To this point in the Bulls' season I think it is fair to say that for as much as we know, we really know nothing at all. It's not even worth attempting to explain just how the Bulls went from barely scrapping together 90 points in a couple of shameful defeats to winning by 54 (!!!) points in Game 6. Nothing short of 'they played hard and made shots' really suffices as an explanation for what happened. At any rate, the Bucks series is over, though. Thank goodness. Now our collective focus and attention shifts to Cleveland.
The biggest news from Cleveland's first round is that they now will be without forward Kevin Love the rest of the way. It's unfortunate this Bulls-Cavs series which many pundits are considering the real Eastern Conference Finals won't showcase both teams at full strength. Although, (and this is the homer in me) I must say: it's nice not having the Basketball Injury Gods shit all over Chicago, for once.
During the regular season, the Cavs offense when any of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving or Love was off the floor dipped below a 104.5 offensive efficiency rating according to NBA.com. In comparison, the Bulls posted a 104.7 offensive efficiency rating this season. So in other words, the Cavs became very Bulls-like on offense when one of their three best offensive players were not playing.
This, of course, should come as no surprise. The Cavs' roster is top-heavy in superstar talent and becomes barren rather quickly thereafter. Sure, guys like Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert serve a great deal of purpose for Cleveland, but who comes after them? Outside of Tristan Thompson, Cleveland's bench will be depending on Matthew Dellavedova (Kirk Hinrich Jr...but as in a younger current Hinrich not a 'young Hinrich'), James Jones (who might not be in the league if he weren't LeBron's best friend) and...Mike Miller? Now, I'm fully expecting a vintage Mike Miller performance of yesteryear where he drains like eight three-pointers in pivotal game of the series, and it's going to suck.
But, overall, the Cavs' bench is plenty of recognizable names but not much in terms of actual basketball playing ability in the year 2015. And that's where losing Love hurts the Cavs so dearly. They were an already thin team with little depth to spare, and now they're faced with the reality of playing guys like Jones, Miller and Shawn Marion important playoffs minutes.
Cavs' head coach David Blatt could compensate by simply cranking up LeBron and Irving's minutes, except he already played them 43 and 40.6 respectively in the team's first round series sweep of Boston. Realistically, unless Blatt decides to play them literally all 48 minutes, it's not like Cleveland's two best players can play anymore than they already were.
This now brings us to the dilemma which Blatt faces: how does he use LeBron with Love out of the picture? According to Basketball Reference, during the regular season James spent 27 percent of his regular season minutes at the power forward spot, which is a dramatic decrease from his last two seasons in Miami where he played 82 percent of his minutes there. And although the sample sizes from this season are too small (should be mentioned that most every Cavs' lineup with LeBron at the 4 put up astronomically high offensive efficiency numbers), judging off past success, LeBron is at his best when playing the 4.
Nobody operates a 4-out high pick-and-roll better than LeBron does. Nobody. Giving LeBron space means there is no 'stopping' in a defense's vocabulary. Of course, all of this is assuming Blatt plays LeBron at the 4. It's hard to imagine a scenario where Blatt wouldn't start LeBron there, but he also has this to keep in mind:
Cavs rebounded 37.9% of own misses vs Bulls when Mozgov and Thompson played together. Could be a problem.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 1, 2015
This is where Blatt's decision becomes rather interesting. For one, Mozgov and Thompson (emphasis on him) could give Chicago's tandem of Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah fits, considering size gives Gasol issues and athleticism is failing Noah.
Another subplot would also be that LeBron does not like guarding players in the post. He'd much prefer guarding on the perimeter, he's been that way his entire career. Now, obviously Noah is no threat, there. But Taj Gibson is. Nikola Mirotic could very well be. And once again, we'll have to wait and see how Tom Thibodeau reacts to Blatt's lineup choices because Thibs certainly will not be the initiator.
Truth be told, I don't know Blatt's tendencies well enough to feel confident in saying LeBron will start at the 4. Personally, I'd start my best player at his best position and take my best shot. But Blatt's decision isn't quite that easy, and he's also forced to deal with the loss of J.R. Smith for two games after his punch-throwing incident in Boston. Not to say relying on J.R. Smith in the playoffs is ever a sound strategic ploy, but the Cavs will desperately need his shooting, especially when LeBron is at the 4.
Things are far from bleak for the Cavs -- I mean, they've still got LeBron and Kyrie -- but things obviously could be better. Hell, if they watch tape of the Bulls in Games 4 and 5 of the Milwaukee series, that'll instantly make them feel much better. With or without Love, I still can't imagine a defense protected by a frontline of Gasol and Noah giving the Cavs' free-flowing offense any problems. So long as Gasol is guarding pick-and-roll with either James or Irving as the ball-handler, that's advantage Cleveland every time.
But for the Cavs defense, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose -- aka The Slash Brothers -- will surely put a ton of pressure on them. I don't think Rose or Irving can stop one another, so that'll be fun. As for Butler, there's little chance Iman Shumpert (overrated defender since the day he he stepped foot in this league thanks to New York media) will do anything to stop him from getting his. Mind you, Butler just put up 24.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals on 47.6/40.5/79.1 shooting splits against one of the legitimately best wing defenders in the game in Khris Middleton.
In the end, it'll have to be Chicago's slashing backcourt duo that overcomes their defensively limited frontcourt. Even with Love out, I still don't feel great about this prediction, but I'm going with Bulls in 7. If for nothing else, the Bulls don't have any excuse not to beat LeBron this time.