Anyone who knows anything about the Derrick Rose, Tom Thibodeau Bulls knows that they've had great success against LeBron James in Game 1s. Everyone remembers Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011. Hard to forget the gutty Rose-less Bulls on the road in 2013. But after tonight's 99-92 victory over LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers, there's a sense of unfinished business in the air coming from Chicago. And that's a good thing. There's no overreaction, no jumping for joy just yet:
Bulls all business walking back to locker room after big win. pic.twitter.com/qJT616rHmC— Chuck Garfien (@ChuckGarfien) May 5, 2015
Chicago was carried by the stellar all-around play of Pau Gasol. Although Rose led the team in scoring, finishing with 25 points -- on 26 shots, no less -- it was Gasol's game that truly made the difference. Gasol poured in 21 points on 10-16 shooting, seemingly being left open at the elbow for pick-and-pop jumpers all night long. Gasol's jumper was simply automatic, which is nothing new as he's shot exceptionally well from midrange all season. But it wasn't just the points, Gasol grabbed 10 boards, swatted four shots and dolled out four dimes. Tonight, the Pau Gasol signing was not a mistake.
If we learned anything from Game 1 that figures to continue throughout the series it's that the Cavs have no answer for Gasol. Rose did a tremendous job dragging extra defenders, baiting them into a trap, then launching a rocket-fire jump pass to a wide open Gasol. Heck, the whole team was looking for Pau. It's obvious that the emphasis was to find him as Tom Thibodeau doesn't think a combination of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson is enough to stop Gasol, and Thibs looks to be right.
However, Thibodeau might need to really reconsider the role Joakim Noah plays on this team. Not to harp on a negative from an otherwise positive night, but Noah was flat out brutal. Never was it more obvious than a sequence where Jo blew a wide open layup then subsequently allowed Kyrie Irving to score a layup at the rim directly over him. Noah didn't score, he turned the ball over four times. The Cavs basically used LeBron as a free safety when they matched him up on Noah, effectively making the Bulls play 4 on 5.
Again, not to focus on the negatives too much here, but things like closing the game with Kirk Hinrich are completely unacceptable from Thibs. It's clear neither Rose or Hinrich can reasonably guard Irving. He scored a game-high 30 points, having his way around the rim, slipping past each and every feeble attempt Rose and Hinrich made at guarding him. Playing Tony Snell exactly zero minutes didn't help matters either. Snell might be the one guy not named Jimmy Butler whose length can at least possibly disrupt Irving's relentless penetration.
In the end, though, the Bulls won so we're not going to get too carried away on the rotational, lineup management stuff with Thibs. Like, the Bulls came out and jumped on Cleveland 27-15 after one quarter. The Bulls starting strong is always a key indicator as to how the game will play out. Cleveland started small, opting to play LeBron at the 4. Where that most hurt the Cavs was Iman Shumpert's inability to knock down open threes as he was guarded by Noah. Clearly the Bulls are content with letting Shumpert or Mike Miller or James Jones beat them, which is a sound strategy indeed.
As for LeBron, Game 1 for him is often a feeling-out process of sorts. He tends to internalize the different looks, coverages he's being given. After tonight, we're clear on this much: the Bulls are willing to send help Jimmy Butler's way when guarding LeBron in the post. Case and point being Iman Shumper taking ten three-pointers, to which he converted four. The attention LeBron is going to receive this series likely won't change. He'll continue to look for the best basketball play available. Although he only scored 19 points -- on 22 shots -- he still dished out nine assists and pulled down 15 rebounds. LeBron's going to be better, it's a matter of the Bulls having enough firepower to counter.
The stretch in the game that proved vital, though, was early in the third quarter. Chicago went on a 15-0 run with their starters getting the best of Cleveland's starting five. Getting that breathing room was much needed, especially early in the fourth quarter when it looked like that lead was going to slip away. Of course, Rose made a couple of difficult jumpers during that run where, had they not gone in, would've been chastise-worthy. But those are the types of things that happen when a team goes on a big run, you need bad shots to fall sometimes. Plus, it's not like Cleveland's defense is anywhere near Milwaukee's. Look no further than the Bulls' turnovers, they only committed 10 on the night as a team. LeBron alone committed six.
Luckily, the Bulls are walking away from Game 1 with a win and their health. Rose had a scare towards the end of the contest where his shoulder got caught in a Thompson screen. Rose immediately clutched and winced at his shoulder, but he stayed on the bench without getting alarmed attention from the training staff. Rose even conducted the post-game interview, so it appears it was just a stinger:
Rose said his stinger pain went away within 5 to 10 minutes and it's something he's not worried about.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) May 5, 2015
All told, enjoy tonight. The Bulls never trailed and it was a real good win. Getting one of these first two games was huge. If anything, it shows that they can beat Cleveland on the road. LeBron and Kyrie are probably going to have more efficient nights offensively. The thing is, though, is that Cleveland's defense has to be worrisome for head coach David Blatt. If LeBron is guarding Butler -- who, by the way, ended up with 20 points, six assists, five rebounds and three steals -- then other options are open. Like, for example, Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy was a perfect 5-5 in the first half contributing 13 points, setting the tone for the Bulls early on.
The Cavs don't have an answer for Gasol. Rose and Irving will cancel each other out, like we all predicted. Butler still got 20. Dunleavy made a dent. Game 2 will be mighty interesting because the return of J.R. Smith likely won't be enough for Cleveland to climb out of a potential 0-2 hole. But, like always, never count out a team with LeBron James on it. Fortunately, the Bulls know that about as well as anybody.