The Bulls took down the defending champions in the United Center Friday night at the United Center, 118-108. Well, it wasn’t exactly the same Cavaliers team that came back from a 3-1 series deficit to dethrone the Warriors last June. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Iman Shumpert were all healthy scratches as Tyron Lue elected to give the fringe guys on the roster the chance to play.
The Cavalier scrubs badly outworked the Bulls starting unit in the first period, scoring 35 points and surrendering just 26. The Bulls did not match the intensity or energy of the Cavs who were trying to prove they belong in the NBA. Nobody on the Bulls was interested closing out on shooters and the Cavaliers took advantage, making 10 of their 25 shots beyond the arc.
The Bulls could not find any rhythm offensively with their starting group of Rondo, Wade, Gibson, Lopez and Doug McDermott, who filled in for the resting Jimmy Butler. The lack of shooting on the court made driving to the hoop an impossible task, and many possessions had the a “your turn, my turn” element with Wade and Rondo reminiscent of the Butler and Rose situation from a year ago.
As soon as the Bulls sent Rondo to the bench in favor or Isaiah Canaan and brought in Nikola Mirotic midway through the first quarter, good things started happening on offense. With shooters around him, Wade was able to show off his diverse skill set, slicing to the rim off cuts and drives, and finding his teammates with creative passes in the pick and roll. Wade scored just 11 points on 4/12 shooting in his 23 minutes, but he assisted five baskets, grabbed six rebounds and led all starters in +/-.
Rondo stuffed the stat sheet in his team high 29 minutes of action. He led the team in scoring with 20 points on an efficient 9/14 from the field, grabbed six rebounds and dished six dimes. Rondo was fearless driving to the basket, and was able to use a variety of moves to beat his man. Several times he used an explosive first step to blow past the defender and finish in traffic. When pure speed wasn’t enough, he showed off a variety of hesitation dribbles and the patented behind the back pass to nowhere to fool the defense.
Rondo even did some damage from three point range, making two of his three attempts. It is so crucial for Rondo to just take threes, let alone make them. It was nice to see he became more aggressive shooting after this disastrous non-shot in the first half.
Despite the positive statistical contributions, the Bulls were -4 in Rondo’s time on the court. Rondo turned the ball over six times and played frustrating defense. Several times, Rondo got himself out of position in pick and roll defense by reaching for steals. Once behind the play, Rondo would lazily switch onto the much taller screener and bad things would ensue.
Taj Gibson and Robin Lopez combined for 13 offensive rebounds and showed how the Bulls offense can stay afloat when they share the court. Both of these players are just so intelligent when it comes to positioning themselves down low. As soon as their man goes to seal off the driving lane, Lopez or Gibson would clear out the area under the hoop so that if the layup attempt missed, they were there to clean up the mess. Taj posted a double-double - 18 points and 11 boards. Lopez finished with 11 points and nine rebounds, seven of which came on offense.
Robin Lopez is an intelligent defender, but his limited athleticism was attacked by the Cavaliers in an interesting way. When Lopez’s man went to set a pick for the ball handler, he often did so a few steps beyond the three point arc. Lopez is not comfortable coming out beyond the free throw line in pick and roll defense, surrendering tons of open space. The math says that defenses should concede mid-range jumpers, but against better competition those shots are essentially layups when given all that space. On nights Rondo doesn’t feel like fighting through screens, this is going to be a huge problem.
Paul Zipser had himself a game! The German rookie took advantage of Butler’s rest day and Tony Snell’s sprained ankle, scoring 18 points on 77.8% shooting. Zipser knocked down two of his four three point attempts and hit some tough shots off the dribble. He also had a pair of blocked shots that came off weak side help.
Most of the excitement occurred in the fourth quarter against a pure garbage Cavaliers lineup, but it was still more impressive than anything I’ve seen from Tony Snell.
Finally, I want to make one Cavaliers observation. When Mo Williams retired before training camp, it seemed like the Cavaliers had a huge question mark at backup point guard. Kyrie Irving is not the most durable guy, and suddenly second round pick Kay Felder was the only other point guard on the roster. Felder impressed tonight, with 14 points, seven assists and three rebounds. He had a couple of surprising athletic plays throughout the game and seemed totally capable of facilitating the offense. If Felder is ready to shoulder a big role right away, the Cavaliers will be even more dominant this season than expected.