After successfully defeating Boston and Milwaukee, the old rivals will once again meet each other in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Their rivalry lasts from the 1980s and days of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and Craig Ehlo. It culminated in 1992 when the Bulls defeated the Cavs in the Conference Finals in six games.
The Cavaliers swept the Celtics but paid the huge price down the road: Kevin Love is done for the season after a gruesome duel with Kelly Olynyk and will need shoulder surgery. How will they replace and compensate the loss of their best interior player and an elite stretch power forward remains to be seen? The other problem is the two-game suspension for starting shooting guard J.R. Smith after few cheap plays and fouls in Game 4 versus Boston. Now it’s up to James and Irving. There is no Big 3.
This is one of the biggest challenges in LeBron’s professional career. The Bulls had some troubles with the Bucks, losing two straight games after going up 3-0, ultimately winning Game 6 by a record-setting 54-point margin on the road. Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah had some poor performances and didn’t dominate as it was expected. Derrick Rose showed some great sequences but also had some bad games. Inconsistency is the central issue of the Bulls. Now let's break down the key matchups in this series.
Kyrie Irving VS Derrick Rose
At this moment, Kyrie is a bigger threat, but healthy Rose can cause the damage on any opponent. Irving is possibly the best ball-handler in NBA and drastically improved his shooting touch this year (46,8% from the field and 41,5% from downtown). He is dominant scorer and slasher, capable of dropping 40 points on anybody. Kyrie scored 57 on the Spurs and 55 on the Blazers during the season. For a point guard, he averages low number of assists, and his defense is still a liability. Just like Rose will have serious problems defending him, Kyrie will be tested and challenged while guarding former MVP.
The Bulls will certainly exploit the opportunity to attack Irving and force him to work on both sides. Rose is a better passer than Irving, and that is an advantage for Chicago. With all this being said, the Cavs have the edge at this spot, but it’s a small margin.
Iman Shumpert VS Jimmy Butler
Iman arrived in Cleveland after the trade and provided valuable efforts. He is a good defender and a solid rebounder, bringing energy and intensity on the court. Without Smith, he will start and must play big in this series because the Cavaliers need it. Smith rejuvenated his career after the ugly start of the season with the Knicks and found his shooting touch in Ohio, giving coach Blatt another dimension on the offense. He is the valuable piece, but there is always the question will he let down his team like he did in the previous years. On the other side, there is Jimmy Butler, probably new ’Most Improved Player’ award winner. He emerged as an All-Star and 20 ppg scorer, taking the big burden on his shoulders and helping Rose run the offense. Butler is a terrific defender, one of the best in the league, and his assignment would be LeBron James. Jimmy has the strength and agility to slow him down and possesses devotion and knowledge to make LeBron work hard for every point. On the SG spot, the Bulls are in advantage, despite the upcoming difficulties for Butler.
LeBron James VS Mike Dunleavy
This is a no-brainer for the Cavs, but like I said, James will have to battle young Butler, not Dunleavy. He is a difference-maker, but without Love and Smith in first two games he must bring forward more responsibilities. Not only he must face Butler, but he will also get some minutes on Gasol, Gibson and even Rose if he gets hot. Along with Mozgov and Shumpert, James is the only plus defender on the Cavs roster. Expect tremendous performances from the 4-time MVP. Mike Dunleavy is here to space the floor and as the Bulls zone buster.
He made 17 out of 31 attempts from behind the line against the Bucks and shot 40,7% from downtown this season. He will make the Cavaliers nervous. Advantages: Do I need to write?
Tristan Thompson VS Pau Gasol
Pau was an All-Star this season, and he is a walking mismatch against almost every opponent. He can score, rebound, pass and create on the post. He is a good fit for pick-n-roll, pick-n-pop, and 1-on-1 sets. Thompson will try to contain Gasol, but he can’t achieve complete success while doing so. Gasol is a weak spot in the defense, but Thompson isn’t exactly Dirk Nowitzki on that side. This is probably the biggest advantage for Chicago Bulls in this series.
Timofey Mozgov VS Joakim Noah
The Russian Tower versus Jo. Mozgov’s brute strength and size versus Noah’s versatility and finesse. The Frenchman had a poor season, mainly because of previous injuries, but he is still an all-around center that can post triple-double. He declined to the offensive end, but he is the anchor of the Bulls’ defense. Mozgov improved Cleveland’s defense, and he is a decent rim protector. Timofey will have his hands full of the job while guarding Gasol, Noah, Gibson and Mirotić. This one Chicago owns.
Bench units: Brooks, Mirotić, Gibson, Snell and Hinrich against Marion, Jones, Dellavedova, Miller and Smith or Shumpert after Game 2. Cleveland’s depth is like the Clippers tradition – not existing, and it is a real issue. They have no reliable scorer on the bench so Irving and James will load substantial minutes and must play at the upper limits for Cavaliers to win. James, the game’s best player, must prove himself once again. Chicago’s problems include health issues, Noah’s decline and Thibodeau’s stubbornness and hesitation to rest his key players even when the result is decided. At least the Bulls have some firepower off the bench and couple of guys that can help.
Fadeaway Prediction by Marlon: Bulls in 6 games