Two buzzer-beaters. One, on Friday night, which still seems surreal, and produced a moment that Derrick Rose absolutely deserved. The other, on Sunday afternoon, which served as a harsh reminder that sports can be as cruel as they are rewarding. Well, depending on your point-of-view, I suppose. So much went into both of these games, though. So much. No basketball game comes down to a single play, I'm a pretty big believer in that. And this weekend only solidified that belief for me. So, keeping that in mind, let's take a look some of the things that years from now we'll ultimately forget, but nonetheless impacted Games 3 and 4.
1) Never Forget, Taj Gibson Played His Ass Off
Derrick Rose -- again, deservedly -- got all the glory for his game-winning bank shot in Game 3, but Taj Gibson, man. Taj Gibson turned in a performance that I honestly didn't think he could deliver anymore. I've said at various points throughout the regular season that the Taj Gibson we saw Friday night -- the one-man wrecking crew dunks, the ferocious box-outs and tenacious rebounds, the irrefutable defensive presence -- was a thing of the past. And deep down, I still think Taj's best days are behind him. But what I think about Taj's future doesn't matter right now, because Taj Gibson is playing (and this isn't a term I throw around lightly) like a beast.
This isn't a signature Taj Smash, but try and tell me that this isn't a dude that straight up wants it more:
It's plays like that, a hustle play right before the end of a quarter, that always seems to make such a huge difference when it's all said and done. It's also a play that ultimately will be forgotten. A play you'll never find on a highlight reel. And fittingly, that's exactly how Taj played on Friday night. He was the heart and soul of the game for Chicago. Nothing real flashy, a game which we'll all forget -- he only scored nine points, after all -- but decidedly important.
2) "The Bulls Are Better Without Pau Gasol"
In Game 3, Pau Gasol departed in the middle of the third quarter with a hamstring strain and did not return. As we know, Gasol ended up missing Game 4 due to the strain. In turn, unsurprisingly, Chicago's defense looked markedly different with Gasol out of the lineup, both in the latter stages of Game 3 and for the entirety of Game 4. Much tighter rotations, more arms in passing lanes and bodies flying all over the place. Chicago -- a team known for playing you straight up, not for wreaking havoc -- ransacked 15 Cleveland turnovers in Game 4, which is a series-high for the Cavs. And when people said (trust me, people did) that the Bulls would actually be better off without Gasol, this is what they meant:
Here, Pau decides to shade towards the ball instead of sprinting towards the rim to impede his man, Timofey Mozgov, from a layup. Now, this might be a game plan thing. In that, when LeBron has the ball, he receives all attention. But the underlying issue stems from Pau being beaten down the floor. Which is to say, for all of Nikola Mirotic's defensive miscues when it comes to help defense and proper rotations, you rarely see Niko being beat by his man down the floor. Running the floor is probably Niko's biggest strength. Whereas with Gasol, it might be his biggest weakness. Something a strained hammy surely won't help.
Here, James connects with Mozgov for the alley-oop in another fastbreak opportunity. And again, Gasol is behind the play. It's not laziness. It's not a lack of effort. It's just that Pau, at stage of this career, is always going to be one of the slowest players on the floor at any given time when he's out there. And to be fair, transition defense wasn't exclusively Gasol's issue, which we'll get into momentarily.
With Gasol out of the lineup, Chicago's defense was as active as its looked all season. Defense and defense alone is where the Bulls improve against the Cavs without Gasol. Because in Game 4, the Bulls sorely missed Gasol's offense. According to NBA.com, the Bulls shot 13-37 in the paint (35.1 percent) and 7-26 from midrange (26.9 percent) in Game 4. Both of those areas, of course, are where Gasol makes his living.
Perhaps more detrimental than anything else, Gasol being out of the lineup wound up lending itself to 12 shots for Joakim Noah, who is just 5-23 this series on shots at the rim. Noah shooting more shots or looking to be more aggressive just isn't helping the Bulls, much in the same way that Gasol's lethargic defense often ails the team.
In the end, losing Game 4 was an absolute killer. They dropped a golden opportunity to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. One game isn't enough to draw definitive conclusions, but I think it's safe to say that in a game where Chicago -- outside of Rose -- couldn't buy a basket, Gasol was needed. And while, yes, Cleveland played legitimately good defense in Game 4 spearheaded by Mozgov and Tristan Thompson around the basket, it's inexcusable for the Bulls to shoot 36 percent from the field for a game against these Cavs. In fact, Chicago's failed to shoot above 40 percent in either of the last two games.
And before you try and tell me that Chicago was the better team on Sunday, I really don't care for Chicago's contested versus uncontested shooting numbers in Game 4. Mike Dunleavy said all you need to know:
Dunleavy: "We've had trouble stepping on teams' throats all season."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) May 10, 2015
3) Transition Defense In Game 3
Like I said, this wasn't just on Gasol. Although the major breakdowns mostly occurred in the first half, Chicago's transition defense was uncharacteristically poor on the whole.
Here, J.R. Smith gets behind basically everyone on Chicago's defense and is rewarded with an easy layup. I'd attribute this specific instance to The LeBron Effect though. Because while the screen doesn't capture it, James is the one who pulls down a long rebound here, which in turn mesmerizes Chicago. So this is twofold. On the one hand, getting everyone back on defense should be at the top of the priority list. On the other, making sure LeBron doesn't gain a full head of steam -- he's looked to push an awful lot this series -- probably isn't too far behind.
In this instance, it's as much about Mozgov as it is Joakim Noah. We'll start by complimenting Mozgov as this is now his third example of running the floor, nabbing easy points. I mean, keep in mind we're talking about a 7-foot-1, 260 lbs human being. That's a massive person beating lesser-but-still-relatively-large people down a basketball floor three times in one game. If that doesn't impress you, then surely his defense in his series has. That's where Mozgov has truly shined, probably saving the Cavs from sinking amidst injuries galore.
As for Noah, though, notice how he's already breaking on the ball. LeBron gets some decent zip on this pass to Mozgov, but I feel pretty confident in saying that Joakim Noah from last season intercepts this pass. His instincts are right on the money, he reads LeBron's eyes almost to perfection. Except, he's a split-second too late. Story of Jo's season, sadly.
4) Is Derrick Rose Playing Good Defense?
Impartially, yes. Since Game 1 Rose's defense has shown improvement. Take this example, here:
Now, I'm aware that every basketball coach on the planet does not teach closeouts like that. Rose doesn't chop his steps, doesn't get a hand up. The real gem of the play is Jimmy Butler. Yadda, yadda. But Rose, by virtue of acting like he's about to leave his feet and soar into the air to block this shot, forces Iman Shumpert to put the ball on the deck. And in that situation, with time running out on the shot clock, Rose's "closeout" is indeed a worthy one. Personally, I feel as though closeouts are becoming obsolete across the NBA, but we'll save the 'contested three vs. open long two' debate for another day.
Most importantly, Rose accomplishes a pretty rare sight for Chicago this series: he runs a shooter off the three-point line. Although, I'm not overly surprised that the Bulls are giving up ample catch-and-shoot opportunities to Shumpert and Co. because they're committing so much help to LeBron and Kyrie Irving. So again, that dilemma goes both ways. These Bulls are far from perfect on defense and expecting anything close to it would be unfair.
Incidentally, right before that clip above, Irving aggravates a foot injury. An injury that's clearly bothered him ever since this possession occurred. Which brings me to my next point in regards to Rose's defense: context is everything. Cause, like, yeah, Rose has done a commendable job on Irving in Games 3 and 4, but Irving's also been playing on one freaking foot. I've got a ton of respect for Irving for gutting it out. So maybe, saying Rose has played good defense on him is a bit of a misnomer, no?
5) Tristan Thompson Is An Animal
At this point in the series, I trust you're fully aware of this. Tristan Thompson is having his way with Chicago's bigs (aside from Gibson, for the most part) and I'm just amazed at how skilled this kid is on the glass. Like, his body acts as a bumper car. He bounces off pretty much any contact without being tossed around, and I don't know if people understand just how impressive something like that is. These are large dudes throwing their bodies at one another and Thompson just kind of shrugs them off by using his body to absorb force. It's uncanny.
Noah tries to box-out as best he can here, but notice how Thompson engages Noah. This is basically the inverse of a box-out from Thompson. Granted, Noah's in less than optimal position when the shot goes up, but the incredible part is how Thompson seeks out Noah and not the other way around. So, yeah, Thompson is a terror on the glass. That shall remain unchanged.
6) Aaron Brooks Is No Where To Be Found
Let me say this: Aaron Brooks was a bundle of fun in the regular season. He hit shots that made little-to-no-sense on a consistent basis. And you appreciated it in the moment because it always felt too quirky to persist. Like, Brooks just was not going to keep hitting 28-footers with 14 seconds left on the shot clock in the postseason. But yet, there were -- I use the past tense because there can't be any left, right? -- people in this world who thought the Bulls would be better suited with Brooks in place of Rose. It was a misguided notion then, and it's a misguided notion now.
In the playoffs, Brooks is shooting below 35 percent from both the field and three-point range. He's totaled two more assists than he has turnovers. He's constantly abused defensively, for which I don't fault effort because Brooks is simply just too small to ever become an adequate defender. It'd be silly to say that the Bulls were ever going to depend on Brooks in the postseason, but that doesn't mean his complete lack of production on the offensive end goes without notice. Hell, it's at the point where Kirk Hinrich should be playing ahead of Brooks as the team's backup point guard to Rose. That's where we're at, folks.
7) This Is...Unbelievable
LeBron James' shooting chart for the series:
First and foremost, though, praise Jimmy Butler. I've said this before but I believe Butler shouldn't be recognized as an All-NBA defensive player for his regular season defense this year. However, he's been First Team All-Defense! (shout out Tony Allen) in this series against LeBron. Yet the series is tied! And LeBron has played, well, not very LeBron-like at all. That hurts. Pretty much no matter how you slice it.
8) Late Game Offense!
Ho boy, what a hot mess for Chicago (not that Cleveland's been much better, I might add). ISO-heavy sets again and again and again. It's been super frustrating to watch the team basically ask Rose to do all the heavy lifting by himself when Butler is literally standing right there. Like, it's more the ignoring of Butler that's my issue. Jimmy's a playmaker, man. Treat him like one more often. Why not utilize Rose-Butler pick-and-rolls? They did it during the regular season. Rose is doing his darndest to make stuff happen in crunch time, but I feel as though a lack of offensive creativity is really biting the Bulls in this series. Who would have thought?
At the end of the day, the series is now a best-of-three. Are the Bulls good enough to beat a Big 1.5 two-out-of-three times? I believe so, yes. But at the same time, a less-than-stellar LeBron and Kyrie on one foot are probably enough to get past Chicago. God that's depressing to type. You just never know with these Bulls, you can't trust them as far as you can throw them. Whatever fate these Bulls receive, they'll deserve.