The Cavaliers didn't win many fans by resting LeBron James for the last four games of the regular season, but in doing so, Cleveland should be fresh for its first-round series against Chicago. The Bulls, meanwhile, had to play balls-out all the way to the final quarter of their season, when a win over Charlotte on the season's final night preserved a one-game advantage over Toronto for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
There's two easy storylines here. The Cavaliers, who will also be re-introducing Shaquille O'Neal to their lineup, will be rusty, while the Bulls will sharp after a couple of weeks of playing de facto playoff basketball. The other line of thinking is that Cleveland will be rested and Chicago will be exhausted. Neither is likely to be the case. Given that both teams will have their rosters intact for the postseason, it's better to look at the bigger picture. There, we see that Cleveland won 20 more games than Chicago and, thus, enter the series as a prohibitive favorite.
Last season, the Bulls took Boston to seven games in a thrilling first-round series. Chicago was a six-seed in that matchup despite finishing with the same 41-41 record that they posted this season. Like last year, the Bulls finished the regular season with a flurry. Last season, Chicago was seven games under .500 on March 3, but finished with a 14-7 dash. That team was buoyed by a deadline deal that added Brad Miller and John Salmons from Sacramento. This year's team was crippled by injuries after the break and suffered a 10-game game losing streak that dropped them to 30-37. The depth problems caused by the injuries were exacerbated by more deadline dealing, which sent Salmons and Tyrus Thomas out of town. However, the Bulls recovered to finish 11-4 down the stretch. In fact, if you discount the losing streak and the team's 10-17 start because of injury problems (a nasty bit of cherry picking), you see that when coach Vinny Del Negro had his full roster healthy, he was 31-14. So the Bulls may again prove to be a dangerous first-round opponent.
None of that may matter against the powerful Cavaliers, whose biggest enemy could be the bad karma emanating from all the fans they disappointed by not playing James down the stretch. That includes fans in Chicago, which was one of the four teams James sat out against. However, those disappointed fans did get to see their team win a game that, if lost, would have kept the Bulls out of the playoffs. Chicago beat the Jamesless Cavs 109-108 that night. If that's any indication of the talent-plus-experience gap between the teams, this may be a series that seems long to the Bulls because of its inevitable brevity.
WHEN THE CAVALIERS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 89.1 (25th NBA)
Cleveland's Offensive Rating: 114.3 (3rd)
Chicago's Defensive Rating: 107.6(10th)
The Bulls split the regular-season series with Cleveland as each team won two games. Of course, one of Chicago's wins was without James in the lineup; the other was in Cleveland early in the season when the Cavs were sluggishly trying to get its new rotation in order.
In aggregate, the regular-season matchups were defensive-slanted contests played at Cleveland's preferred pace. James averaged 25.7 points against the Bulls and was a little less efficient than he was against the rest of the league. Chicago was the league's third best shot-blocking team and does a good job of closing down the lane when Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson play in tandem. Chicago is a solid defensive rebounding team (8th in the league), while Cleveland doesn't really crash the offensive glass. So if the Bulls can force Cleveland into jump shots and seal off the glass, they have a chance to keep the Cavs offense to an average level of efficiency. They actually did a little better than that during the regular season.
Chicago's Luol Deng has the length to bother James' outside shot, though he has neither the lateral quickness nor the strength to keep him out of the lane. No one does. Deng will try to force James into the teeth in the defense and hope he kicks it out to a jump shooter. Then it'll be up to Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Flip Murray to scramble and contest Cleveland's looks.
The Cavs do a great job of spacing the floor and use a lot of high sets, meaning that the ballhandler is out top, with the other four players working above the foul line. When James works off a pick, the Cavs' big men do a good job of cutting to the basket and working the baseline after the play develops. J.J. Hickson is particularly adept at this. O'Neal can clog the lane at times and it's likely he'll see just around 20 minutes per game in this series. This wasn't the matchup he was signed for. In most matchups, the Cleveland offense runs better with floor spacers like Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Antawn Jamison. That leaves the middle open for James to operate and it'll force the Bulls' interior defenders out of their comfort zone.
Two key individual matchups to keep an eye out for on this end of the floor. Chicago's Kirk Hinrich is known as one of the league's better on-ball defenders, but it's unclear whether Del Negro will put him on Mo Williams the majority of the time. If he doesn't, Hinrich's on-ball skills are a bit wasted going against spot-up guard Anthony Parker. However, if Del Negro puts Hinrich on Williams with the intent of limiting his open looks, then Rose can help on James and play the passing lane, at least until Parker begins to burn them from the perimeter. Also, watch Gibson's matchup with Jamison. Gibson is an excellent interior defender, but has trouble stepping out on the floor against face-up bigs, and Jamison is one of the best.
WHEN THE BULLS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 91.1 (12th NBA)
Chicago's Offensive Rating: 105.8 (28th)
Cleveland's Defensive Rating: 106.5 (7th)
Offense has been a problem for the Bulls all season. Del Negro's Flex offense is ill-suited for Chicago's personnel and, in fact, may not a good offense for the NBA because its too-much system and not-enough exploiting matchups. The predictable screens and curls of the base set results in far too many long two-point jumpers--the most in the league. (Second-most was Washington, which also runs a base Flex offense.) The offense also conspires to keep the ball out of Rose's hands too often and, simplistic as it sounds, the Bulls are only dangerous on the offensive end when Rose is dictating the action.
Chicago has a couple of advantages on this end of the floor, should they elect to use them. The Bulls have more team speed than Cleveland, despite James' transcendent athleticism. Rose is a flash with the ball in his hands and is also at his best as a playmaker in transition. Hinrich, Noah, Gibson and Deng all run the floor very well for their respective positions and that'll be especially true when Cleveland's starting lineup is on the floor. It is imperative that the Bulls push the ball at every opportunity, but Del Negro has been reluctant to play at that kind of furious pace on a consistent basis. It's the best chance to rev up an offense that posted a 103.2 Offensive Rating in its four regular-season games against Cleveland.
In the halfcourt, Del Negro needs to run his base sets sparingly and instead concentrate on getting O'Neal, Jamison and Ilgauskas spread out across the floor, while picking high for Rose and letting him attack the paint. In those sets, Noah can take advantage of all of Cleveland's centers except for Anderson Varejao, who is a similar type of player, by rolling to the basket. Cleveland, like all of Chicago's opponents, will focus on getting Rose to surrender the ball when he gets into the lane. That makes it essential that Hinrich and Murray shoot the ball well in the series. It's also essential that Deng make James work on the defensive end by putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim. If you see a lot of possessions terminating in long Deng jumpers, you'll know Chicago is in trouble.
Del Negro can't forget about Hakim Warrick in this series, either. Warrick runs the floor as well as any big man in the league is also Chicago's best post scorer. Del Negro hasn't given him consistent minutes and in the effort to keep the pace in Chicago's favor, Warrick may play a large role.
The Bulls have been enigmatic all season but, in the end, end up with the same record and same plight as last season--a seemingly impossible first-round matchup. Chicago almost shocked the world last spring and Noah said after the Bulls clinched their spot that they would "try to shock the world again." That benign statement apparently irked James, who no doubt is looking for reasons to be irked. A rested and motivated James is the last thing the Bulls need to see, but that's exactly what they're going to get.
It's tempting to forecast this series as a sweep and it may well turn out that way. Chicago may be able to steal a win in Chicago, but that would require some hot shooting and those kinds of contests have been few and far between for the Bulls this season. Most of these games should be competitive, but it's difficult to envision Chicago winning more than one.
Cavaliers in 5.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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