The Cleveland Cavaliers played well last night against the Chicago Bulls in a 107-98 preseason win. The Cavs starters, generally speaking, were better than the Bulls' starters. Derrick Rose went off, but so did Kyrie Irving. The Cavs' frontcourt of Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao performed well in all areas against Chicago's frontcourt of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. Varejao, in particular, was outstanding on the boards and finding teammates for open looks.
Cleveland should take confidence from its performance last night. It responded to a Bulls run at the end of the first half by shooting 64 percent from the field in the third quarter. It wasn't always LeBron leading the charge. Instead it was Irving, who abused Aaron Brooks on his way to 11 points in the quarter.
The Cavs' role players were mostly better than their Chicago counterparts. Dion Waiters' shot wasn't falling early, but he rebounded nicely as the game went on. Cleveland's three main bench players - Tristan Thompson, Shawn Marion and Mike Miller - also played well. Marion, however, did struggle a little when asked to defend Gasol for a stretch in the second quarter. It was a very different look for the Cavs, as the Bulls have historically been able to force Cleveland to play at a slower pace that always favored Chicago.
On paper, the Bulls are the Cavs' only real threat in the East. This is group that can have Love score only nine points and still score 107 points as team against an elite defensive team. And although the Washington Wizards, Miami Heat and others would disagree, an Eastern Conference Finals showdown between these two teams seems inevitable.
But one player who figures to play a big role in said series was missing last night, as he was out with a sprained thumb. That player was Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler.
Over the course of his NBA career, Butler has established himself as perhaps the best player at defending LeBron James man-to-man. At 6'7" and 220 pounds, Butler is an ideal size to defend James. He's also quick enough to defend James in space and is smart enough on defense to know exactly what to do in each offensive situation. For instance, Butler almost always gives James space, but not too much, to limit is effectiveness driving to the basket and doesn't unnecessarily reach and lunge for steals once James starts dribbling.
This allows Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau to leave Butler alone to defend James, as well as give other offensive threats more attention. For instance, take a look at this set from the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. In this series, when Butler defended LeBron, James' offense rating was about five points lower than it was in the 2013 regular season. His efficient field goal percentage and true shooting percentage were also significantly down - 6.6 and 12.2 percent respectively. His 23.6 points per game and 43.8 percent shooting were also his lowest averages of the 2013 playoffs.
As you can see, Butler is all on his own here. Taj Gibson does have his head turned towards James, but he's still very close to his man. Gibson also isn't the person the Bulls would like defending the basket if James gets into the paint. That would be Noah, who is defending Chris Bosh here. This possession, for what it's worth, ended with James taking a long 3-pointer.
Yes, the shot clock was about to expire. But if you go back and watch the tape, LeBron settled for a lot of 3-pointers in this series. That just so happens to be one of the best ways to defend James.
It would be too simple to credit Butler for single handedly slowing down James. Thibodeau is one of the best, if not the best, defensive coach in the NBA and he runs a complex scheme that isn't reliant on one player. The Bulls have Noah as an anchor and have an excellent team defense. But Butler is indisputably a huge part of Chicago's defense and one of the best wing defenders in the league. Tonight, with James primarily defended by Mike Dunleavy Jr., he consistently found open shots and created opportunities for others. He finished 6-11 from the floor.
With Butler on the floor, Thibodeau can orchestrate the Bulls' defense and be even more creative with the four other players on the floor. With Butler not on the floor, David Blatt's job is simpler. It just isn't the same with Dunleavy and others defending LeBron.