I had thought the crushing game four loss was one where the Bulls showed they were the better team this series, but game 5 dumped on more evidence that they're not. At least not demonstrably so, or should I say at least when it was another contest without Pau Gasol.
Part of the reason there was still reason to feel good about this series was that LeBron James was looking mortal. And hopefully this game was the best we'll see from him, because it was pretty damned great. After the Bulls burst out with a very quick 8-0 run to start the game, LeBron got his first points and just kept going from there. He hit 9 of his first 11 shots, including getting the first 12 Cavaliers points in the fourth quarter. While Jimmy Butler had done a herculean job on LeBron up until this point, perhaps the 2 early fouls had him just a twinge less aggressive, or maybe James was just in the zone, but he was hitting everything out of the post including multiple fallaway jumpers.
Yes, James also had a lot of his trademark-poor possessions where he freezes the ball and takes a terrible shot, and that partially allowed the Bulls back into this game when you'd have thought it was over. But for someone who handles the ball this much, really that's a form of 'rest' for him (I think Derrick deserves slack for some of his rushed jumpers for this very reason), as otherwise he was committed to doing everything he could on the court. LeBron still only hit 1 of his 5 three-point attempts, so at least that part of his game still isn't there, but everything else was: 38 points on 24 shots, 3 steals, 3 blocks, 6 assists and zero turnovers in nearly 41 minutes.
Just enough of the Cavs role players had solid nights too, as while there were some duds like Timofey Mozgov, there was solid production from Iman Shumpert (especially in the first half where he was 5/8), J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson. The Bulls had great success going after Kyrie Irving's defense, whether it was Rose early in the game or Dunleavy in the 3rd quarter, but offensively Irving gave the Cavs that second valve of major scoring production with 25 points helped by going 3-6 from three, a facet of his game you'd have to think would be least affected by his injuries. The Cavaliers went into a big offensive funk themselves to start the 3rd quarter (where the Bulls were within 2 after going in to the half down 10), but Kyrie's points kept his team from losing the lead.
At that time it wasn't merely a lead that was desirable for Chicago, but a giant cushion. Because we had seen how a true 'offensive funk' looked like when the Bulls went to their bench. The criminally bad parts were at the starts of the 2nd and 4th quarter when Derrick Rose received rest, and Thibodeau insisted on lineup combinations with offensive zeroes in Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich. I understand why the former needed to be out there with Gasol injured, but especially with another lackluster performance from Nikola Mirotic, the lineups didn't also need guard who doesn't need to be guarded.
The first half lull was pretty bad, where the Bulls went 0-9 from three-point range. But the 2nd half one was even worse, because it was punctuated by a disastrous start to the 4th quarter for Taj Gibson. Taj had a pretty good game (through some foul trouble as well) as he and Noah were converting more inside opportunities than usual. But in that opening minute of the fourth, Taj not only was frustrated with what he thought was a foul call, he let the refs know about instead of getting back and it gave the Cavs a transition basket. Then was the tussle with future Bull (if the grit study is any indication) Matthew Dellavedova, that Taj escalated into ejection-ville by deciding to kick the dude.
The ejection seemed justified, though I thought the Cavs got away with Dellavedova not also getting a tech. The ensuing free throws was part of a big Cavs run that had their lead up to 17 with 9 minutes remaining. It was a margin that only seemed within striking distance because these are the Bulls, and they'll often do just enough to get the game close as if to just make it all hurt again.
And though that happened, the Bulls got it much closer than expected. The Bulls played desperate (and the Cavs, as we've seen time and time again, played tight), so even with mentioned issues with the Noah+Hinrich combination the lineup hit enough three-pointers (went 6-11 at one point after the abysmal start) to get within range fairly quickly, within four points points at 4:30 remaining, and within two points and the ball with under a minute remaining. But they never got any closer, and the height of the lineup they had used in this last-ditch effort (Rose/Hinrich/Butler/Dunleavy/Noah) came back to bite them with yet another Cavaliers offensive rebound, something that even when the Bulls have had relative under control this series seems to occur at crucial moments anyway.
- As mentioned, Derrick Rose started out this game like a man possessed, scoring or assisting on 16 of the Bulls first 22 points. But not having Kyrie on him, plus what looked to be a painful wrist/hand injury he suffered in the game, sapped his production. Rose missed his final 11 shots, including a 4-footer late which was really gutwrenching. After the game Tom Thibodeau indicated that Rose's injury was a recurrence of the 'stinger' he suffered at the very end of game one.
- Jimmy Butler had 14 of his 29 points after the Bulls were in that massive hole. So on the one hand that was obviously a huge part of the run, but also underscores how he was out-dueled by LeBron for the rest of the game up and until the Cavs built that insurmountable lead. That's usually more than fine for Butler, and something the Bulls will 'take', but in this series Jimmy had actually outplayed James, and with so little production elsewhere on the floor for the Bulls they needed even more, unfair as that is to ask of him.
- Of the Bulls role players who stunk up game 4, at least Mike Dunleavy came to play in this one. He had 19 on 5-8 shooting, with the Bulls running offense through him whenever he had the matchup advantage on Irving. Mirotic' line wasn't as bad as the game felt, helped by that miracle 3-pointer to end the 3rd quarter but he did also draw FTs like it was March again. But his poor defense and rebounding knocks his overall game down to average-at-best (and the lineups he was in were -23 in 18 minutes), and the Bulls got nothing again from Hinrich, Brooks (just terrible all playoffs), and Snell (who couldn't be very productive in 4 minutes, but still).
- One thing the Bulls did very well was hit their free-throws, going 26-28 from the line, they also only had 8 turnovers in what was a low-turnover game overall (Cavs had merely 11).
- I thought a crucial period was the end of the second quarter: once Rose was back on the court, the offense wasn't so terrible-looking, they had extra chances through offensive rebounds, and David Blatt thought one of his hundreds of decisions should be to put Kendrick Perkins in an NBA game. A lot going in the Bulls favor at that time, but they were missing wide open shots and couldn't cut into the deficit. By the end of the first half, the Bulls had made 7 of their last 34 attempts from the field.
- How many times did Thompson score on lobs? 2, 3, or 15 times? It seemed like that latest choice. Meanwhile, Mozgov continued his streak of missed dunks.
- Several of the end-of-game plays were seemingly designed for Noah to receive the ball first, which on its face makes no damned sense (again, he shot ok, 4 of 6, but had four turnovers). But it was probably more of Noah being the safety valve, and of course the Cavs will leave him open to receive the ball. With Gasol and Gibson unavailable there, Thibs's hands were sort of tied.