Previous ArticlesBulls get Cavs' attention with big Game 3 win
Game 4 looking bigger for both Bulls and Cavs
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 23
Change seems to be coming for Game 4 in this playoff series between the Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers.
But could it be LeBron James or Mike Brown leaving the Cavs?
Tune in Sunday. This is starting to get very interesting.
The Bulls Thursday drew within 2-1 of the heavily favored Cavaliers in the first round playoff series with the Bulls 108-106 victory.
The Bulls for the second straight game against the supposedly rugged, defensive oriented Cavs scored more than 100 points, averaged 12 more points in the paint per game and totaled 25 more field goal attempts.
Playoffs are said to be all about adjustments, and so far the Bulls are easily winning that battle with a solid game plan that invites James to score—he’s averaging 34.3 points—while controlling his teammates and accelerating the game against the Cavs dinosaurs inside.
“I think they shot the ball very well in the fourth (coming back from a 21-point deficit and almost stealing the game),” said Joakim Noah after Bulls practice Friday. “They were hitting contested threes. That’s our game plan.
“LeBron talked (after Game 1) about making his shot again and again and again and again,” Noah said about James suggesting the Bulls taunting from the bench goaded him into a big shooting finish. “‘You’re going to keep shooting them again and again and again and again, too. Keep shooting the ball.’ We’d rather that then that tractor coming at us.”
That strategy has worked well. But the Cavs late in Game 3 countered with a “No-Shaq, No-Z, No-V zone” small lineup that scored 38 fourth quarter points on 54.2 percent shooting in a furious comeback that barely fell short only because of huge plays down the stretch by Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Noah.
After the game, James talked frankly about the effectiveness of the Cavs small lineup.
“We’ve been really, really good this year when we play small,” James said Thursday night. “We become more athletic, we become faster and that helps our rotation move faster. That doesn’t take away from our big line-up because we can also go big, but we play really good basketball when we’ve been able to go small. If that’s something that’s going to be successful for us, then we have to do that. We have to look at match-ups, but it’s a really effective line-up for us.”
James is a very bright basketball player, and it perhaps was no coincidence when he was asked about playing Rose late in the game he said it was his idea.
The joke, of course, is he is the league’s only player/coach.
James, particularly because he can be a free agent this summer, has an unusually strong hold on the Cavs’ franchise, and they perhaps are facing more than a strategy adjustment for Sunday’s Game 4 than a referendum on James and James’ and Brown’s future with the franchise.
The Cavs didn’t practice Friday, but met with reporters at the team hotel.
James was quoted in the Cleveland Plain Dealer saying he wanted J.J. Hickson to play more as Shaquille O’Neal has slowed the Cavs and enabled the Bulls to take a big lead in Game 3. Hickson also has been a favorite of Cleveland fans, who have been bombarding the media and team with pleas for him to play as when Shaq was out most of the last two months the Cavs played better with a smaller, quicker, more fluid lineup.
“I think personally I would love to see J.J. on the court,” said James, who has made Hickson a personal project. “I don’t know if he’s ready, but I think he will be.”
Hickson has played 96 seconds of garbage time in the three games.
In the last 11 games with O’Neal out, Hickson averaged 12.7 points and 7.6 rebounds on 56 percent shooting with three games of at least 20 points and another with 16 rebounds against the Hawks, an athletic team like the Bulls. Hickson had a double/double against the Celtics and the Cavs were 16-3 with Hickson playing more and Shaq out until James sat out the last four games and the Cavs lost.
“Is there any plan of going to J.J. for a few minutes? Not right now,” said Brown in response to a question. “I’ve got to get Shaq on the floor a little bit more and other than that, that is my main goal right now with my bigs. We’ll go small if we need to. That is something we always have done in the past if we think it is effective. I’ve got to get (Shaq) more involved in the series. He had some great looks that popped out but those will go down. He can be a big factor for us.”
“For me, I’m not going to say what lineups we should use,” James said. “But I know the game, I know the feel of the game. I’m not trying to make a pitch for J.J., but we all saw what he was able to do during the regular season: With his size, his athleticism and his ability to put pressure on the rim. That is something you can’t substitute. I said before the series started that we’re going to need J.J.”
I don’t know what ring they are in, but I’m taking LeBron.
Get ready for Hicksonmania.
The general consensus around the NBA is the Cavs are best when they spread the court for James. Opponents cannot then crowd the lane. You then almost have to bring help against James, which the Bulls mostly have not had to do. And if you do, he can find his shooters and drivers, involve his teammates and become the power team that led the league in wins.
But the Cavs brought Shaq in with the future in mind. They believe they need Shaq to have a chance to beat the Magic with Dwight Howard. And since Shaq has been out with a thumb injury for almost two months, Brown knows he needs to play him to get him back in game shape for the rest of the playoffs.
Is it worth giving up another game to do that?
Clearly, James, the competitor, doesn’t think so.
James is trying to be delicate about Shaq, but he sees what we all do, that the great center has little lift anymore and is a plodding figure whom the Bulls can control with their aggression and energy. And while Shaq is laboring for position, the Cavs’ offense comes to a standstill.
This, perhaps, is as direct a challenge as James has made to Brown, which suggests he recognizes the fear of allowing a young team to get too much confidence and knows what happened to the Celtics last season against the likes of Derrick Rose and Noah, who are playing better than any of his teammates.
“It shows the kind of player Derrick is taking on the challenge (of James guarding him),” noted Noah. “People talk about LeBron on D. Rose and guarding him. He did not really do a great job. D. Rose was giving him buckets.
“We can’t control what they do (in matchup changes),” said Noah. “We can control what we do. Our best can beat them. So we just focus on the things we can control. I think we’ll be fine (if they go small). It kind of works to our advantage. I think right now we’re really confident and really loose. I like our chances.”
There also seems to be a philosophical rift developing with the Cavs.
Brown is a defensive minded coach who pays little attention to the offensive side and mostly lets assistants handle that. Defensive guys like bigs and size in the lane, but Shaq and Zydrunas Ilgauskas have been too slow for the Bulls front line. And Antawn Jamison is not regarded as a top defender.
James is basically saying these guys against a team like the Bulls aren’t good enough for us to win as defensive team. Which is obvious the way the Bulls have shot and scored the last two games.
I also don’t think the Cavs defensive plan has been very good.
Their traps on Rose are too high and away from the lane. It’s enabled Rose even when he’s given up the ball to find Noah, who is a good decision maker in the lane and make passes or attacks a defense out of position. Also, those Cavs bigs are poor on the pick and roll and generally lay back to zone the lane, leaving pretty open jump shots, which Kirk Hinrich feasted off for 27 points in Game 3 to go with Rose’s 31.
James is a competitor and looks at those two and says something like, “If that’s what they have, we can take that.”
But the game has to be faster and the defensive players quicker.
Brown is a more traditional defensive guy in creating a shell in packing the lane and seeing if a poor jump shooting team can beat you over the top. It sounds right. Just not to the most important man in the Cleveland organization.
What will Mike Brown do?
What will LeBron do?
What will the Bulls do?
I can’t wait.