defense (3 steals, 1 block), his offense wasn’t great.
James wasn’t helped by the fact that the referee crew swallowed their whistles much of the night. Has there ever been a James playoff game where he never shot a free throw – because last night he went to the lane only once. We’d have to say that will be a hard feat to replicate unless they bring back the crew from the Celtics series and it becomes as dangerous in the lane as Central Park in the eighties.
The evening got off to a particularly bad start for Kyrie Irving who missed six of his first seven shots, then hit eight of his next 12 scoring 24 in the next 24 minutes equaling Butler and Rose combined in that time.
Irving played the entire second half, and Shumpert played 23 minutes. James played 21 second half minutes (scoring but 7 points), and Tristan played 20. So it’s not surprising that after falling behind by 15 in both the second and third quarters before pulling within 2 at 86-84, they were dog-ass tired.
This was James final points of the game with six minutes left. Just a minute earlier Irving had uncharacteristically missed a breakaway layup, an omen of what was to come. After carrying the whole load for so much of the game, the Big Two wilted the last half of the fourth. They missed shots and James committed two costly turnovers. Meanwhile on defense, Butler was able to get 7 points, which was big because Rose was 1-5 the final six minutes.
The team’s last eight points was scored by Thompson and Shumpert. Matthew Dellavedova missed a couple open threes as well. Going forward it might not be as much of an issue if the Cavs don’t fall behind by 21-7 in the first six minutes.
Game of Runs
Speaking to Chris Haynes while we eavesdropped, Tristan Thompson described it as “a game of runs,” which was if anything, an understatement. The Bulls were damn near flawless during two stretches of the game. They went 7-9 in a four minute stretch of the first quarter and then 10-12 during a five-minute stretch of the third. The other 39 minutes of the game they shot 23 for 59 or 39%.
The Cavaliers played the Bulls pretty well for the most part, but lost the thread on two pretty crucial occasions. Each time the run was ended by a timeout, and there’s reason to wonder whether Blatt blew it not calling a timeout earlier, particularly during the third quarter run. Interestingly, each run began with a couple Bulls baskets, followed by a timeout, and then continued until the next timeout.
The first run was propelled by the hot shooting of the Bulls’ small forward Mike Dunleavy, who scored all 13 of his points in the first quarter on a perfect 5 of 5, including 3 triples. The run started when Dunleavy curled around Noah/LeBron bodied up on the low block just as the shot went up leaving Miller on the wrong side. The TNT announcers said he didn’t block out, but it was more like he used the tangle of Noah-James as a rub pick and the ball magically appeared on the other side.
What would follow was just an indication of how out of sync they were and that LeBron – who played some good defense later in the game – made a couple gaffes that led directly to Bulls baskets. There were seven seconds on the shot clock when the Bulls ran a staggered baseline pick for Dunleavy to free him. LeBron’s man Noah makes the pick, but James doesn’t move a lick as Dunleavy makes his second three.
On the below play, Gasol sort of brushes against James then rolls to basket. Mozgov never left the lane, so James had no reason to sag SO far off Rose, who BANKED the three. He’s not a great shooter, but c’mon, you have to play more defense than a horny cougar.
This was followed immediately by this baseline screen for Jimmy Buttler. Shumpert hits the pick hard and perhaps Dunleavy was still moving. Whatever the case, Mike Miller didn’t have his back too well letting Butler break open on the opposite block as both of those scrambled to him, Dunleavy flared to the opposite corner for a wide open 3 before Shumpert could recover back.
There you have it, nine points on three missed defensive assignments, to help the visiting team jump out to a 21-7 lead, a hole they’d spend the rest of the game clambering out of. However it was clear that though the ball moved pretty well and they looked engaged, they just hadn’t been playing playoff level basketball in too long to simply switch it on after eight days break.
With 10 minutes left in the third quarter the game was tied at 51, and the Bulls committed a three second violation giving the Cavaliers their first shot at taking the lead. Indeed, this is the first time in all of James’ playoff game history that his team has never led in the ballgame. That time down LeBron took wing jumper off glass that went in and went out. (As an aside, we watched LeBron take that very shot over and over again the day before in practice.)
What follows is 23-8 run during which the Bulls hit 10 of 12 shots. Indeed, as well as they got going it’s a surprise the Cavs could even stay in the game. While Gasol was the key, it wasn’t really so much TMo’s fault. He got picked on the below play.
Beyond that, Coach David Blatt revealed after the game (something James reiterated in his part of the presser) that they intended to make Gasol prove he could hit that. They made an adjustment afterwards, but “perhaps a little late.”
Blatt got Mozgov out of there and brought in Thompson who could switch the pick and roll. He did and Rose proceeded to nail an 18’ jump shot over him. Rose then hit a three while falling to his left and being heavily contested by James with two seconds on the shot clock. A telegraphed cross court pass from Kyrie to LeBron is intercepted by Butler and turned into a dunk for a 10 pointe lead just 105 seconds after it was tied.
Thompson challenged a Rose PNR (pick and roll) jumper but that allowed Gasol to race to the offensive boards. The unintended consequence of bringing in Tristan Thompson and switched the pick and roll is you wind up with Kyrie boxing out Pau Gasol and put your best rebounder 15’ from the basket. It’s probably not a coincidence that that Bulls grabbed eight second-half offensive boards to the Cavaliers five.
Mozgov came back in right after that play, and Gasol hit a jumper from the top of the key completing a 15-0 run after the game was tied at 53. They had the same issue a minute later with Thompson switched onto Derrick Rose and Kyrie followed.
It’s unclear when Thompson is expected to race back or if everyone is supposed to rotate. The simple fact is that Gasol was Thompson’s man, and if he switches to cover a guard all the time it’s going to create troublesome mismatches. The converse worry is that if you don’t Rose will get to the rim too much.
The Cavaliers would battle back, which should count for something. Over the next 10 minutes, the Cavaliers outscored the Bulls 25-12 to pull back into the game. However, the energy expended to do that and the short bench conspired to limit the Cavaliers opportunities.
Our feeling is that there is a lot of room for the Cavaliers to improve while the Bulls got really really hot a couple times, in part because of the team’s out-of-sync rotations and the lack of energy in the first quarter. They could’ve overcome anyone of these things, but when combined with a slow start like that there was too much.
But that gives us hope going forward. James knows what is required of him and is smart enough now to know he can’t do it by foisting the team on his back. He’ll do it by making the rest of his teammates better and pulling out the stops. If they win on Wednesday, then get Smith back for Friday, there will be a huge emotional lift that could shift the series momentum.
Whatever his flaws, an intensely focused J.R. Smith could very easily be a difference maker on both sides of the court.
We’re expecting the Cavaliers to clean up their issues, to see a little more out of Jones/Miller/Marion, and perhaps a little more trust from Coach David Blatt. Also, he might be a little quicker with his timeouts during ridiculous runs like the Bulls showered on the Cavs.
We will be at the Q on Wednesday for the game, tweeting and posting video. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our post-game analysis on Thursday. You can read our other articles at chrisparker.contently.com.