After 89 games, it still feels like we don't truly know these Chicago Bulls. It's a team capable of turning the ball over 26 times one game and then beating the same opponent by 54 points five days later. It's a team that failed to put its foot down against sub-.500 squads like the Pistons, Hornets and Magic, but played some of its best ball all year in games against the four remaining Western Conference teams -- the Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies and Rockets.
That's not to say the Bulls are entirely a mystery. This team has developed its own set of tendencies, and perhaps the most noticeable one has to do with how they come out of the gates. When the Bulls jumped out to a 21-7 lead over the Cavs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last night, it was a sign that the special type of intensity this team played with in its close out win over Milwaukee had carried over to Cleveland. When that happens, the Bulls can play with anyone.
The Bulls never trailed on Monday night, allowing the Cavs to tie the game in the third quarter on two separate occasions without surrendering the lead. Even if there were reasons to believe the Bulls could take Game 1 -- Cleveland was missing important pieces, coming off a long layoff, ect -- the execution of it all was extremely encouraging to see.
The Bulls have a real chance in this series. They know the stakes. They know they're likely playing for their coach's job, know they might not get a better chance at the Finals than the one they have this year. I left Game 1 thinking that if the Bulls aren't the favorites now, this series is at least a coin flip.
Here's five things we've learned about the Bulls so far:
1) Derrick Rose would be hurting the team if he stopped gunning threes
The most common criticism of Rose's game this season was the volume of his attempts from three-point range. Rose set a new career high by taking 5.3 threes per game, and he converted a woeful 28 percent of them. No other player in the league who averaged 5+ attempts from deep shot under 30 percent. Rose was the worst volume three-point shooter in the NBA by a considerable margin.
Through it all, Rose said he would keep shooting because he trusted they would start falling when it counted. It seemed like the type of anti-proof statement that could get this team burned in the playoffs. That's why it's so ridiculous that Rose's three-point shooting is actually saving the Bulls in the postseason through their first seven games.
Rose has taken 46 threes (or 6.6 per game) in the playoffs and he's made 18 of them -- good for a glowing 39.1 conversion rate. Think D. Rose should stop jacking from deep? Those made threes have accounted for 54 points. To score 54 points on the same 46 shots on two-pointers, he'd have to shoot 58.6 percent. During the regular season, Rose shot 46.5 percent on two-point shots.
Obviously, it's the shot selection that is the concern with Rose as much as the volume. He simply had too many 1-for-7 games this year. But when he's making shots like this ....
.... it doesn't really matter. The volume pays off if enough of them fall. Right now, they're falling. Maybe Derrick Rose is smarter than us all.
2. The rotation has been trimmed
Look at these minutes totals for the starters in Game 1 against Cleveland:
Taj Gibson got 28 minutes off the bench, Kirk Hinrich got 15, Aaron Brooks got nine and Nikola Mirotic got two. You may notice one name that doesn't include: Tony Snell. This is likely what we're looking at for the rest of the series: a nominal seven-man rotation with handful of minutes for Brooks just so Rose doesn't hit empty.
K.C. Johnson already hinted that Mirotic might not play much in this series:
Dunleavy is so important this series for Bulls, who figure to play Mirotic less this series. Shot 54.8 percent on 3-pointers vs. Bucks.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) May 4, 2015
It seems incredibly foolish to bury an offensive weapon like Mirotic right now, especially when Joakim Noah is giving you nothing offensively. But hey, if Thibs is going down, he's going down his way. That means no rookies and a substantial amount of Kirk Hinrich.
3. The Cavs are thin as hell
It's jarring how weak the bottom half of this Cleveland roster is. Without Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, there might only be five NBA players on the team.
Would Mike Miller and James Jones even be in the league right now if they weren't LeBron's friends? Would any other team in the playoffs be running out the Hail Mary that is Shawn Marion at this stage of his career? Are the Bulls really going against a team in a playoff series whose sixth best player is Matthew Dellavedova?????
One thing you'll notice about basketball at any level is just how much of a difference one guy makes. Yes, it's a game of stars, but even adding one more competent rotation piece can change everything. Smith is going to make an impact when he comes back in Game 3 for that reason alone. The Cavs just need another NBA player, because right now they only have five. At least J.R. Smith is that.
It makes me think that the Bulls need to get Game 2, too. Because when J.R. comes back, it's easy to imagine Cleveland grabbing at least one game in Chicago. Just having another capable shooter to pair with LeBron is going to make the Cavs a lot more dangerous.
4. Mike Dunleavy is scorching
I'm not the only one who has spent the last week Googling Beastie Boys lyrics to tweet whenever Dunleavy hits a three, right?
"I'm Mike D and I get respect // Your cash and your jewelry is what I expect"— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) April 21, 2014
That's the only one I really know off hard and I used it a year ago. Alas.
Dunleavy is giving the Bulls everything they could have ever hoped for right now. He's taking five three-pointers per game in the playoffs and is hitting 57.1 percent of them. Having high-level shooters is so indispensable and Dunleavy is playing like that type of guy right now.
Mike Miller had no chance of stopping him last night. I still can't get over this Vine our friend Hungarian Jordan pulled in his must-read Miller piece from this morning:
Dunleavy scored 13 of his 14 points in the first quarter and made all five of his shots. Cleveland's defense tightened up on him after that, but it allowed wider driving lanes to the basket that Derrick Rose utilized to hit Pau Gasol on numerous pick-and-pop jumpers.
It doesn't happen without the outside threat of Dunleavy. If he keeps playing at this level, the Bulls have a good chance to win the series.
5. The Bulls' hot shooting in Game 1 is unsustainable
Bulls shot 53% from outside the paint tonight. That's kinda nuts.— Jason Patt (@Bulls_Jay) May 5, 2015
Chicago shot 66.6% on open/wide open midrange shots. NBA average was 43.2%. CLE shot 27.2% on open/wide open 3s, NBA average was 36.2%.— Seth Partnow (@SethPartnow) May 5, 2015
(Seth later corrected his first stat to 60 percent)
Thibodeau loves to say it's a "make or miss league", and while it sounds so simplistic there's unquestionably a lot of truth in it. When the Bulls lost to Milwaukee in Game 5, they shot 4-of-22 from three. In Game 1 vs. Cleveland, they went 10-of-18 from three (while the Cavs went 7-for-26).
Through seven playoff games, the Bulls are taking 26.6 three-pointers per game and are making 41.4 percent of them. For all that goes into building a championship-level basketball team, you won't have a prayer without shooting.
Right now, the Bulls have shooting. Keep it up, and Tom Thibodeau might be the coach here next year after all.