After their victory in game one of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Chicago Bulls might think they smell blood in the water. In reality, if you break it down with some logic, they might be smelling a Yellow Sea Anemone. As you will see in this excellent picture by National Geographic, this is a lovely creature that looks quite helpless at first glance.
Just when you are feeling real comfortable as a nice little fish next to this beauty, it pokes out a venomous spike and you are the one dead in the water. So if I were the Chicago Bulls after game one, I don’t think I would get all that full of myself quite yet. LeBron admitted to this being a “feeling out” game and sounded super excited to break down the tape from the game and find some solutions. He admitted that he needed to play better and I couldn’t agree more. The fans also need an excitement transplant but I will attribute that to the Cavs never taking the lead and squandering multiple opportunities to come back and put the Bulls on their heels. When the team looked on the verge of taking back a lifeless game, the fans were super loud and standing. So I will give the fans a pass this game. I plan to do the same for the Cavs coaches and players.
I am sure that if we are honest with ourselves, we saw this coming. The interesting thing is that the reason for seeing it coming had less to do with who the Cavs didn’t have on the court and more to do with the Cavs being set up for a lifeless performance by circumstances not all within their control. The Cavaliers dispensed of the Celtics in short order and hadn’t played in more than a week. They tried to practice and work hard, but practice can never simulate a playoff game. Plus, practice does not maintain game fitness or readiness. It actually drains game fitness and reduces readiness. Until the last game, the Bulls had been virtually embarrassed by the Bucks and had not been playing well. But, they did play well in their last game when the Bucks basically called it in early in the game. And, they had a nice rest but not too much time that their game readiness would be affected.
So on the basis of the long layoff compared to the Bulls brief rest, the Cavs might not have the stamina or “edge” they needed to knock off the Bulls with 2/5ths of the starting lineup not available and 1/5 done for the series. The Bulls knew this and counted on it. They were fully aware that they could steal game one. However, when one analyzes the game, it is clear that LeBron played passive despite his numbers and made crucial mistakes whenever they were gaining momentum or could take the lead. Both Kyrie and LeBron missed critical layups near the end of the game when the outcome was still very much in doubt.
As can happen to a team that hadn’t played together in awhile, the Cavs started nearly comatose with almost nonexistent defense and lifeless/unimaginative offense. The easy way to pass blame for this would be the coaching staff but the reality is likely quite different. The players simply couldn’t execute and were not aggressive enough early along going to the basket or getting shots in the paint. Instead they fired up longer shots (some threes) and hoped they would go in, which they didn’t. Chicago on the other hand was white hot with much of the first quarter seeing them hitting close to 70% of their shots and about 70% from beyond the arc. This was a combination of a fortunate hot shooting start for the Bulls and the Cavs nearly complete lack of resistance. Either one being different might have changed things, but they were not.
Another severe blow to a good start and a good game was the fact that the starting lineup had not played together in a game since early in the season if ever. This is not whining about who the Cavs didn’t have available to play. This is about the Cavs not using the correct starting lineup correctly. Yes, I absolutely did feel that the starting lineup was exactly what should have been done. But the offensive flow of the Cavs did not move to get some open shots for Mike Miller as the Bulls did for Dunleavy. If it had, the results might have been similar to the Bulls and we would have been able to score the ball consistently and keep the game close early. The energy expended to catch up and try to take the lead was especially difficult to overcome given the Cavs reduced endurance from the week layoff.
The lack of being able to adjust quickly to the repeated open elbow looks for Pau Gasol and Taj Gibson, especially in the third quarter, made the lead swell back to 14 and make a comeback even less certain. That falls partially on the coaching staff and partly on the player’s overall lack of effort. And, to be honest, that was the difference in the game because Gasol just stood their at his favorite spot and drained jumpers without creating any physical contact. Meanwhile Rose, a notoriously average to poor shooter, kept hitting tough jumpers and helped the team maintain their lead. Jimmy Butler did eventually get 20 points but he was contained for much of the night.
So, in a nutshell, it was Dunleavy carrying the first quarter with 13 points mostly from deep, then disappearing. It was Derek Rose dancing around and throwing up ugly floaters and good shots, when he wasn’t assisting Gasol. And it was Gasol pot shotting from the elbow with absolutely no one around him. Sprinkle in a few wide open threes and you have the Bulls offense. Nothing there was special and all of that could be defended. Unfortunately, none of it was.
LeBron James game was not a good one despite the gaudy 15 rebounds and 9 assists. His 19 points were very hard to get and he committed crucial turnovers and missed a “must make” driving layup late in the game. Kyrie Irving was absolutely awesome in spurts but only in spurts. Shumpert was basically terrific and, had other things gone better, would likely have won us the game.
Not to analyze every nuance, the Cavs simply played an almost predictable lackluster game and the Bulls did what they had to do to win. But, despite shooting over 50% for the game and well over 50% from three point range, the Bulls could muster only a close win that would have been 94-92 with plenty of time left had LeBron made his driving layup. The final 7 point differential should be no comfort for Thibodeau and the Bulls. If the Cavs play their normal game, they win this game going away.
So it is definitely NOT time to be nervous. However, it is time to expect the team to pull out a home win Wednesday with a much better effort and a better game plan going in. I have every expectation that will happen and nothing I saw from the Bulls today changes my viewpoint. The Cavs are the better team even with the player losses right now, but they will need to play better and LeBron will need to attack more for the Cavs to take back momentum in the series. Passive “feeling out” play going forward will not cut it when it comes to getting the wins they need to oust the Bulls.