[Thanks to arjoseph for today's game preview -ed]
The Cavs are a popular pick this year to contend for the championship (if not of the NBA, then at least of the East). The sage Bill Simmons picks them to face the Hornets in the Finals. They took the Celts to seven in last year's Conference Finals, and ostensibly they got better in the off-season, adding a competent second scorer in Mo Williams and having Andy "Side Show Bob" Varejao willing, ready, and able to play the entire season. (This doesn't even account for LeBron's maturation as a superstar world-beater.)
My prediction for Cleveland is mostly a personal hunch, however, as the Cavs are not a juggernaut. They've got some problems. Two of their frontcourt cornerstones, Used-to-Be-Big Ben Wallace and Barely-Still-Big Z. Ilgauskas, have been carbon-dated to some time before Christ. Younger, athletic big men should be able to eat these guys up over the course of a game. And without Big Z in the line-up (removed by injury or foul trouble, e.g.), Cleveland's frontcourt scoring ability plummets. Furthermore, Mo Williams is not a true point guard and can't fill the gaping void they have at that position no matter how much offense he creates for himself. In the end, this team is built more for the playoffs, where LeBron can play 47 minutes a game and leave everything on the court, than the regular season, where their number of wins probably ends up in the high-40s. They're good, but they'll still lose around 30 games. Tonight can be one of those games.
So far this season, Cleveland has lost to two of the top teams in the league (Boston and New Orleans), beaten a pretty good squad on the road (Dallas), and clobbered a bottom-feeder at home (Charlotte). They play at the league's eighth-slowest pace (106.4 possessions per game) and are middle-of-the-league in offensive efficiency (17th, at 86.8 points per 100 possessions) and defensive efficiency (13th, at 83.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). Looking at the stats, the Bulls look to be better defensively (8th in defensive efficiency at 81.3), but we all know that's not true; this is the product of small sample size and disparities in competition. If we had played the high-octane offenses of Dallas and New Orleans, the numbers would be skewed the other way. Cleveland tries to win with defense (like the Celtics), and it will show tonight.
That being said, the Bulls match up better with Cleveland than with Boston. Cleveland doesn't have a stopper at PG like Rondo. Rose should be able to abuse everyone on this roster, except maybe Eric Snow (and if we've forced them to play Eric Snow, that's a victory). Cleveland's SGs aren't offensive powerhouses, either, and Delonte West is only 6'3", so playing Kirk or Ben at the SG doesn't sacrifice much, if anything. Except at SF, the Bulls can field a more athletic team than Cleveland at almost any position.
Considering the age and ossification of Cleveland's big men, the Bulls should try to push the ball as much as possible (we're already running at the league's 4th fastest pace of 115.5). If Kirk and Ben (and VDN) can allow Rose to actually run the point most of game, this shouldn't be a problem. This could be a perfect game for Noah's energy underneath as well, creating second-chance opportunities on offensive rebounds as Cleveland's bigs get tired later in the game. Hopefully Tyrus/Gooden can hit some jumpers early on, spreading the floor and bringing the lumbering giants out of the middle; otherwise, the Cavs will just pack it in and wait for Rose driving or Deng cutting, and both Big Z and Lesser Ben know how to defend the rim. Tonight's game is definitely not the time to play Gray and Noc big minutes, as Cleveland is much better at the slow-and-plodding game than we are; we'll have to beat them with speed and athleticism, if at all.
Don't be surprised to see Cleveland go small at some point in this game, playing Varejao at center and LeBron at the 4. It's the logical move if we're killing them on the break, and it's also a good way to get VDN to bench our best line-up (instead matching Cleveland's 3-guard set or "going big" with Gray). If Cleveland plays Williams at PG, and Gibson and West on the wings, they'll have a lot of firepower from deep and not really be giving up size against us if we're playing Kirk, Rose, and Ben at the same time. It will cause us to hustle on defense, closing out on shooters well (something we've sucked at this year so far). I'll be interested to see how Tyrus or Gooden would handle LeBron defensively if this situation arises.
Some more stats for you: the Bulls and Cavs turn the ball over at exactly the same rate, which bodes well for us since our new fast-paced system usually leads to more turnovers. Turnovers lead to fast breaks, which lead to (sorely needed) easy buckets. On the other side of the coin, the Cavs are a top-5 rebounding team so far this year (and we're nowhere close to that). Considering how poorly we've been shooting, we need to create as many possessions as possible, which means rebounding needs to be a priority.
Of course, all of this is moot if we continue to take bad jump shots and miss them; if Kirk and Ben continue to refuse to defer to Rose; if we continue to play matador defense on the ball, causing unnecessary defensive rotation and giving up easy baskets; and, generally, if we continue to display the basketball instincts and team chemistry of a mediocre junior varsity squad. From Canada.
Viewing Info: 7:00 PM on The U and ESPN