Playoff Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers (61-21) vs. Chicago Bulls (41-41)
Game 1—Saturday, 3p.m. (Eastern) on ABC
Game 2—Monday, 8p.m. (Eastern) on TNT
Game 3—Thursday, 7p.m. (Eastern) on TNT
Like a group of bears who have been hibernating, the Cavaliers will attempt to shake off the slumber of the last week and a half and rejuvenate the chemistry they found throughout the season.
The Chicago Bulls, meanwhile, have absolutely nothing to lose, and that goes for Del Negro too. It’s a very dangerous mindset to face, because anomalies can arise anywhere and everywhere.
To start with, Del Negro has to like where he’s at. He has survived a titanic losing streak early in the season, a humiliating, record-breaking loss to the Sacramento Kings where they were up by 35 points and still blew the game. He’s even survived a frustrated and fighting VP named John Paxson, who became maniacal after Del Negro didn’t use Joakim Noah wisely after an injury. Yet, here he is, and here they are, the Chicago Bulls, after a ridiculously dramatic season, 41-41, scars and all, ready to try anything to win.
The Cavaliers, meanwhile, are, quite literally, sleeping giants at the moment. Mike Brown has locked down Lebron James, Shaq, and at times Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison, to the point that I worry about their ability to gel quickly once they are on the floor together.
The Cavaliers have played like a chameleon throughout this season, and succeeded brilliantly. No Mo Williams? Whatever, let’s go 11-0. No Shaq? Ah well, let’s speed the game up and blow people out like we did last year. It seems, thanks to Lebron’s steady hand at the point-forward position (and a hugely underrated Delonte West steadying the back-ups) that the Cavaliers can have practically any combination on the floor and still find a way to win.
Here is the matchup breakdown for the series:
PG- Mo Williams vs. Derrick Rose
I fully expect Mike Brown to switch Anthony Parker onto Derrick Rose in order to nullify Rose’s drives to the lane, which open up jump shots for Hinrich and Deng. If Parker takes on Rose, that will give Mo a better chance to create on the offensive end, perhaps sliding to a corner for a three, or pushing the tempo in order to keep Rose and Hinrich honest. If the Bulls keep Rose on Mo, it would be wise to run Mo off screens and make Rose work on the defensive end as much as possible. In the epic Boston-Chicago first round series last year, Rose had a field day with Rondo, and vice versa. Parker needs to turn Rose into a mid-range shooter, and Mo needs to look for his shot every chance he gets.
SG-Anthony Parker vs. Kirk Hinrich
To get ten points a game out of Parker would be equivalent to me winning the Pick 3. Brown uses him for three reasons, and three alone. 1) He’s a solid on the ball defender. 2) He’s taller and can annoy smaller guards. 3) He keeps his turnovers down and sets excellent screens to get other players open. In short, he’s the under-the-radar guy (UTRG).
Hinrich, meanwhile, might enjoy it when Mo is guarding him. He can shoot over him, and he’ll let Rose do more of the dribbling so he can perhaps exhaust Mo on the defensive end. With this being said, I don’t have much fear when it comes to Hinrich. He’s a good shooter, great passer and defender, but with Rose being the focus, I’ve seen Hinrich lose focus. They are, essentially, two point guards, so the ebb and flow between Rose and Hinrich should favor Parker and Williams, as long as the Cavs work together on screens and pick and rolls.
SF- Lebron James vs. Luol Deng
Deng can enter grooves that are hard to stop, but as long as he has someone bigger and taller on him, I don’t see him being a true threat in any game. Lebron will do his thing offensively, meaning obliterate and abuse anyone who tries to guard him. But it will be his fourth-quarter lockdowns on Chicago’s purest shooter that will ultimately decide how close these games will be. Deng, at least from what I’ve watched, seems to stand as a modest, polite scorer. He’ll give you a quiet fifteen points a night at a high percentage.
Lebron, meanwhile, should take some time this series to make sure everyone is getting some touches. Against the Bulls, he could, if he wanted, score 40 a game, but that would set the tone for a more difficult 2nd round series. Even if he has to sacrifice a game to do it, I think Lebron has to make sure everyone realizes how important they are. That starts with Round One.
PF- Antawn Jamison vs. Taj Gibson
This matchup is getting touted as one to watch, but I think it will be pretty one-sided. Jamison is one of the most awkwardly successful scorers in NBA history, and I’m pretty sure he’s going to make Gibson’s head explode at least three times a game with his under the basket loop-de-loops and cannonball threes. Gibson, meanwhile, doesn’t really have the game to exhaust Jamison on the defensive end. Personally, I see Jamison scoring 20 a game in this series easily. Let’s just hope he’s prayed to the Free Throw Shooting Gods enough. The percentage drop is due, in my opinion, to a personal realization of how close he is to a lifelong goal: A championship. In other words, ‘Success Pressure’.
C-Shaquille O’Neal vs. Joakim Noah
Ignore the stats on this one. Noah doesn’t have enough post moves to get Shaq into foul trouble, and that’s pretty much the only way you stop Shaq. That or you foul him, and watch him shoot free throws the same way Andre the Giant threw rocks at Wesley in The Princess Bride. Look for Brown to run some post patterns for Shaq early in the first and third quarters. Then, check and see if he’s getting doubled. If he doesn’t get doubled, he’ll get fouled. If he does get doubled, he’ll dish off and the Cavs will go around the horn looking for threes or open lanes to the basket. This is why Shaq gets the ball early in quarters. Either way, something good will happen: Open looks, or Chicago will get into foul trouble.
Bench: CAVALIERS: J.J. Hickson, Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Jawad Williams, Jamario Moon, hopefully Daniel Gibson
BULLS: Brad Miller, Flip Murray, James Johnson, Jannero Pargo, and some other players the Cavs can’t properly prepare for because there’s nothing to see.
As we’ve realized during his injury, Varejao is the secret weapon to any meaningful Cavaliers victory. Like Parker, he does three things incredibly well. 1) He will set ‘real’ picks and screens, not those touch picks you see from J.J. from time to time. 2) He cuts to the basket exactly when he’s supposed to. Varejao runs on momentum, as does Lebron and Mo. And 3) He’s a stupendous annoyance on any player slightly confused about his own team’s spacing around the basket.
Which leads me to the most important thing that must happen in this series.
X-Factor: Anderson Varejao must school Joakim Noah.
You see it. I know you do. Joakim Noah is Varejao’s evil cousin who got beat up one too many times in school and ended up liking paintball too much. They do the same things. Here’s the only difference: Noah doesn’t know subtlety. And that’s what Varejao needs to do in order for the Cavs to earn a sweep. Varejao, off the bench, needs to quietly steal Noah’s ability to sneak around players for rebounds. No Noah rebounding, no 2nd chance points for the Bulls.
As much as I loved the first two rounds last year, and how we destroyed the Pistons and the Hawks, I’ll be watching for synchronicity, togetherness, and, most of all, patience. I don’t need a sweep in this series. It’d be nice, but I’m finding it hard to believe that the Cavaliers, after the long layoff and the reorganizing of the starting five, can win the first three games of this series. I see game 1 as an absolute pile-drive of energy, enthusiasm, and dunks. Lots of dunks. Lots of J.J. hanging on the rim, and a lot of fast breaks. I see game 2′s first half as a struggle, and then a refocusing in the 2nd half and a tougher than anticipated win. However, with the series in control at 2-0, I see the Cavs experimenting slightly with their playbook, defensive sets, and that will allow Chicago to have their ‘Giggle Game’.
A Giggle Game can only be explained through an example. Remember when you were young, on a playground, shooting hoops, when this one kid comes from out of nowhere and starts hitting shot after shot. Of course, you’re the king of the playground, so you say: “Are you serious. Please. Try that again.” And then they do, and it works, over and over, until you’ve machoed yourself out of a chance of winning the game. After that, other kids say to you. “You might be awesome, but that kid beat you that one time.” That’s what is called a Giggle Game. And it’s going to happen to the Lakers in the first round after Durant goes for 50 one night (I’ll predict game 2).
The Cavaliers shouldn’t fear the Giggle Game. All they should fear is hubris. They avoid that, they’re in good shape.
Cavs in 5.