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Bulls vs. Cavaliers series preview: is this the year the Bulls get it done?

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IT'S HAPPENING

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

In preparation for tonight's series opener between the Bulls and the Cavs, some of your favorite BlogABullians got together to chat and preview what should be an epic matchup....

What's one thing to love about the Bulls right now? And also one thing to hate?

Chris: Love everything about Jimmy Butler at the moment. Think he's going to EAT against Cleveland if they have anybody not named LeBron James guarding him. I feel confident saying that this series will cement his status as legitimate star in this league, win lose or draw. I mean, that's not really news to us -- we've watched him impress night-after-night all season long -- but I'm not so sure the casual fan is aware of Jimmy's greatness.

Hate knowing Tom Thibodeau *might* stick with Kirk Hinrich coming off the bench before Tony Snell. He did it in Game 6 against the Bucks, and, well...we know how that turned out. That's obviously all the ammunition Thibs needs to justify playing Kirk. Also, Thibs not playing Nikola Mirotic until Game 6 was firmly in control does not make me feel great, either.

Alex: Love: Easily Jimmy Buckets. The guy contributed eight points per 100 possessions to the Bulls, just on free throws! The evolution he has made from end of the bench to a bailout scorer on last second basket cuts to the guy you have to foul to stop is contributing so much free money. The fact that he will have to play 40 minutes per game in this series on LeBron will mean that getting to the line will be crucial to get him some breathers here and there. Also, he isn't going to consistently get his buckets in this series, but he has become the type of player who can go 5-for-21 and still score 20, as he did in Game 5.


Looking at his game log for the year, there's: 19 points on 6-for-20 shooting, thanks to going 7-for-10 at the line in a 20-point win over the Hornets; 22 points on 6-for-19 shooting, thanks to 9-for-10 at the line in a 16-point win over the Clippers; 20 points on 6-for-16 shooting, thanks to 7-for-9 from the line in the January 14 debacle against the Cavs. In 29 of his 65 games, he went to the charity stripe eight times; in 25, hit at least seven; in 15, he hit nine. Possessions are going to be scarce in this series. The free throws make them feel abundant.

I hate the interior help. It forces harder third efforts from the wing defender. Butler has more offense than Luol Deng did and puts forth that effort, but he can't replace Deng's length. Deng could help the help by taking away an angle while still having space to close out on a shooter. This is forced more often on Butler and you can't coach length. Not to mention, Butler's role is much more of a scorer than Deng's, so he using all of his energy on defense to rest on offense can become net negatives on both ends of the floor.

I also really hate the turnovers. I can accept getting robbed on dribble penetration or even the tipped pass to the inside here and there, but the stray passes into the stands while targeting open shooters or the dribbles off the foot on fastbreaks leaves so much money on the table.

Jay: Besides his cheap shots on MCW and Game 5 dud, have to love how Mike Dunleavy played in the first round. He made nearly three threes per game at a 54.8 percent clip against the Bucks. With Milwaukee consistently doubling Pau Gasol in the post, Dunleavy took extra advantage of those open looks. I think the Bulls caught a bit of a break when he wasn't suspended, and they'll need him to knock down threes against Cleveland. We, almost jokingly, made a huge deal about Dunleavy's absence during the regular season, but there's no doubt he can help the Bulls' offense hit another gear when he's knocking down shots, and he's a solid team defender as well.

Absolutely hate how the bench played against Milwaukee. Aaron Brooks was awful. Tony Snell had one good game and was invisible besides that. Taj Gibson had some flashes of competence but is still probably hurting. The Bulls looked pretty good at times with Nikola Mirotic at the 4, but he's hurting and didn't play that well himself. Kurt is Kurt. With the Cavs down Kevin Love for the series and J.R. Smith for the first two games, the Bulls' depth needs to become a factor.

YFBB: Love: I'm even more pleased with Derrick Rose being active than expected, maybe the extra bit being because, as mentioned, Brooks has been bad and Kirk is Kirk (I too fear Kirk's 'contribution' in game 6 earned him minutes over Snell). Perhaps there's a 'playoffs are different' thing when it comes to shrimpy guards, as DJ Augustin was manhandled last year and Brooks hasn't been the same so far in this one. The Cavs have zero backup point guards so that could help mitigate the weakness, but obviously having Rose in there to battle Kyrie Irving for a majority of the time is a matchup Derrick needs to win, and should.

Hate: I'm worried about Mirotic, as if you're going to pin an 'X-Factor' for this team's whole playoff run it'd be him, and he just hasn't looked the same since his knee injury. Since this is the Bulls, it's easy to fret that he never received the proper time to recuperate (five days between games 2 and 4) and perhaps just can't the rest of the way. As healthy as the Bulls injury report is, it's clear that him, Taj, and Noah are all hurt to some degree, and Pau had a rough start to the opening round as well. But maybe that killer game 6 (and four more days of rest before this series opener) will make a huge difference.

How much do you think Mozgov is going to disrupt the Bulls?

Jay: The Cavaliers hit another level when they made those in-season trades, and getting Mozgov to protect the rim was absolutely necessary. He's a legit 7-footer with good strength, and he has a bit of offensive skill as well and is capable as a PnR roll guy. Defensively, he can body up Pau Gasol, and we've seen Pau struggle with physicality at points this season. If Mozgov can somewhat neutralize Gasol, that would be huge for Cleveland and bad news for Chicago. Mozgov has played well in all three games against the Bulls in a Cavs uniform, and two of those were Cleveland victories.

Looking at some lineup data, the Mozgov/Thompson frontcourt wasn't that much worse than Mozgov/Love this season, albeit in a small sample size. Of course, we'll probably be seeing more LeBron at the 4 in this series, but having Mozgov roaming around back there makes that a bit easier because of his size. Again, if Mozgov has a lot of success this series, that's probably not good at all.

Alex: I have the exact same concerns with Mozgov: that he turns Gasol into a total waste of space on both ends. Gasol bricking over 55% of his two-pointers means he has to get to the FT line, like, seven or eight times per game and--AND!--block three shots a game. I'm finally on board with Taj-Niko being the most sensible two-man unit--especially against Mogzov-Tristan-LeBron. Milwaukee's string-bean bigs ain't walkin' through that door.

YFBB: He'll be pivotal not only as a rim protector, but as one of the Cavaliers few very good defensive rebounders. Kevin Love actually led the Cavs in DReb%, so it'll be even more on Mozgov to pick up the slack there especially at times when LeBron alongside him in the frontcourt. Yes, the Bulls hit shots to run away early in Game 6, but what they also did was destroy Milwaukee on the offensive glass, as it not only gives the Bulls second chance opportunities, but guys like Noah, Gibson, and Gasol simply easier looks on tip-ins, as we've seen that running plays for them on offense works less well for everyone involved.

Chris: It's imperative the Bulls get Mozgov in foul trouble, if only because Cleveland's bench is absolutely horrid. Going to have to be a series where Pau's offense is offsetting the troubles he'll be having defensively. Pau was good enough against Milwaukee. He's going to have to be great against Cleveland. Low-key though, one of Pau's better games this season came against Denver on Jan. 1 when Mozgov was still a Nugget. If you'll recall, Pau had NINE blocks in that game. For my money, it was a top-five game for Pau all season. In more ways than one, Pau could end up being the Bulls' most important player this series. Make of that what you will.

How do you see the Derrick Rose - Kyrie Irving matchup playing out?

YFBB: It's obviously of small sample, but Rose does seem to play well against him. I'm not even as much sure it's that Rose raises his game for Irving as much as that Kyrie is a truly poor defender that he can easily get by. Doing that and putting pressure (and fouls) on Cleveland's few bigs would be nice. Rose only attempted 3 FTAs in the first round, and I don't think it's due to an officiating conspiracy.

But Kyrie has definitely improved as a player this year, and may have gotten over whatever 'playoff jitters' would've potentially hampered him. This series won't have any multi-days of rest outside of Game 1, should we be worried that Derrick can't go an all-out 38-40 minutes a night, meaning 1) he'll lose effectiveness, especially late in games,  OR 2) it'll provide too many minutes where someone else has to guard Irving and he'll feast? It may bring solace to Rose supporters if Kyrie only gets his when Derrick sits, but it could mean a loss for the Bulls.

Alex: Rose-Irving is going to be epic scoring some nights and total poo-flinging contests in one or two. Neither is going to prevent the other from getting what they want. That said, that's the NBA; pretty much every point guard can around one another.

What Irving has to frustrate Rose is a help defender. If LeBron is at the four, playing centerfield, forget about it. Rose is going to absolutely have to bait LeBron to move the defense and create a weak side with shooters create open shots off the ball. Mike Dunleavy has excelled at off-ball passing lane creation. I'd love to see Aaron Brooks do this, too, in the occasional small backcourt. And Butler cutting baseline or curling in from the weak side will all truly spread the floor to create really beautiful offense. We've seen flashes of this since Rose's most recent comeback through April. His quarterbacking will be crucial, as all of these efforts will largely require 18-20 ticks off the shot clock.

Chris: Think you touched on the key, YFBB. See, I love how Thibs used Derrick in Game 1 of the Milwaukee series. He basically let Derrick go completely berserk and play balls-to-the-walls for like 6-minute spurts, then he rested him. That's the best way to use Derrick right now. I'm just not sure how many 42, 44-minute games he's got left in that body. And worse: he's gotta pick-and-choose his spots when he's playing big minutes like that. Don't make Derrick pick-and-choose his spots. Tell him to give you the best 6, 7 minutes of basketball that he can. Make it simple.

However, like you said, playing Derrick closer to 30 minutes rather than 40 means Kyrie gets to cook either Brooks or god forbid, Kurt. And like Jason said, Brooks was miserable against Milwaukee. Although, one alternative that I'm 100 percent certain will not happen: have Tony Snell guard Kyrie when Rose gets rest and have Jimmy play point. I've wanted Jimmy at the point to happen for a LONG time now, as has Kevin. I know Thibs won't do it, but it's one way to avoid playing Brooks/Kurt too many minutes while Kyrie's on the floor.


What's the way the Bulls win, or the way the Cavs win?

Jay: The Cavs can win if they get big performances out of their role players. The Bulls will still have a chance even if LeBron and Kyrie get theirs (and they will), but it'll be super tough to beat them if guys like Mozgov, Thompson, Shumpert, Smith (when he returns) or the corpses of whichever other old players get a chance to play go off. I'm already having nightmares about Mike Miller hitting 5 threes in a game or some nonsense like that.

Bulls can win if Derrick Rose consistently shows up throughout the series. Rose doesn't have to be MVP Rose for the Bulls to advance, but Chicago can't afford for him to have too many stinkers. 5 of the games (if necessary) will be on one day rest, so that'll be something to watch. If Rose can outplay Kyrie Irving or even play him to a draw, that's huge, and we've seen Rose really handle Kyrie in the past. This is probably too obvious a prediction, but if Rose isn't good, the Bulls have no shot.

Alex: Cavs can win if they do what they do. If LeBron takes a page out of Dwyane Wade's Book of Crash and lives by it, he won't need more than 15 shots to drop 30 and they'll sweep. This is a guy who could get to the line 20 times per game if he hit the gas to the paint and didn't trust his teammates. Standing as they are, crashing the middle, Kyrie owning Rose, and the replacements (James Jones and Mike Miller) just hitting open threes here and there, and the Tristan-Mogzov unit applying the muscle inside, the series going six or seven could deceive people into thinking the series is more competitive than it is. But this series going more than five without major brainfarttery would just be the evil minx of variance, teasing the arousal of our horns.

Bulls can win if Kyrie wets the bed too much. Tons of respect for the kid, but if he bricks a ton or freezes off the ball in the games without J.R. Smith, the Bulls easily win the first two and the series.

Chris: The Cavs win this series if they survive the first two games, and I truly think it's as simple as that. The Bulls might do that thing where they unexpectedly play great Game 1 and everyone gets overly excited, but so long as Cleveland weathers the storm and wins Game 2 then I think the Cavs will be fine. Obviously it's less than ideal for any team to drop into an 0-2 hole, but with the J.R. Smith situation, if they can be 1-1 when he comes back then Cleveland probably wins this thing going away.

Before the Bucks series I said if the Bulls scored more than 95 points a game they'd win the series no problem. That pretty much held true. Against the Cavs, though, it won't quite be that simple. To me, if the Bulls can gain an advantage on the offensive glass, then I think they'll remain competitive and give the Cavs everything they can handle. Also, this means we need the old Joakim Noah. Seeing the old Jo *might* be bigger than seeing the old Derrick.


YFBB: The Cavs win this series if they keep enough of the games close to take them. It's even more than just the 'best player in the world' thing (or 'best 2 offensive players in the series' thing), I sincerely worry about this Bulls team's ability to get stops late in games like they used to. If these are a few close contests we may find ourselves lamenting the 'crazy shots' LeBron and Irving hit to 'steal' them.

The Bulls can do this if they dominate the glass. Kevin Love was the Cavs best rebounder overall, and if they limit Tristan Thompson's work on the offensive end it'll lead to a huge edge in that facet of the game. A lot of Noah, Gibson, and Gasol screams after tip-ins will both get the Bulls easy points but also further demoralize a Cavs defense that will struggle to get initial stops in the first place.