CHICAGO | Even though the tenants of the United Center entered Friday's game against Cleveland on a season-killing, nine-game losing streak, the denizens of the UC were in a festive mood. There was a belated St. Patrick's Day celebration--Benny the Bull decked out in green, shamrock t-shirts given away, a marching band in kilts playing bagpipes. Also, LeBron was in town. That helped perk things up. Check back next weekend when the Nets come calling.
Cleveland toyed with the Bulls for 3-1/2 quarters on Friday, before James took over down the stretch and the Cavs pulled away in a 92-85 win. Cleveland has won 12 of 13 and upped its NBA-best record to 55-15, despite playing again without centers Shaquille O'Neal (injured) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (mired in administrative limbo). To their credit, the Bulls played hard, getting especially encouraging performances from rookies James Johnson and Taj Gibson. In the end, though, it was another loss for Vinny Del Negro's battered bunch, their 10th defeat in a row. Possibilities of postseason play at the UC grow more remote by the day.
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 24 120.7 .588 .125 .529 .208 5.99
Second Quarter 23 110.4 .474 .000 .368 .133 3.88
Third Quarter 25 61.2 .325 .143 .100 .245 3.36
Fourth Quarter 20 114.9 .447 .455 .316 .150 4.30
FIRST HALF 47 115.7 .528 .222 .444 .177 4.94
SECOND HALF 45 85.3 .385 .233 .205 .110 3.66
FINAL 90 102.5 .453 .256 .320 .189 4.38
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 24 116.6 .500 .182 .217 .042 6.36
Second Quarter 23 79.5 .395 .167 .158 .088 4.15
Third Quarter 25 77.5 .341 .077 .182 .122 4.82
Fourth Quarter 20 99.9 .425 .267 .150 .150 3.82
FIRST HALF 47 98.6 .452 .174 .190 .066 5.25
SECOND HALF 45 87.6 .381 .217 .167 .069 4.15
FINAL 90 94.7 .417 .176 .179 .100 4.79
NOTE: THCH is an estimate of team touches per minute
GAME FLOW COMMENTS
(These are the notes that I typed to myself during the game. Presented as typed ... no attempt at cleaning them up or to provide context.)
FIRST QUARTER: Bulls moving ball well early, especially in the interior. Taj Gibson w/ six pts in first 3:10 against Jamison ... Mo Williams w/ 10 quick points ... James not exerting himself too much early. It's 19-18 w/ Parker going to the line for an and-1 ... Gibson continues to abuse Jamison, who just checked out ... 29-28 Cle after 1Q, LeBron w/ 7/4/3.
SECOND QUARTER: Acie Law dribbles around too much ... Leon Powe looks like Leon Powe, which is great to see ... Bulls have a fallen behind by 10. No one to create offense during this stagnant stretch, defensive transition is sluggish and Cavs making jumpers ... James Johnson has a good knack for drawing contact in the lane. When he dives to the hoop, he has good body control ... But since he draws fouls, he's got to get better at the line ... Overexposed in his starter's role, Jannero Pargo has really been turnover prone ... JJ just picked up a charge on an ill-advised drive. Cancel what I wrote earlier ... Horrible call on Hinrich for trying to tie up James. How dare he? ... Halftime. 54-46 Cle.
THIRD QUARTER: James just scored to give him 11 points. He's been really passive, intentionally I'm sure. But with Bulls within 3, he'll start to taek over. Indeed, he just made another jumper ... Johnson's high-flying act energizes crowd ... James throws up airball 3 ... James blocks Hinrich layup from behind. Crowd ooos & aahs, but you could see it coming from a mile away ... With Cavs needing a hoop, run iso for AV on Miller. Anderson Varejao just flopped to pick up a foul ... on offense. That guy is something. ... JJ making LBJ work. Nice job. End 3Q--Cle up 69-65.
FOURTH QUARTER: JJ to the hoop again. Really having a nice game ... JJ w/ a big block on a West layup. doing it on both ends ... Warrick just gets first bucket and draws foul. Chance to pull Bulls w/i 1 ... Bulls driving aggressively this half, getting dump off passes for buckets and fouls. Cavs aren't into it, but we'll see if they rev it up after James returns. 71-69 CLE at 8:59 TO. Richard headed to the line ... Flip Murray brings the UC crowd to its feet with a steal & dunk, putting the Bulls up by 1! ... LBJ returns at 7:04, Bulls lead 75-74 ... James gets a dunk first thing ... James with a deuce, but at 5:41 timeout, it's still tied at 78 ... Murray forces a contested 3 ... LBJ iso vs JJ, forced into fadeaway 3 ... JJ tries to take LBJ off dribble, gets called for palming ... Bulls rooks combined for 34 pts, 18 rebs ... Cle isoing James on JJ every time down and he's doing a great job. But on last sequence, he closed out hard on James on the side, trying to force him into help. He'd been doing a good job forcing Js, so I have to think that was a VDN error. Taj came over, but James just hung in the air until Taj fouled him. LBJ to line, TO, 2:56, 83-80 Cle ... With James shooting FTs, scoreboard flashes a Packers logo to get crowd to boo ... JJ with another turnover trying to take James off dribble. Having a great game JJ--don't try to do too much ... LBJ with a circus shot and draws foul. FT puts Cle up by 8 w/ 2:28 to go. 10th straight L looking likely now for Chi ... LBJ ices it w/ a bank shot from 22 feet. He's got a ho-hum 29/11/7/2/2. Cavs by 10, :50.4 to go, time to head downstairs.
My takeaways from Friday's game:
1. 15,000 and counting.
With his third point on Friday, LeBron James became the youngest player ever to hit the 15,000-point plateau. He broke the record previously held by Kobe Bryant by more than two years. When it comes to individual statistics, James is racking them up faster than any player in history when you take age into consideration. Of course, generations of players before the mid-1990s didn't get the head start of the top preps-to-pros talents we have in today's game. Without applying a rigid SCHOENE-style treatment to James' career development, we can estimate that James would pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league's all-time leading scorer midway through the 2020-21 season. The list of ifs is long--stays healthy, maintains current career average, doesn't try a Jordanesque retirement to play in the NFL--but thinking of the league's scoring mark in this way tells us two things. James is really special--but so was Abdul-Jabbar.
2. Winning is not enough.
As I mentioned, the Cavaliers coasted for much of Friday's game. James in particular was laying back, showing more interest in facilitating the action than dominating it. He does that often and it's one of the things that marks him as a superstar team player. However, Mike Brown was not happy after the game, saying that Cleveland is "not doing the things (they) need to do to get better." Brown's eye is clearly on the big prize and right now, the Cavaliers aren't playing against other teams so much as they are playing against themselves. The challenge is for Cleveland to become as good as it possibly can be before the postseason. Last season, the Cavs learned that posting the NBA's best regular season record guarantees nothing. So despite the fact that Cleveland has won 12 of 13, Brown is less than satisfied. If you're a Cavaliers fan, you have to like that mindset.
3. He's not on our team.
Brown was asked after the game how Zydrunas Ilgauskas would fit into the Cavaliers' mix, as if he hadn't spent the last 12 1/2 seasons playing in Cleveland. Brown replied, "He's not on our team." He then backtracked from that, saying he hopes Ilgauskas will rejoin them soon and it's up to Danny Ferry, etc. As stocked as Cleveland's roster appears to be, the absence of O'Neal and Ilgauskas was apparent on Friday. The Bulls' perimeter players--Kirk Hinrich, Jannero Pargo, Flip Murray and Brad Miller-- went a combined 14-of-51 from the floor and 2-of-17 on three-pointers. However, the interior players--James Johnson, Taj Gibson and Hakim Warrick--went 18-of-31. Johnson isn't a post player, he gets his points in the paint off drives and in transition, but Gibson abused Antawn Jamison and Leon Powe in the post. If you envision Dwight Howard at the other end of the Cavs' playoff rainbow and account for the age, fouls and health of O'Neal, Ilgauskas' return could turn out to be crucial. However, the scramble for minutes among the four and five positions is going to be tough for Brown to sort out: Jamison, J.J. Hickson, Powe, O'Neal, Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao will all be vying for court time. Somebody is going to be unhappy.
4. James Johnson is not a bust.
At least he doesn't appear to be. The upshot of Chicago's injury problems is that it has forced Vinny Del Negro to give regular minutes to Johnson, the team's first of two first-round picks in the last NBA draft. Johnson is showing why he looked so impressive from a scouting standpoint, though his game is still more fueled by athleticism than skill. That limits his productivity and efficiency, but he has some nice traits to build on. Johnson runs the floor well and even handles the ball well in the open floor. He aggressively attacks the basket in both transition and the halfcourt, with a developing ability to draw contact in the lane. He has a decent stroke from behind the three-point line, though you wouldn't want him to make that a featured part of his game. All of his athletic indicators--rebounds, steals, blocks, drawing fouls--are solid. His court vision is lacking, as is his decision making, all of which makes him a subpar passer for a player that would be a real weapon if he could develop his skills as a three. Having a pair of combo forwards in Johnson and Luol Deng would give the Bulls a lot of versatility with their frontcourt combinations going forward. Johnson also did a nice job on LeBron James on Friday. He was left on an island late in the game as Cleveland ran one clear-out after another for the game's best player. Johnson made him work, but James still dominated crunch time. No player is going to succeed in that situation without a more aggressive help scheme. Since March 11, Johnson is averaging 12.8 points, just under five boards and has five steals and nine blocks in five games. He's shooting .568 from the floor during that span.
5. Bulls season is history and so may be Vinny Del Negro.
Chicago's 10-game losing streak has dropped the Bulls' record from 31-27 to 31-37. The schedule slackens after Friday's game and Chicago is still only 2-1/2 games back of Toronto for the No. 8 seed. From my standpoint, I really want the Bulls to get that eight-spot. Why? Because I want to cover some NBA playoff games. Is that selfish? As it is, easier schedule or not, the Bulls aren't going to be able to make up ground without healthy bodies. Derrick Rose's status is still uncertain. Joakim Noah may return for limited action on Saturday, but Luol Deng suffered a setback in his battle with a bum calf and may be done for the season.
Del Negro's job security was tenuous even before this stretch, now he likely faces an uphill battle to stay on the Bulls' bench. Del Negro is improving as a coach, but he still a work in progress. The irony of this losing streak is that Del Negro may be doing his best work as coach of the Bulls. Despite being woefully shorthanded against some of the NBA's top teams, the Bulls have played hard and have stayed competitive in just about all of their games. In the end, that may not be enough for a coach I've grown to like. Also, I have to seriously wonder where the Bulls think they are going to turn. A "proven" coach will be the target, you'd think, but who? Doug Collins? I think that ship has sailed. Avery Johnson? Jeff Van Gundy? Van Gundy would be a pleasure to cover, but I'm not sure his style is the most conducive to the Bulls' talent on hand. The list may improve after the season but as it stands--and I never thought I'd write this--the Bulls may be better off just keeping Del Negro.
The wildcard in all of this is the team's impending pursuit of a max free-agent. What would look better, keeping Del Negro and giving the perception of stability, or keeping Del Negro and appearing to be content with mediocrity? I really don't have a sense on how Del Negro is perceived among the players, but this is should be a big factor in the decision making of John Paxson and Gar Forman after the season. For what it's worth, and it's probably not much, James expressed an admiration for Chicago as a city and for the various pieces the Bulls have in place on their roster.
You can go back and read my in-game comments and get future Tweets at twitter.com/@bbdoolittle.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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