CHICAGO | Escape.
That's the word that was going through my mind when the buzzer sounded after Chicago's 109-108 win over a Cavaliers team in standby mode. Last time out, I wrote how the Bulls seemed "to throw up on their shoes" every time they had a chance to make a move in the playoff race. For a harrowing couple of minutes, it looked like their proverbial stomach was churning once again. In the end, Chicago drew even with Toronto for the last playoff spot in the East.
Cleveland rested MVP-to-be LeBron James, whom coach Mike Brown termed as having "a few bumps and bruises." James spent the game sitting behind the Cleveland bench, chatting with his companions and mugging for babies sitting nearby. Shaquille O'Neal was in the arena but also didn't dress and didn't sit on the bench. The only evidence of his presence was before the game, when he walked down the corridor trailing TNT's Craig Sagar, pointing in mock horror at Sagar's bright yellow pants. With those two sitting, Mo Williams was taking--and making--shots that would make George Costanza blush, and Sebastian Telfair got his first court time as a Cavalier.
Given Cleveland's laissez-faire demeanor entering the game, you'd think the Bulls would have had the upperhand in a game they absolutely needed to win. Not so. It was a nip-and-tuck game throughout, with defensive stops coming at a premium. The Bulls appeared to have the game under control after Luol Deng rebounded a Williams miss and was fouled with :14.4 remaining. Deng missed both free throws. After a timeout, Brown called Williams' number yet again, but an aggressive blitz by Chicago forced Williams to give the ball up to an uncovered Anderson Varejao, who missed a 17-footer. Jamario Moon was there for the follow, but Joakim Noah blocked the putback, which bounded out to a still-uncovered Varejao, who'd moved in a few steps. He missed another jumper. Cleveland fouled Derrick Rose, who rebounded with :01.3 left. The Cavs still had a 20-second timeout in their arsenal, so Rose needed to make both free throws. He missed both. Noah came to the rescue again, tapping the rebound out to the perimeter as the buzzer sounded.
That's not exactly how you map out a playoff charge, but the Bulls will take it.
1. A matter of destiny.
With the win, the Bulls once again control their own fate as far as making the playoffs. Win and they're in. Chicago travels to New Jersey for a back-to-back test tonight. On Sunday, the Bulls will be in Toronto, before finishing up at home against Boston and on the road at Charlotte. Not an easy road. The Raptors are in Atlanta tonight then, after playing the Bulls on Sunday, finish at Detroit and at home against the Knicks.
2. Pump up the baseline.
When James plays, the Cavaliers get a lot of easy baskets along the baseline, especially J.J. Hickson. Even with James out last night, the offensive design used by Mike Brown created a lot of open shots in that area. Cleveland used a lot of high sets, where no players are beneath the free throw line. As the picking action takes place out top and the offense creators, Williams last night, draw the attention of the defense, there is so a ton of room for players to pop open, or for drivers to get to the basket with minimal interference. It's a design the Bulls ought to take note of, because it'd be perfect for the talents of Derrick Rose.
After he took so many long twos in Tuesday's brutal loss to Milwaukee, I was convinced that Luol Deng had to still be injured. Last night, he was very aggressive at curling hard off his screens, not just to get a jump shot, or to hold the ball at the elbows as he's prone to do, but to keep going hard at the basket. As a result, he was often in position to receive the ball in the scoring area when Rose got into the lane and drew the Cleveland defense. He was also able to score in the lane off the dribble with the nice little floater he displays when the urge strikes him. Deng finished with 22 points and 10 boards and got eight foul shots. That's the way he needs to play.
4. Integrity of the game.
Toronto's Sonny Weems claims the Cavaliers would rather play the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Last night's game would seem to lend credence to his assertion, which in fact doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Nevertheless, the Cavs did choose to rest James, which hurt Toronto, and raises "integrity of the game" issues over what the ethics are in resting players against teams still playing for something tangible. It was also the elbow of Cleveland's Antawn Jamison which broke Chris Bosh's face. I'm pretty sure this is all just a coincidence, but I suspect Raptors fans aren't very happy with the Cavaliers these days.
5. It's a kids' game.
Hemingway wrote that it's easy to be hard-bitten things in the daytime. At night, in a sold-out arena, you feel for fans that paid good money to see LeBron James play basketball. It makes all the sense in the world for the Cavaliers to rest James. Cleveland has nothing to play for, having already wrapped up the NBA's best overall record. Brown chalked up LeBron's absence to indefinite bumps and bruises, but he needn't make an excuse. If he want to rest his best player, that's the prerogative for a team that's already done its work for the regular season. For everyone else--except the Bulls--it kind of sucks.
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 23 119.4 .543 .273 .130 .085 5.88
Second Quarter 21 134.5 .643 .300 .714 .144 4.39
Third Quarter 26 94.0 .457 .214 .130 .157 4.01
Fourth Quarter 25 114.0 .482 .231 .036 .081 6.98
FIRST HALF 44 126.5 .581 .167 .351 .109 5.13
SECOND HALF 50 103.8 .471 .316 .078 .066 5.48
FINAL 96 112.7 .517 .200 .193 .115 5.32
Poss oRTG eFG% oREB% FT/FGA TO% THCH
First Quarter 23 119.4 .500 .250 .167 .043 6.44
Second Quarter 21 153.8 .700 .167 .200 .096 5.14
Third Quarter 26 86.2 .457 .125 .043 .196 5.35
Fourth Quarter 25 109.9 .556 .333 .389 .122 5.14
FIRST HALF 44 135.6 .591 .222 .182 .066 5.79
SECOND HALF 50 97.8 .500 .160 .195 .086 5.27
FINAL 96 113.8 .547 .229 .188 .115 5.52
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 hitting hearly long-twos. It's what Vinny calls Fool's Gold ... Vinny's system pretty much requires two bigs to be in the lane area at all times. He complains about spacing, but the offense isn't to spread things out. Of course, Chicago doesn't have the shooters to spread the floor, but at least it'd give Rose and Deng room to put the ball on the floor. The four-flat sets he runs at the end of halves almost always result in a good shot or a foul ... Looks like Mo Williams' plan against Rose is to push the ball hard down the floor as often as possible. So far, it's working. He's got 9 pts and 3 ast; Cle 22-20 @3:16 ... Warrick in--transition basket. Simple, right? ... Tied @28 after 1Q.
SECOND QUARTER: Hinrich, like many righty shooters, is much more comfortable shooting off the dribble when moving to his left ... Bulls transition defense has been sluggish ... JJ w/ matador help defense--you have to make the guy commit before coming off of him ... You kind of get the feeling that the Cavs' lack of intensity is rubbing off on the Bulls, but Chicago is playing hard ... Need to check Deng's shot chart since he came back. Seems like it's all jumpers now ... Bulls close out 2Q strong, esp. Noah--lead 60-56 @half.
THIRD QUARTER: Bulls getting good shots early in the quarter--taking the ball to the rim ... A drive and kickout in transition by Rose, Hinrich made the shot, TO Cle @8:48, Chi up 68-61, its biggest lead ... When Deng swings the ball around over his head, as if he's looking for a lane to drive, he almost always takes a contested two and it always seems to come up short ... Rose got into the paint, Deng curled around one of those pin-down screens, this one left Jawad Williams on his back, Rose fed him and Deng went up strong for a two-hand dunk. So he CAN do it ... Whew. Eric Hinske almost hit a walkoff three-run homer against the Cubs. Oops, wrong game. Cubs win! ... Mo Williams for three, not sure what Rose was doing defensively that time. TO Bulls @4:14, up 76-69 ... Cavs do a great job of spacing and reversing the ball along the perimeter, often ending up with a dunk on the last pass to a big under the basket, even in this game sans LeBron ... Rose forcing things now and the Cavs have gotten back in it. It's 80-76 Chi @1:53 ... LeBron was mugging for a baby sitting behind him ... Bulls up 82-80 after 3Q.
FOURTH QUARTER: Bulls have fallen behind by one. They're messing with fire ... Miller having an excellent all-around game ... Cavs' offensive design just gives players so much room to work in on the baseline and in the lane ... Jump ball out of TO, 5:42 to go, Bulls up 96-94 ... Officiating has taken Taj out of this game on both ends ... Cavs win tip, MoWill hits a 3, Cleve up 1 ... Deng turns it over ... Another 3 from Mo, Cavs by 4. It's happening AGAIN to the Bulls ... Noah scores and gets fouled to stem the tide. His defender left him on p'nr, he went to the hoop. One point game ... Dunk for Moon on baseline. No team is better on the baseline ... Remember, Bulls control own destiny pending outcome of this game--after everything ... Hinrich scores, having a nice bounceback game ... Nice feed by Taj along baseline for Deng score and foul. Bulls go back up ... Hinrich and Deng really playing strong ... Bulls extend the defense ... Mo w/ another 3, he's got 32. So smooth ... Game was tied, but Noah hit an 18-footer, 1:37 to play, Williams with a 28-footer to answer with Hinrich draped all over him, Noah answers w/ a tip off a Rose miss ... Mo doesn't touch, Bulls get stop, TO Vinny @:49.9, Bulls up 109-108. GOT TO HAVE THIS ONE ... Matt Thornton just coughed up the tying run in the 8th inning of the Sox game. Damn overlapping seasons ... Taj with a huge block as Mo tries to go coast to coast off missed Rose 3; TO Cleve, Bulls still up 109-108, down to 26.6 ... Cavs go to mowill who dribbles around and misses fade. Cavs foul, but Deng misses 2 FT @:13.7 ... All cavs can get is av jumper--he misses 2, cavs foul ... Rose misses both, but it's tapped out and bulls ESCAPE
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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