After a week of preparation and some much needed rest, the Cleveland Cavaliers return to the court on Monday night to begin round two of the 2015 NBA playoffs against a very familiar opponent, the central division rival Chicago Bulls.
The Cavaliers advanced to the eastern conference semifinals with a sweep of the Boston Celtics. The Bulls needed six games to eliminate the Milwaukee Bucks.
This is a matchup NBA basketball fans wanted to see in the playoffs this year, however most people thought this matchup would take place in the eastern conference finals and not the semifinals. Nevertheless, this is expected to be a very physical and emotional series for both teams. The Cavaliers took three of the four regular season meetings. The Bulls lone win came at the United Center back in February. The Cavaliers must protect home court and win at least one game in Chicago if they want to advance past the Bulls.
Before the playoffs started most experts felt the Cavaliers were the team to beat in the eastern conference and perhaps in the entire NBA playoffs depending on who comes out of the west. That may have changed one week ago when the wine and gold lost power forward Kevin Love for the remainder of the playoffs with a dislocated left shoulder. In the meantime, the Bulls, who battled through a lot of injuries during the regular season, enter this matchup as healthy as they have been all season long.
Should the Bulls now be considered the favorite to win this series and advance to the eastern conference finals against either the Washington Wizards or Atlanta Hawks? Well let’s breakdown the matchup position by position.
The NBA has become a point guard driven league. This season features two of the best the league has to offer in Kyrie Irving for the Cavaliers and Derrick Rose for the Bulls. Irving handled the pressure of his first NBA playoff series very well. Kyrie averaged 23 points, five rebounds and four assists in the series against the Celtics and shot 48 percent from the three point line. Rose average 19 points and six and half assists in the series win over Milwaukee. Conditioning will be a factor for Rose as he still continues to recover from his most recent knee injury that sidelined him for a good amount of the last two months of the regular season. The more days off Rose had between games in the Bucks series, the better Rose played. That won’t be an option in this series as there is just one day off between games unless a game seven is necessary. There is two days in between games six and seven of the series. Advantage in my opinion goes to Kyrie Irving but a consistent Rose will make this a real exciting matchup to watch all series long.
This will be tough to predict because the matchup were really looking forward too won’t take place until game three because of the two game suspension to J.R. Smith. Cavaliers fans are wondering who will head coach David Blatt will insert into the starting lineup on Monday and Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena in Smith’s place. Will Blatt go with one of playoff veterans Shawn Marion or Mike Miller or will the defensive specialist (and Chicago native) Iman Shumpert see more minutes. No matter who starts at the two guard for the Cavaliers, they will have a tough test in trying to stop Jimmy Butler. It’s been a career year for the Bulls shooting guard. He made his first All-Star appearance and has played his way into a nice new contract in the offseason, whether if he remains in Chicago or not. Butler has the ability to both knock down open shots from the outside and drive into the lane and score down low. Now matter who is battling Butler, they have to contain him or it could be a long series if his shot is falling. Once Smith returns for game three, his focus has to be at both ends of the floor not just shooting three pointers. Advantage goes to Butler.
This should be a no brainer because the Cavaliers have who many believe is the best basketball player on the planet, LeBron James. Of course I feel the same way, but will LeBron start at small forward for this series, maybe or maybe not. Here’s where the Cavaliers will start to feel the effects of Kevin Love not being available. James may have to move down to the starting power forward position and Blatt may have to start either Marion or James Jones in LeBron’s normal position. That will be interesting to see come Monday night. The Bulls feature veteran Mike Dunleavy at the three position. Dunleavy will play in game one on Monday night after avoiding a suspension following a hard foul in game six of the Milwaukee series. Dunleavy is either hot or cold as a player. If his shot is falling, Dunleavy can score 30 points with ease, if not he can be a real liability on the floor. Advantage goes to LeBron and the Cavaliers.
Here is where the series could be won or lost for either team. The Bulls feature three very talented players at this position in Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic. Even if Love was healthy this was still going to be a difficult matchup. The Cavaliers need to find away to stretch the floor and get these guys away from the basket so James and Irving can have driving lanes to score in the paint. The Cavaliers also need to be aware of the shooting abilities of both Gasol and Mirotic from the outside. If either guy is hitting jumpers from outside the lane that could be a big problem as the series goes on. Tristan Thompson is expected to see more playing time because of Love’s injury, but I have to believe Blatt will keep Thompson in his bench role and not insert him into the starting lineup. Thompson has to be careful with fouls. Thompson can be foul prone. If he gets into early foul trouble, it will make Blatt have to make so very tough decisions with his rotations. Advantage goes to the Bulls.
Here’s another matchup to keep your eyes on, and not just for how either Timofey Mozagov and Joakim Noah are playing. This matchup could become a battle of words just as much as a battle of points rebounds and blocked shots. Everybody in Cleveland and Chicago knows that Noah isn’t afraid to express his feelings, especially in regards to the city that is the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Let’s just say Noah could think of a lot of other places he would like to spend his time other than Cleveland. Well to bad Noah, you have to spend at least three days here along the shores of Lake Erie. Following the last meeting of the regular season between the two teams last month, Noah made it clear that he wanted to see the Cavaliers in the playoffs and he feels they will be Cleveland. Well be careful what you wish for Noah, you got the matchup but you may not get the series win. Noah and Mozgov won’t score a lot of points but both should put up decent rebounding numbers and block some shots. Mozgov has to do his part and not let Noah rack up a lot of assists. Also Mozgov can’t get into a war of words with Noah, just let your game do the talking. Advantage, flip a coin.
The Cavaliers have to get more point production from the bench in this series in my mind. You should see more members of the bench getting some minutes, especially in the first two games with the absence of Smith. A guy who could be a key in this series is Mike Miller. He has shown the ability to come into a game cold and heat it up shooting the three ball. I also believe you get to see more of Kendrick Perkins in this season just to provide a little extra size down low against the Bulls big men and act like a bully just like he did when he set the hard screen on Jae Crowder of the Celtics in game four. That’s exactly the reason the Cavs got him after the trade deadline. The Bulls bench can be very inconsistent. Along with Gibson and Mirotic up front, expect the majority of the bench minutes going to Aaron Brooks as Rose’s replacement at the point and Tony Snell at the two and three spots for Butler and Dunleavy. Advantage, take your pick. The Bulls have more scoring off the bench, the Cavaliers have more playoff experience off the bench.
David Blatt did a good job in coaching his first playoff series as an NBA head coach, but Tom Thibodeau has more playoff head coaching experience in this league. Blatt has dealt with pressure all season long as the head man here in Cleveland, but Thibodeau could be under the most pressure in this series as his job could be on the line if his Bulls don’t advance past Cleveland. Blatt does bring championship experience from his days coaching overseas, Thibodeau has four years of NBA playoff coaching experience. Advantage, once again flip a coin.
This is a very interesting matchup because of the Love factor. How will the Cavaliers play without the third member of the current ‘Big Three.’ There have been times the Cavaliers played well without Love, but they still had a losing record in the games Love didn’t play. As I mentioned earlier, the Bulls enter the series at full strength and that is very important this time of year. However, the Cavaliers feature the two best players in this series in James and Irving. Both will step up and pick up the slack for the loss of Love for the series and Smith for the first two games. This will be a battle but the Cavaliers will advance in six games.