Of the course of NBA playoff history, when the home team wins game one of a series, they win the series 85% of the time. The number isn't even all that biased to lopsided round one matchups as the rule holds for 88% of the time in the second round as well, and even in further rounds never dips below 78.4%.
That means if the Bulls want a shot at this thing, they'd better take game one. Cleveland has been dominant at home since the all-star break which poses a real problem for Chicago. You see, the Bulls don't have much of a home court advantage.
Perhaps the past three seasons have taken their toll on Bulls fans. Perhaps the expensive tickets cater to an old corporate crowd less likely to go crazy. Perhaps the United Center's size simply makes it more difficult to fill with noise than other stadiums.
Whatever the reason is, I don't think the Bulls are going to go 3-0 at home against the Cavs. That means, in my opinion, the Bulls need to take two games in Cleveland. There's no better place to start with that task than game one.
The Cavs, as we all know, will be missing J.R. Smith for the first two games of the series. They'll be playing a very shallow roster or going deep into a bench that's been relatively unused recently. Either scenario should give the Bulls an edge.
I also like the fact the Bulls played up through Thursday. Some pundits are discussing how the lack of a week off might hurt Chicago in the long run as they might get too worn out, but frequently it feels like a week off messes with a team's timing and game readiness.
The Bulls still had three days off between the Milwaukee close out game and tonight's game against the Cavaliers which is an extended break when it comes to an NBA schedule. The Cavs have been sitting for eight days and could show some rust.
The importance of game one can't be overstated, and so Chicago had better be prepared. Chris Paul finally exercised his demons by defeating the Spurs. It's time for the Bulls to do the same thing with LeBron.
Bigs need to dominate
The Chicago Bulls will be bringing Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic up against Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson, and Kendrick Perkins. This should be an area of total domination for Chicago on paper.
The problem is that I don't think it becomes an area of total domination on the hardwood, and if it doesn't then the Bulls will have little chance at this series. Noah has effectively become Kendrick Perkins with better passing while Mirotic struggled mightily in the playoffs.
Pau Gasol didn't have a great series against Milwaukee either though he did finish strong. The matchup of Pau against a legit big like Mozgov will be interesting to watch.
The Bulls were killed by Milwaukee's hustle and athleticism on defense despite their lack of size. I don't know that Perkins/Mozgov do the same thing in terms of forcing turnovers. In fact, Milwaukee may have been a great warm up for Chicago's offense as they were 3rd in defensive rating vs the Cavaliers 18th.
Can Rose hold his own with Irving?
Early in the season I would have said Rose needs to dominate Irving, but I don't think Chicago needs that any more. I think they need Rose to simply hold his own. He'll have a much easier time of it than against Michael Carter Williams that's for sure.
Williams was able to disrupt Rose with his athleticism, size, and length. Irving, not known as a defender, has plenty of athleticism but lacks size and length. When Derrick makes his way past Irving, the interior of the paint promises to be softer as well.
Milwuakee played with a heavy collapsing, athletic presence on the court. Outside of LeBron James and perhaps Tristan Thompson, the rest of the Cavaliers don't look like mobile guys that will come in and play superior help defense. This should allow a greater conversion percentage for Rose (and Butler for that matter)
I expect we see a more dangerous Derrick Rose because of it. Derrick also frequently seems to get up and play at his best against the best PGs in the league. After getting left off the all-star team for Irving, I think this match up becomes even more personal for him which could end up as good (if he is aggressively driving) or bad (if he tries to play the hero with the three ball) for Chicago.
In the first two games, the Cavs will likely play a whole bunch of Iman Shumpert on Rose which will give the Bulls the opportunity to match up someone else on Irving. The Bulls need to figure out the best way to exploit that match up.
Who does LeBron guard?
LeBron's the only really scary defender on the Cavaliers. My money says that he's on Jimmy Butler for most of his minutes. That gives Butler/LeBron a head to head match up which could go a long way towards determining the series.
A big problem for Butler will be that he makes his living at the free throw line and LeBron rarely fouls (or at least is rarely called for them). Butler's kind of a flopper and a flailer and won't likely get many of those calls against LeBron.
If Jimmy can stay anywhere close to LeBron in terms of output then this series will be awfully tough for Cleveland to win, but I just don't see how that happens. I don't think Jimmy's at a point where he can score with efficiency on LeBron if LeBron brings out his best defense and no one stops LeBron.
That doesn't doom the Bulls, but it puts the onus back on Derrick Rose. In 2010, the Bulls lacked a response when LeBron guarded Rose. I don't think the Cavs have that luxury this year as there's no one else to guard Butler. However, it does mean that Rose might have to score at will against Iman Shumpert, hopefully he's up to the task.
Do the Bulls X-Factors show up?
Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic struggled against Miami. These are the guys who can give the Bulls some really dangerous offensive punch and punish teams second units.
The real question is whether they can do it in the playoffs now? If the Bulls get good shooting from these two guys the pressure on the Cavs will be enormous. This is especially true given the lack of depth Cleveland will have for at least the first couple of games.
The Bulls are playing for Thibodeau's job
All the hoopla about Tom Thibodeau being fired is kind of silly because it really comes down to this. If the Bulls beat the Cavs then it will be virtually impossible for them to dump him.
This series means to much to Bulls fans.
There would be something amazingly cathartic about finally getting past the Cavs even if it resulted in a ECF loss to Washington or Atlanta.
If Thibodeau can't get past LeBron again then it's open season for management to dump him if they want. It will be easy to say that they need to go in another direction if this team projected as a potential top seed in the east can't get to the ECF.
The 50 wins wasn't all that impressive, and it's not hard to make the case that Jason Kidd outcoached Thibs in round one or that Thibs has not been a good playoff coach overall.
Whether you buy into those arguments or not is another factor, but the short story is this series determines Thibodeau's fate IMO.
I predict the Cavs in six
I'd love to pick the Bulls, but I just can't.
1: The better team usually wins and the Cavs were definitely the better team. It's hard to gauge if they still are with Kevin Love out, but Love wasn't having a great season for them, so I think they still are.
2: The team with the better player usually wins. That's obviously the Cavaliers as LeBron is still probably the best in the world, and the Bulls aren't packing a top five player that's in his neighborhood like some other teams in the west.
I will hope for the best, and I think the Bulls are probably have around a 40% shot at taking the series, so while I think the Cavs win, I think Chicago has a legitimate shot to prove me wrong.
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