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Bulls vs. Cavs Game 3 Preview: Living on the Line

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The NBA Playoffs: where free throws are free, except where they aren't.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In Game 2 of the Bulls-Cavaliers second round series, the Cavs responded to Game 1's loss with a dominating start to their 106-91 win to tie the seven-game series 1-1.

LeBron James led the Cavs to a 38-18 lead going into the second quarter with 14 early points on 5-for-7 shooting, despite no threes. James followed up his two free throw attempts from the entirety of the first game with aggression that got him going 4-for-5 at the line in that quarter.

The Bulls outscored the Cavs in each of the remaining three quarters, but like the Cavs in Game 1, the Bulls never had a lead in Game 2 after a first quarter from which they were completely unable to recover. After the first, Chicago could never get within 11 points.

Winning Game 1 in Cleveland did swing homecourt advantage to the Bulls, though, as three of the five remaining games in the series will be played in Chicago, starting with Game 3 on Friday evening at 7:00 p.m. CST on ESPN.

Jimmy Butler played an excellent Game 1, in which he had no fouls, but LeBron hit the gas in Game 2 to force the issue and was rewarded for it. Derrick Rose is struggling to get rewarded for his aggression.

Butler gets to the line at one of the highest rates in the league, yet he didn't get to the line at all in the second half when the Bulls were, theoretically, on a mission to come back in the game. Rose still hasn't had a trip to the line in the series, while his counterpart, Kyrie Irving, has had 21. Tom Thibodeau found a diplomatic way to get snippy about it:

In a light-hearted moment, Thibodeau made a reporter repeat a question three times about Rose not getting to the line yet. Finally, Thibodeau said, "thank you."

This is no small issue. Not only are free throws the highest percentage method of getting points on the board, but the time provides a breather for the maximum effort required to combat LeBron. Most important, many shots will be missed and many plays will get broken; free throws best compensate for those failed offensive possessions even more than simply playing better defense.

Rose only had 4.4 free throw attempts per 36 minutes in the regular season, but the Bulls were 9-2 in games where Rose had six or more shots at the charity stripe; 21-14 when he had four or fewer.

On the other side of Game 2, LeBron went 7-for-9 at the line to lead his team in the blowout, but that pales in comparison to Irving's 10-for-12 free money. The Bulls committed only 20 fouls to the Cavs 23, but the Cavs had four more trips to the line.

There really is not a formula for the Bulls to win away from the free throw line. Their defense will have to prevent points without egregious fouling. And they will have to break the Cavs down into committing shooting fouls.

J.R. Smith will be returning to the Cavs starting lineup, as another shooting option for LeBron. Iman Shumpert (who's a game-time decision tonight with the groin injury suffered in game two) pretty much nailed the role of Smith, by knocking down eight threes in the first two games. The Cavs are one of the better three-point shooting in the league and hit over ten per game this season. They hit 12 in Game 2 in only 26 tries, which is not sustainable, but that overall volume will go up with Smith if the Bulls collapse more effectively on LeBron.

The Cavs had the fifth-highest three-point percentage over the second-highest rate of three-point attempts for the season. Smith hit 39% of his threes after joining the Cavs, mid-season. His usage was well under 20%, but the recovery to Smith will be crucial toward the Bulls getting rewarded for those efficient efforts on LeBron.

Another game where Taj Gibson plays nine fewer minutes than Joakim Noah is not going to cut it. Have no illusion that Noah will go down to 20 minutes, while Gibson gets 32, but the even 28-minute nights for the two is closer to optimal than the status quo provided by Game 2. The Bulls defense cannot afford to be without Gibson on the floor where he is their best option to provide interior help. And the Bulls can neither afford Noah's flat-footed-ness on defense nor the 5-on-4 advantage he grants the Cavs defense when the Bulls have possession.

More playing time for Nikola Mirotic or Tony Snell in Game 2 would have changed nothing. And there is  much reason to be entirely sure that more time for either would do more in Game 3 and those which follow. But the ways in which Noah has become a liability, coupled with opposing the best player on the planet, calls for the far more capable Gibson.

Butler and Rose will definitely look to couple for a 1-2 punch that punishes the Cavs for overemphasizing an improvement on covering Pau Gasol on the pick-n-pop, as they succeeded to do in the first round. If the Bulls can continuously punish the Cavs for either not collapsing on Rose's penetration or leaving Gasol or Mike Dunleavy open or a cutting lane for Butler when they do collapse, the turnovers will stay high and the results will remain the same.

Free points don't come by accident. They are gifts which the Bulls must force the Cavs to give them, instead of the other way around.

Stats via Basketball-Reference.com.