I’m sure if you bump into the right Cleveland Cavalier fan they’ll cringe if you mention “Michael Jordan”. If you’ve been following basketball since the 90s there’s no way you haven’t seen highlights of Jordan and the Bulls repeatedly breaking the hearts of Cavalier fans. Move forward to 2015 and you’ll probably find Bulls fans disgusted when you mention “LeBron James”. LBJ hasn’t been quite as dramatic as MJ when beating Chicago but he’s knocked them off when it has mattered the most. A quick history lesson for those that don’t know…
While he hasn’t enjoyed his time visiting Cleveland in the past, Joakim Noah told reporters “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m very excited to go to Cleveland.” following the Chicago Bulls Game 6 win over Milwaukee. Noah’s excited because the Bulls will get another shot at finally beating a “LeBron James led” team in the NBA Playoffs. So far teams that LeBron James featured on are 3-0 VS Chicago with all ending as 4-1 series wins. We’ll get into that and more in a few. But at this present moment this could be the Bulls’ best chance to overthrow the “King of Akron”. The Bulls have some old faces such as a mostly healthy Derrick Rose, the aforementioned Noah, arguably the league’s best 2 way SG in Jimmy Butler, the various contributors from their “Bench Mob”, and fiery Coach Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls also bring a few new pieces in Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Aaron Brooks. Most importantly the Bulls bring a full roster to the 2nd Round matchup with the Cavs. Meanwhile Cleveland enters without Kevin Love and J.R. Smith. Love is out for the remainder of the season due to an injured shoulder and J.R. is suspended for Games 1 & 2 of this series. Smith punched Jae Crowder in Game 4 of the first round series versus the Boston Celtics. The Cavs still have the duo of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James to lean on but they’ll need a lot of help from an even thinner supporting cast.
The division rivals met four times this regular season with the Cavs winning 3. LeBron James’ perceived struggles versus the Bulls and Tom Thibodeau led teams seems to be over. During the season series, LBJ averaged 28.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.3 assists. Those are some gaudy numbers but the Bulls can take solace in the fact that they forced him into 5 turnovers per game. The Bulls were also without Jimmy Butler in two of the games and they didn’t have Derrick Rose in the fourth and final regular season matchup between the two teams. On the flip side Chicago will need much more from Pau Gasol who struggled in games versus Cleveland. Gasol shot a miserable 36% from the field and only averaged 14.0 in the 4 games against Cleveland. The Bulls will also need to protect the basketball and rebound better. The Bulls had 16+ turnovers and were outrebounded by double digits in 2 of the 3 losses this season. The Bulls must continue to make Kyrie work for his points during the series. He averaged 21.3 points and 6.5 assists in the matchups but also shot only 38% from the field while averaging close to 3 turnovers. In the game that the Bulls won, Derrick Rose had 30 points, 4 rebounds and 7 assists. The Bulls forced Cleveland into 16 turnovers (8 by LeBron) and controlled the backboards.
As I mentioned earlier the Bulls have lost 3 times to teams led by LeBron James. The first playoff matchup occurred in 2010 while LBJ was still with Cleveland. James averaged 31.8 points, 9.2 reb, and 8.2 assists. Those numbers prompted the Bulls to snatch up Tom Thibodeau who was an Assistant Coach for the Boston Celtics back then. Thibodeau was in charge of the Celtics defense and had slowed LeBron in previous matchups. James’ numbers would decrease (25.8, 7.8, 6.6 in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals and 23.6, 7.0, 7.8 in the 2nd Round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs) the two series Miami won over Chicago but he had a much better supporting cast. Also in 2013, Chicago was decimated by injuries. They were able to fight of some injuries and defeat the Brooklyn Nets in the 1st Round that season. They were without Rose that entire season after he suffered an ACL injury in the First Round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. The Bulls come into this series with a lot of confidence and for the first time a bit of luck. Both teams will need to establish authority in the paint. According to NBA.com Player Tracking Stats, LeBron James and Derrick Rose are both in the top five for points generated on drives to the basket. LeBron currently averages 11 points per game on drives and Rose is at 7.3 points per game on his drives. The absence of Kevin Love and J.R. Smith in could mean that the Bulls will look to clog the paint to prevent LeBron and Kyrie from attacking the bucket. It will be important for the Cavs to maximum spacing offensively. This also means that the Bulls shouldn’t be outrebounded by double digits in any games of this series. The height advantage of Noah, Taj Gibson, Gasol, and Mirotic should lead to major advantages. The Bulls will have to keep Tristan Thompson off of the glass when a shot goes up for Cleveland. Thompson is currently third in the playoffs with 3.8 offensive rebounds per game.
I think the Bulls will finally beat a LeBron led team. There are too many things in Chicago’s favor for them to not win this series. The Cavs will be dealing with the loss of key players. The smothering individual defense – and improved offense of Jimmy “Buckets” – should have LeBron working double time. The matchup between Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving will be a wash. Which leaves the advantage of the low post players and bench production of Chicago. In the end I see Chicago taking the series 4-2.