Bulls lose Game 1 to Cavs; need to make changes


Apr 18

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The first game of a playoff series is something of a feeling out process, getting a sense of what your opponent will do and where you are.

The Bulls, in losing Saturday 96-83 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, not only are trailing 1-0 in the series. But it should be obvious—and to no one’s surprise since the Cavs had the best record in the league—the Cavs are a much better team with LeBron James casually scoring 24 points, Mo Williams adding 18, Shaquille O’Neal returning with 12 points and three blocks and Anderson Varejao with 15 rebounds off the bench.

The Cavs took away the Bulls hopes and strength with a 50-38 rebounding edge, matching them in fast break points and holding a 38-14 edge in inside points through the first three quarters before finishing 42-26.

“They’re big,” noticed Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “They keep coming at you.”

That’s because the Cavs loaded up for a championship drive after last season’s conference finals loss by adding O’Neal and Antawn Jamison, and they feel it is their time.

“We’re confident,” said James, deigning to remove his sun glasses as he spoke to reporters after a long post game break. “Our goal now is to win an NBA championship. We have the look of a champion.”

There was little doubt of that Saturday as the Bulls had the look of a team just grateful to be there, satisfied about having closed the season strong with 10 of 14 to vindicate themselves after a 10-game losing streak in March.

So you say, maybe it was just nerves as the Bulls fell behind by 22 early in the third quarter before getting it together and getting within seven a few times midway through the fourth quarter.

“We can’t wait to play (Game 2 Monday),” said Derrick Rose, who led the Bulls with 28 points and 10 assists. “I know I can’t (wait).  It’s going to be a fun series. This is something I live for. I think about every day, every minute of the day, playing against the best team in the NBA, one of the best players in the NBA.”

But if the Bulls have any intention of winning—after all, what are you here for otherwise?—or making it a competitive series, there are going to have to be some major changes.

Look, you can say the Bulls outplayed the Cavs in the second half, outrebounded them 20-19, outshot them 45-41 percent, held them to four of 14 on threes after halftime and forced eight turnovers. If only the Bulls could have hit a few more shots, eh? But you are kidding yourselves. The Cavs aren’t quite the truly great team yet, so they took their foot off the gas a bit and began casting jumpers with a 22-point lead.

“It doesn’t matter,” said James when asked about maybe giving the Bulls life. “We wear down teams. We don’t always win by 20, 30. In the end, we won by 13. That’s still psychological (because) it was a tough game for them. We let them back in the game because we turned the ball over 18 times. Probably 14 were unforced and they were able to convert when we missed easy jumpers. Winning by 20, 10, five, if we take care of business we’ll be fine.”

No, the Bulls didn’t put the slightest scare into the Cavs, and, frankly, didn’t come at them very hard. So much so that James almost was apologizing for them.

Yes, there was some yakking late in the second quarter when Brad Miller took a James elbow that cut his chin and drew a foul.

“Just taking an elbow to the damn chin and bleeding. My foul,” Miller observed wryly.

Joakim Noah, who was booed relentlessly because of a few runins he had with James, including daring to challenge James for acting like a horse’s behind when James was dancing during one big win over the Bulls, exchanged some words with James. And given it was the playoffs, at least the players finally stopped hugging one another after the game.

“At the end of the day I have no friends in that locker room except Danny Green,” said Noah. “I don’t know nobody on that team and I don’t care. I just want to win.”

It was a rough game for Noah, pushed around by O’Neal, and victimized by a pretty O’Neal spin move that was reminiscent of the days when Shaq could shake.

“That’s the patented move,” offered O’Neal, proud of his return after being out almost two months with a thumb injury. “I’ve been doing it for years. That’s the ‘Diesel Truck with No Brakes’. You see when I get into that move, people get out of the way because they know I’m (going) and don’t have any brakes.”

Noah was flummoxed trying to deal with O’Neal, getting into foul trouble and with 10 points and eight rebounds.

“He knows how to use that 350 pounds,” Noah sighed.

Which is where the changes have to start. I doubt after all Noah has done this season to help the Bulls into the playoffs, Del Negro would try, but the Cavs made it clear they are better, they know they are better, and the Bulls played like they know the Cavs are better.

Again, it has to be about so called “junking up” the game when you are such a big underdog, doing the unexpected and untraditional, and forcing the opponent into radical adjustments.

The Cavs responded with the better subtle adjustments Saturday, like getting Noah stuck on Jamison a few times and Jamison getting easy looks and James going right at Hakim Warrick when he got into the game as Warrick really cannot play threes.

So start with Noah. Or, actually, don’t start him.

Change the lineup—no offense to Noah—and start Brad Miller, who is better on Shaq and whose foul trouble won’t matter as Shaq was tiring at about 20 minutes and limited to just under 25.

The Bulls need to get Shaq moving on screen rolls as he doesn’t play them, though when asked about it after the game he said he was great at it.

“I’ve been here 17 years and I haven’t been beaten on screen/roll yet,” insisted O’Neal. “Not that I’m a great pick and roll defender. It’s just the game is called differently for me, so I have to be careful (read that unaggressive). I’ve been around. No one has beaten me with that yet. They want to run. We can run. It’s gonna he hard for people to run and bang with me. I’m built for both.”

OK, I’d take that chance.

Publicly, it would be viewed as a demotion, but I believe Noah is too much a team player to care. Miller matches better with Shaq and can pull him out on the pick and pop. Or not, as Shaq doesn’t go out to contest shots.

“I think Noah is a valuable piece,” reminded Cavs guard Williams. “And he has to go to sleep worried about what he has to do with Shaq on Monday.”

Instead, Noah can match against Varejao, who killed the Bulls with that game high 15 rebounds, four offensive as the Cavs doubled the Bulls on second chance points.

“Varejao’s activity,” noted Del Negro. “You always have to know where he is. You have to get a body on him.”

Noah has the body for that.

The Bulls have to win that hustle board to have success against a team like the Cavs, and they were dominated instead.

I’d change most of the matchups because the Bulls stayed traditional and it was fatal.

Taj Gibson cannot play Jamison, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Deng cannot play James. Look, no one can play James, but you have to also put your players in position to succeed.

Rose, even with some questioning about 28 shots and seven turnovers, was breathtaking and the only serious scorer for the Bulls. And this was with the Cavs playing bumper pool with him. No one came out on Noah. They left Gibson alone. Sometimes Varejao came out and trapped Rose near halfcourt. Whenever Rose went inside, the Cavs closed with multiple big men and Rose took a pounding.

He desperately needs help and didn’t get much Saturday. And he still scored 28 points! Remarkable.

Hello, Joe Johnson. Help!

Right now, they’re keeping that guy on me until I pass the ball,” noted Rose. “Joakim was a little bit off in the beginning of the first quarter (shooting unguarded) and the first half, but those are shots that they are going to have to take. Brad, Joakim and Taj, if they make some shots, it frees me up and frees everybody else up.”

If “if’s and buts” were candy and nuts…

They don’t generally make those shots.

As I said to open the series, I’d get Kirk Hinrich on James. Not only to draw him into ignoring his teammates, but Hinrich will play him tougher than anyone. It was disappointing to see the Bulls play the Cavs with too much respect, so much so James almost apologized for them.

“I’ve been in playoff series before where guys tried to hard foul me, put me on the ground,” said James, suggesting this wasn’t one. “I’m not saying Brad was trying to do that.”

It’s OK with us. Go ahead.

As LeBron said, “Harness our emotions? There’s no such thing in the playoffs.”

So I’d play Hinrich on James, and though it probably isn’t fair to him because he’s played so little—which is a lost opportunity for this time of year and this situation—I’d probably give James Johnson a run at James because Johnson is big and athletic and maybe can bother him and will play physically if asked. He’ll probably get foul calls, and the Bulls got more than their share, especially Noah.

“I know we’re playing against an All-Star like Shaq, somebody who has been in this position many times, won a lot of championships, but if I say anything about calls, is that a fine or something like that?” Noah wondered. “I’m not criticizing anybody. Of course I’m biased. Overall I don’t think some of those calls were fair.”

Then I’d put Deng at power forward to play Jamison.

The Bulls got tricked on matchups several times, Noah caught on Jamison when Miller was in guarding Shaq, and Jamison had a few key scores coming up on top off screens.

Deng is more similar to Jamison and can follow him outside and give him trouble with those inside flip shots. Plus, you have to get Deng some confidence as he was five of 15 shooting for 12 points, again often stuck on the weak side watching too much. He’s a good rebounder. Let him get inside.

And then you also make yourself a bench.

The Cavs reserves, particularly Varejao, were far more effective while Del Negro doesn’t use his bench much. But you mix up the starting lineup and that gives you some different looks off the bench. Then you play Flip Murray with Rose as Murray can space the court reasonably well with his shooting and the Cavs quietly respect him as one of the Cavs told me he was one of the toughest players they’ve ever had. Also, he had a nice run Saturday with nine points in 11 minutes.

The Cavs off guards don’t beat you, anyway, and you have to get Rose more space.

I’d isolate him more on the side or on top and not put him that screen/roll so much as well.

The Bulls just made it too easy on the Cavs Saturday.

Jamison abused Noah late in the first quarter after Deng actually got a call on a charge against James. We thought that was illegal. But the Bulls got caught in a bad mismatch right away as the Cavs went with their quicker, smaller lineup while the Bulls got stuck with Miller on Varejao and Noah trying to corral Jamison. It was a disaster as the Cavs went from leading 13-10 to a 32-18 lead after the first quarter. As Jamison had nine after Shaq had seven to open the quarter and the Bulls seven turnovers with the Cavs smothering Rose.

“I wasn’t really happy with the way I played today,” said Noah. “I feel like I have to come out and bring a little more energy. We had that one stretch where we kind of lost it a little bit in the first quarter, but besides that, we fought pretty hard as a team. We just have to really understand that we can play with this team, and we can compete, but at the end of the day, they won the game. It doesn’t matter if we lost by 20 or one, we lost, and we’ll be ready to play on Monday.”

James wasn’t unusually aggressive in the game, though he got into it  a little bit with Miller in the second quarter when they both got technicals as James pushed off hard when Miller was grabbing him to stop a score. The Bulls went with Warrick, who tried to post LeBron, and made one score. But LeBron caught him right away on a back cut for a slam dunk, which you have to avoid to keep the fans from their frenzy.

Gibson got welcomed to his first playoffs with a couple of blocked shots with James coming from behind as James got  four of the Cavs’ impressive 12, and the Cavs led 56-41 at halftime.

It looked over when the Bulls got caught helping—bad idea—and Williams and Anthony Parker opened the third with a pair of threes, Shaq got that spin on Noah and Jamison got a runout as the Cavs went up 68-46.

Yes, the Cavs seemed rested and ready and a little prickly about the criticism they took for sitting James to end the season.

“I think there were a lot of things written, a lot of opinions that people had,” said Williams.   “I think with us, we have a bunker mentality where we are worried about home (and) the 15 guys in the locker room, including the coaching staff.  We knew that a lot of things were going to be written and a lot of things were going to be said, and we knew that the rest was good.  It showed today.”

And James insisted he let everyone know in a pregame speech what this is all about.

“This is what we all have waited for,” he said he told the team.  “‘This is why we play hard – throughout the whole season, throughout the regular season and throughout practices – is to get to this point.’  As much as we loved the regular season, we love the postseason even more. Once we got here the day before the game, we were all prepared.  We were all mentally focused and I knew the guys were ready to play.”

Though they seemed to lose some interest with that big lead. We’ll see if that helps the Bulls’ confidence or helps wake up the Cavs to finish.

The Bulls threw some zone at the Cavs in a nice adjustment, and the Cavs fell for it with a lot of jump shots and a scoring drought of more than seven minutes. The Bulls got some amazing drives and floaters from Rose, and suddenly it was 68-58 with a murmur in the crowd.

Gibson missed a wide open jumper to try to get it to eight, and then James scored on a pair of drives to close the third with the Cavs up 13.

Deng finally got a nice cut and score on a Rose pass and Noah began to feel confident in that unguarded elbow jumper. Murray hit a three and Gibson a 15 footer to get the Bulls within 78-71 with 7:25 left. Still, you felt it was the Cavs’ game.

Jamison hit a 20 footer, but Murray got a runout slam on a pass from Rose after Varejao missed a small. Still seven with 5:36 remaining. But Delonte West and Williams answered with jumpers, Rose was still out of bounds in just missing a terrific inbounds play Del Negro drew up, and Varejao began getting open diving to the basket as the Bulls reacted too slowly to his roll. The Bulls defensive philosophy is to blitz the screen/roll, but Varejao cut them up diving quickly and there was no rotation to help.

The Bulls also continued to switch the pick and roll too much, leaving some bad matchups, instead of playing hard over the screens.

And when James ran out and was fouled after a Deng turnover, he signaled with his arm extended, so at least the Bulls kept him from dancing. That three point play gave the Cavs a 91-79 lead with just over two minutes left to effectively clinch the win.

“Give Cleveland credit,” said Del Negro. “It’s a long series (they hope). Our guys are excited about it. They know we can play better than we did tonight. We have to get off to a better start. We were back on our heels a little bit. We fought back and cut it (the lead) a little bit and then LeBron made a couple of plays.”

That’s not enough. Make them react. Make them think. Make them adjust. What have you got to lose but a series you are supposed to lose?

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