Bulls lose to Cavs to fall one game from end of season


Apr 26

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The Bulls players and coaches were trying to explain what they thought happened in Sunday’s 121-98 Cleveland Cavaliers playoff win that gave the Cavs a 3-1 lead in this opening round series, the game that could be the final Bulls home game of the 2009-10 season.

Joakim Noah, who had the first 20/20 playoff game in franchise history with 21 points and 20 rebounds, thought the Bulls gave in mentally when the Cavs put a big blitz on them late in the first half into the third quarter, a 21-6 run over about five minutes that broke open a close game.

“I think we weren’t very tough mentally,” said Noah. “I think we were playing good basketball and all of a sudden it collapsed. When things aren’t going our way we can’t out our heads down. When things weren’t going our way, everyone had their head down. Even myself. I have to do a better job of bringing energy, making sure everyone is on the same page. From players to staff, everyone had heads down. To have a performance like this in this kind of game is disappointing.”

Derrick Rose, who had 21 points and five assists in facing a multitude of switching Cavs defenders, said the Bulls could have attacked more when the Cavs were in the penalty with almost six minutes left in the third quarter instead of shooting jump shots and could have come up with more variety on offense.

“When we had the lead (45-44 with 3:50 left in the first half), we should have run more effective plays,” said Rose, “guys scoring from certain spots or get fouled or run something to get more ball movement while we were in the penalty and attack, run some pick-and-rolls and attacked the basket. And even if you couldn’t make the shot, you could dump it off to a big and maybe they could get to the line.”

Kirk Hinrich, whom LeBron James had labeled before the game the Bulls’ X-factor whom the Cavs had to stop and who had 10 points on three of 13 shooting, said the Bulls just weren’t able to match the Cavs fury, especially on defense, and, of course, James, who had a fifth playoff triple double with 37 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.

“There’s a lot of stuff we could have done,” said Hinrich. “Most of the shots he made were tough shots. They took it to us, especially in the second half. They cranked up their intensity. The result was we got a little out of character on offense. They were putting up points fast. We haven’t been that type of team. When we feel the pressure to do that we struggle, settling for jumpers, not sharing the ball. They made some big jump shots, (Anthony) Parker, (Mo) Williams. They really took it to us.”

I was listening to all this and thinking I’d heard this many times before.

This, by the way, was not déjà vu, perhaps the most misused term in the English language, though since it is French we can understand since we never know what they are talking about. Though we are catching on with Noah. Déjà vu, by the way, is feeling you have experienced or witnessed something and actually have not. I am here, of course, to educate and inform.

Anyway, as for the past, I have heard these things said many times before by opponents of the Bulls and Michael Jordan explaining why they lost and what could they have done differently.

When, in fact, there was nothing because Jordan was better and James is better.

The Bulls tried, and did the best they could. You can pick at these things like rushed shots and open shooters and sagging confidence and certain substitutions. But the Bulls led the Cavs in fast break points 23-12. They led in second chance points 24-10. They outrebounded the Cavs 49-41 and 17-5 on the offensive boards, and attempted 12 more shots.

They didn’t play a bad game, though the Bulls shot just 37.4 percent. But the Cavs upped their defensive energy and James was just too much.

He faded back and hit threes, six of 9 among the team’s 12 of 25, including one stepping into a 45 footer to end the third quarter he called a regular jump shot.

“I can comfortably shoot that shot, probably half court or beyond.” James said. “I mean, it was a regular jump shot for me. Comfortably, I can walk and dribble into a halfcourt three. I’m doing pretty good so far with that shot.”

I asked James why, then, he didn’t shoot it more often. He did admit his percentage would go down some. The guy is playing an altogether different game form everyone else.

It would be bragging if you couldn’t do it.

“Those are definitely back breaking shots,” said James, wearing a “Witness” polo shirt as he talked with reporters. “I felt good, focused on this game as the most important game of the season for us. I wanted to force my will and get us the win. Now the most important game of the season is Game 5.”

It’s been something of a mantra for James, who is taking these playoffs far more seriously than he has any before, and certainly the regular season. I saw Jordan like this as well in 1991, sensing something the rest of us were uncertain about and putting everything into each game and making sure everyone else did.

James also closed the half holding onto the ball for a 22 footer with a second left to end an 18-7 run over the last four minutes to make it 62-52.

“Overall in the second half of the second quarter we took quick shots,” said Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “They got out on the break and that put us on our heels and they got into the penalty with a couple of fouls. They got that cushion at half time. Momentum is a big thing. In the third quarter, we were just one pass and a shot. We were not making them guard enough. They got in the open court and they made shots.”

James made shot after shot, and then when the Bulls tried to collapse on him he fanned the ball out to Williams, who was three of six on threes for 19 points, and then ran the same pick and roll play with James and Antawn Jamison at least a half dozen straight times, and the Bulls couldn’t do much as they switched it often and Jamison posted or ducked under Luol Deng and finished with 24 points.

Talk about your X-factors, your Scottie Pippen guy. Does LeBron finally have him? Is it enough now to win a championship?

“Antawn was great,” said James. “His ability to shoot the bal from outside and drive. He’s one of those hybrid fours we have in this league like Rashard Lewis, Josh Smith, guys who do multiple things. Fours have a tough time guarding him and smaller guys hav a tough time because he posts and can shoot over. He’s a great X-factor. I do my job and Mo does his, and ‘twan is the X-factor and we have to have those games from him.”

This series reminds me of the Bulls in 1991 when they won their first title.

In the second round, they faced a team somewhat like today’s Bulls, the Philadelphia 76ers with Charles Barkley, one star, and a bunch of role players like Hersey Hawkins, Ron Anderson and Armon Gilliam.

The Bulls won the first two games at home and then went to Philadelphia for a raucous Game 3 in which they fell behind by 20-plus points and then came charging back only to lose by two points. But like the Cavs in their two point loss in Game 3 in this series after trailing by 21, the comeback was a lesson for both teams, a wakeup for those Bulls to concentrate and a message for the 76ers you had to play your best just to barely win at home.

Back then, the Bulls came back and won Game 4 by double digits in Philadelphia and closed it back home in a tough Game 5. About a month later, the Bulls and Jordan had their first ever NBA championship.

You sort of get the same sense with these Cavs, especially with the mish mash of results going on in the Western Conference. Yes, Orlando remains a major obstacle in the Eastern Conference, but James, for all his dancing and posing, seems to be taking this quest seriously.

He showed up at the United Center for the Sunday afternoon game two hours before the rest of his teammates to shoot and practice.

“We just got fed up,” said Jamison. “After Game 3, our team was generally so frustrated knowing we didn’t come out prepared enough and put ourselves in a difficult position. We did a good job making it close at the end, but you can’t let a team like this (Bulls) get momentum and confidence. You saw what they did last year against Boston. I know (LeBron) was in a zone, really focused. Right before the game, he had that eye knowing he needed to go out and play a great game. He puts pressure on the defense, is a great defender, leader, communicating on the court, in the huddle. He did a great job setting the tone.”

I didn’t think so early as James had more rebounds and as many assists as shots in the first quarter as the Cavs led 24-21. Deng’s shot was pure and Noah had one of several instances where he got the rebound and either started or ran the entire break.

“We started off the game really well,” said Noah. “In the second quarter we were playing at a fast pace, putting Shaq in a lot of pick and rolls (five fouls in 17 minutes), and then we collapsed those last three minutes.”

The Bulls were ahead 45-44 thanks to 10 in the second quarter from Hinrich as James knew his stuff. The Bulls were 14-0 this season when Hinrich scored at least 16 and when Rose scored 31 and Hinrich 27 in Game 3, it was only the Bulls’ third playoff game in which both starting guards scored at least 25. The others were Jordan (36) and Sam Vincent (31) against Detroit in 1988, and Jerry Sloan (27) and Norm Van Lier (26) against the Lakers in 1973, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

But in that stretch with the Bulls ahead 45-44, James hit a three and then hit Anderson Varejao on a pick and roll. Varejao was fouled and missed the second, but Jamison got the rebound and scored. Deng missed a jumper and Varejao blocked Rose as the Cavs did a better job of closing on Rose in the lane.

“They were playing great defense,” said Rose. “And they were hitting all their (contested) shots. LeBron was penetrating and kicking and he was hitting great shots, crazy shots. That’s why he’s one of the best players in the NBA, if not the best. If anything, they outhustled us and we were settling for jump shots. They kept switching and putting different people on me throughout the game. One person would contest the shot and then there’d be a different one. We’ve got to find a way and do it quick.”

Rose sprained his ankle early in the third and the Bulls called a timeout, but Rose came right back and said he’d be fine for Game 5 in Cleveland Tuesday.

The Bulls had a chance, but started the second half missing their first six shots, all outside jumpers, and then the Cavs took over.

“I’ve done some great things in the past, I’ll do some great things in the future,” said James. “But we’re in the present now, and I’m feeling pretty good.”

Shaq, who was ineffective again and LeBron got his wish with J.J. Hickson playing as much and scoring 10 off the bench, did get a dunk. Jamison got a three-point play getting that switch onto Deng, and then Jamison had a driving score. He had a dozen in the third and James 11, the Cavs hit 12 of 18 shots and only Noah was able to do much with 14 points. But it was over.

“It came down to LeBron and Jamison. We could not control them,” said Del Negro. “We had been doing a good job of keeping them (especially James) from the middle. Their other guys made some plays.”The Cavs took a 21-point lead five minutes into the third, kept it throughout the quarter and never led by fewer than 20 the rest of the game and by as many as 29 long after the starters had departed.

And now it may be down to the last game for the Bulls. James is averaging 35 points, nine rebounds and eight assists and the Cavs are going back home for Game 5.

“We definitely don’t feel sorry for ourselves,” said Noah. “We’ve been pretty tough and resilient all year. That’s something I’m proud to be part of. I feel we got through a lot of adversity this year. Right now it’s tough because we just lost a game, but we’ll have practice and be ready to go to Cleveland.”

They hope not to be another step on the Cavs climb to a title. Win or Cancun for the Bulls. The Cavs have greater ambitions.

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