Chicago has accumulated enough mental scars over the last few playoff meetings against LeBron James that everything about Game 2's unholy beatdown felt painfully inevitable. We've seen the Bulls take Game 1 from LeBron-led teams in 2011 and 2013 only to see the door swing back the other way the following game in double-digit losses. If you believe in the predictive powers of the recent past, there was basically no way around what happened last night.
Doom set in around the second offensive possession, when Mike Dunleavy missed Jimmy Butler on a wide open back-door alley-oop. Before you knew it, Iman Shumpert was drilling three-pointers, Matthew Dellavedova was hitting runners and LeBron was bullying the entire world. The Bulls were down 20 -- twenty! -- at the end of the first quarter, and most of this city was already trying to rationalize the defeat.
Hey, they got a split in Cleveland! Not bad!
It's true that the Bulls at least gave themselves a puncher's chance in this series by stealing Game 1, flipping home court advantage back in their favor and hopefully putting themselves in position to feed off a hyped United Center crowd on Friday night. In the back of your head, though, there might be that nagging reminder of how the last two series against LeBron's teams ended. The ones where the Bulls also took Game 1. The ones where the Bulls lost in five.
I don't think that will be the case this year. These aren't the same Bulls, and LeBron doesn't have the consistently excellent Chris Bosh at his side anymore. If Game 3 starts the same way Game 2 did, though, it'll be hard to blame anyone in this city for a body-consuming nervous rush and maybe even a few regrettable tweets.
With that in mind, here's what we learned in Game 2, as the Cavs violently swung this series back even.
1. The first quarter is so important for the Bulls
I led with this after Game 1 when the Bulls jumped out to a 21-7 lead and subsequently never trailed: the start of games is so important for this team. There are (too many) times when they simply come out flat, and it leads to the type of self-defeat you'd hope would be worked out of their system, oh, 90 games into the season.
So much for that. Cleveland got up 20-5 and ended the first with 38-18 advantage. You might be starting to sense a pattern:
Always say you can tell if the Bulls will win or lose within the first 5 mins. First quarter stats back it up. pic.twitter.com/b8uLLNxvGC— Taco Trey Kerby (@treykerby) May 7, 2015
Making this even more exasperating is the fact that the Bulls won every other quarter in Game 2. Just erase the first and they're right in this! If it's a boxing match or a skins game, they win!
Is it Thibodeau's fault for failing to get the players ready to play? Is it the players' fault for getting too complacent after one victory? Was it Cleveland's tactical adjustment of moving Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup over the dumpster fire that was Mike Miller?
It's hard to say, because it feels like this has been happening all damn year. This team has more offensive talent than they've ever had under Thibodeau, and you wonder if that lulls them into a false sense of security. Of course, this is also by far the worst defensive team Thibodeau has coached, so there's no reason to be so self-satisfied when you're giving it back up immediately on the other end.
Either way, it's something to watch for moving forward.
2. Cleveland's role players couldn't miss
Here's another thing we discussed after Game 1: three-point shooting, it's important!
The Bulls had been cooking from three-point range through their first seven playoff games (over 41 percent from deep) that it cratered back to the mean in Game 2. The Bulls hit only 7-of-22 shots from three-point range, good for 31.8 percent. Cleveland, meanwhile, made 12-of-26 three-pointers.
Now, I'm no mathemagician, but 12 minus 7 is 5 and 5 multiplied by 3 is 15 and oh shit the Bulls lost by 15.
It's one thing if Kyrie Irving is going off the way he did against Portland earlier this season. He's a great offensive player and sometimes you just tip your cap to the other team. But man, when it's Shumpert and Dellavedova and James Jones, it feels even more demoralizing.
Shumpert started 4-for-4 from three in the first quarter and wouldn't hit another one all game. Jones hit 5-of-9 and Dellavedova added two more. LeBron has always been at his best when surrounded by shooters and that proved to be the case again in Game 2. Which leads up to ....
3. It would appear that LeBron is still pretty good
This isn't the same LeBron James that wrecked the Bulls in 2011. That was one of the best players in NBA history; the man in front of the Bulls this time around is increasingly mortal -- he's merely one of the best players in the NBA today. That's a sizable difference, but let's not kid ourselves into thinking LeBron is unable to take over and impose his will on a game in 2015. He's only 30, and he did it last night.
You could have guessed the game was over when LeBron hit a running skyhook for his first basket of the game. This shot is way tougher than it looks:
Good luck stopping that, and good luck stopping LeBron when he's locked in like he was in Game 2.
There were plenty of little things that went into giving Cleveland the victory last night, but nothing was as important as LeBron playing like the best player in the world. If this is the version of LeBron that keeps showing up, the Bulls are going to struggle to win this series.
4. Tristan Thompson offensive boards will be the leading cause of death in Chicago
Naturally, that possession ended in a back-breaking James Jones corner three, as if there was any other way for it to end.
Thompson was credited with six offensive rebounds in the box score, but it felt like he had a handful of tip-outs as well and likely weren't counted as such.
Ever since Thompson owned the Bulls with 12 offensive rebounds in the second game of the season, we knew his presence could be a problem in a potential playoff series. It's his one elite NBA-level skill for a guy who was the fourth pick in the 2011 draft (ahead of Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler), but he is damn good at it.
I'll let my dude Caleb do the talking here:
All I ask from the Bulls tonight is that they fucking box out Tristan Thompson.— Caleb Nordgren (@chisportsguy41) February 13, 2015
Box. Tristan. Thompson. The. Fuck. Out.— Caleb Nordgren (@chisportsguy41) May 4, 2015
Box. Tristan. Thompson. Out. How. Hard Is. This.— Caleb Nordgren (@chisportsguy41) May 5, 2015
5. The front court rotation is an issue ... and it's almost certainly going to stay that way
Nikola Mirotic is only going to get on the floor in the last two minutes of the first half. That's the way it's been the first two games, and that's the way it's going to be moving forward. If Tom Thibodeau is going down, he's going down his way. That means no rookies and an ample amount of Kirk Hinrich. So it goes.
If the Bulls had last year's regular season Joakim Noah in this series, I would be a lot more confident they can win. They still have a (good) chance, I think, but it's tough when you're essentially playing 4-on-5 offensively for 37 minutes a game, as Noah played last night. At least his defense, rebounding and general activity was better than in Game 1, but there still doesn't appear to be a magic cure for what's ailing him moving forward.
The Bulls have a weapon on the bench in Mirotic, but Thibodeau isn't going to unleash him. I've complained about it, you've complained about it, everyone has. We get it. At this point, it doesn't feel like something worth getting publicly bummed out over, because it's not going to change.
If it's Thibodeau's way or the highway, his own stubbornness will decide his fate. Maybe it'll work out, maybe it won't. From this perspective, though, it sure seems awfully silly to run Gasol and Noah into the ground when you have a 24-year-old scorer like Niko rotting on the pine. If he was healthy enough to play 20 minutes in Games 4 and 5 against Milwaukee, he should be healthy enough to play now.