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LeBron is coming, LeBron is coming; is he alone?
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 22
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or their Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
The Bulls plan, and I agreed with it, has been to keep those other guys out of the game because James knows he needs them and tries desperately to get them going. James couldn’t in Game 2, so he took over.
It was impressive.
“The goal is for him to take jump shots,” Kirk Hinrich said after Bulls practice Wednesday. “He did that and made them in Game 2. He hit them fading away. We’re going to challenge him to take tough jump shots. We can’t have him in the paint getting wide open looks for those other guys, getting in transition.
“We want to win this series,” said Hinrich. “Hopefully, we’ll get on our home court and get some momentum and get a game.”
So, in other words, if you’re so good, LeBron, let’s see if you can get 50 on the road in Game 3 at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Perhaps he can as it was an awfully efficient 40 points for James in Game 2 on 23 shots.
Though the secret to playing the Cavs, I believe, is making LeBron beat you.
It was much the same with Michael Jordan and the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980’s. Jordan would go off for huge 40-point type games. He’d win a few like that, but never quite enough.
I remember talking to Isiah Thomas about Jordan during some of those games and he said if Jordan even truly included his teammates the Pistons would have no chance. Once Jordan accepted that fully in 1991, it was over.
Maybe James doesn’t need that to get by the Bulls. But James understands you don’t win championships trying to score 40 or 50 a game. He doesn’t want to. In effect, the Bulls want him to, though I expect there’ll be some adjustments from that strategy in Game 3.
Reserves generally have more difficulty in the playoffs on the road, so the Bulls job will be making sure the starters don’t get involved as much.
O’Neal had in this era for him a big game in the opener with 12 points and five rebounds. He’s obviously, even with a Big Invisible performance in Game 2, a concern, and Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro Wednesday sent his subtle message.
“We’ve got to somehow stay away from Shaquille’s elbows,” said Del Negro, “get our heads away from those elbows a little bit.”
Since the NBA is harsh regarding questioning officiating in the playoffs with huge fines, Del Negro was cautious. I told him to ask management for $35,000 and rip away. He laughed and said he should check with managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf.
“Shaquille, obviously, is difficult to referee and play against because of his size and where the elbow starts coming,” noted Del Negro. “The referees need to be conscious of that and hopefully we’ll be getting some calls going our way in that aspect and be aggressive to the basket.”
But there are no such limitations regarding gamesmanship on me.
It’s an embarrassment for the league the way they allow O’Neal to catch and turn in with his elbows out. It should be an offensive every time. At one time when O’Neal could jump and was graceful—OK, a little bit—he could make an athletic move on the turn. No more.
We’ll see if that changes and if Derrick Rose, who got just six free throw attempts with 52 shots in 86 minutes, gets a bit more aggressive back home.
“Derrick has done a better job attacking the basket with floaters and things. We need to continually attack,” said Del Negro.
Rose missed practice Wednesday with a personal, family issue but will play in Game 3 Thursday.
It was mostly a routine day for the Bulls at the Berto Center, though with considerably more media.
The Bulls players are not difficult, but at home practices don’t hang around much to chat. The coach is generally required by the league to talk to reporters, and Del Negro did for about 10 minutes after the closed practice.
By the time he was done, most of the players left for treatment and weight work, which are off limits areas to reporters. Hinrich stuck around and answered a few questions, and that was pretty much it.
Are the players confident? They insist yes and are looking forward to seeing if the Cavs will sweat if they lose.
Or have they mentally packed it in after playing a good game Monday despite falling down 2-0 and getting some national respect? And then maybe avoid a return trip to Cleveland next week.
Of course, it was the joke of the weekend with Joakim Noah having some fun knocking down Cleveland.
James addressed it after Cavs practice and said he loves Chicago.
“It’s an awesome city. Great restaurants, great shopping,” said James, who said he spent three summers in Chicago while in high school working out. “I have nothing bad (to say) about Chicago. I’m not saying that because of what he said about Cleveland. I’m serious. We all love Chicago.”
James drew some laughs at Noah’s comment about no one vacationing in Cleveland when he offered he vacations in Chicago.
“You all are making it a joke,” James said. “I’m being very serious. I love Chicago. I love Cleveland and love Akron, too.”
Good this is Chicago and not New York. The tabloids in New York would turn that into “LeBron Coming to New York” headlines.
I raised the possibility in my Bulls.com column Wednesday of James leaving the Cavs as a free agent and coming to the Bulls this summer if he is serious about winning long term. After all, who among the Cavs rivals either Rose or Noah?
Though after watching the Heat and Celtics Tuesday, I’d have to save Dwyane Wade is the most likely to get out of town. If James’ supporting cast isn’t that much, well, Wade’s is a nightmare.
Look, this is a tough one for the Bulls for a lot of reasons other than finishing 20 games behind the Cavs in the regular season. And that was with the Bulls straining to the finish to get in and the Cavs’ regulars taking most of the last two weeks off.
The Bulls need to get over 100 to be in the games. When they had 83 in Game 1, they were out early. When they had 102 in Game 2, it was close.
The problem is a faster game forces the Cavs to bench Shaq and the Cavs were 45-5 in the regular season when they scored at least 100 points. They were 16-16 when they didn’t. The Bulls were 22-8 when they scored at least 100 in the regular season and 19-33 when they didn’t. The Bulls want to run. The Cavs love to run.
There’s no question James beat the Bulls in Game 2 when it was close and the pressure was on. Cavs fans, as we know, have seen that picture before.
“We have to pick our spots and make it difficult for him to score,” said Del Negro.
That suggested to me we will see some more doubles on James at certain times, perhaps a late double when he goes into his move. When he holds the ball with the clock running down he doesn’t like to pass the ball then because it puts teammates in a tough position to make shots.
“We want to keep them out of transition,” said Del Negro. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s young, strong, big. I thought Luol (Deng) was solid. They made plays, but we’ll try to be more efficient and maybe we’ll shoot better at home.
“But the people in Chicago know,” said Del Negro. “You had a guy here a long time was who was pretty good who wore No. 23. You can have all the great defense you want. But some guys just make plays over the top whether you are bringing one, two or three guys. You have to get into him and make it as hard as possible.”
That reference to Jordan opened the door for me to have a little fun with Del Negro and ask who was better, Jordan or James.
I probably shouldn’t have done it.
“That’s impossible to answer,” said Del Negro trying to be diplomatic. “Michael right now because of what his legacy is and what he did to evolve his game.
“Larry (Bird) and Magic (Johnson) took it to a level, Mike to another level,” said Del Negro. “I’m not big on comparing guys because I don’t think it’s fair. Comparing anyone to Michael now is not fair because of MVP’s, championships. LeBron at this stage is only 25. He has a long career left (if he) stays healthy, is consistent. Who’s better (Bill) Russell or (Wilt) Chamberlain?”
Wilt, by the way.
“It’s different rules, different eras, players, different travel,” noted Del Negro. “(Jerry) West, Oscar (Robertson), so many guys you can talk about. Obviously, they both are great players.”
I understood Del Negro didn’t want to get into it because he is playing LeBron now. Don’t make him mad, as LeBron also suggested at practice the Bulls players harassing him from the bench about his shooting got him going.
“I understand a lot of teams would like to make me shoot jumpers and keep me out of the paint,” James said. “That’s what I would do if I was guarding me, but I wouldn’t talk to me if I was guarding me.”
But that’s also the point. James was fabulous in Game 2 with a classic playoff game. But there’s still a big question about his teammates. I believe he worries about that because he knows he’ll need them. So you don’t play off them. Make it difficult. Make them make big shots at big times while defended. I’m not sure they can.
James Johnson likely will get another brief shot at James because he can be physical. Hinrich will some because he can be pesky, and Deng will most of the time and it will be crucial—and two days of between games should help—for Deng to continue to attack on offense to keep James engaged on defense and not playing the passing lanes. Deng also can’t get too deep on shots as James will cheat and try to run out. So the Bulls have to get back and let Noah and Taj Gibson deal with the offensive boards.
The traditional theory often is to let the other guys beat you. But that’s what James wants. Because he believes he always can. So I say let see if he can beat you again and again.
Make James try to prove he’s as prolific as Jordan. It makes for a heck of a show, but it also makes the Cavs a one-man show, and you don’t win that way. Most of the time, anyway.