I rarely look forward to a Monday with the same fervor as I have this one. The long layoff between series for the Cavs gave us time to roll through all five stages of grief over Kelly Olynk's clumsy assault on Kevin Love's shoulder and come to grips with the fact that although we all love JR Smith, he can be a bit of a jerk. Finally though, round two is upon us and a new enemy has emerged. Let's take a minute to get to know the team lining up opposite the Cavaliers on Monday night.
It might be harder for me to gauge how good of a head coach Thibodeau is than it is for me to pronounce his last name. There's no doubt he's able to get his teams to play suffocating defense at times and the intensity he brings on the sideline definitely has a carry over effect to his player. Despite suffering through injury after injury, the most significant of which being Derrick Rose's health issues, he's been able to not only make the playoffs year after year in the East, but generally advance out of the first round.
The issue I take with his coaching is that in a league where more teams than ever are realizing the importance of getting their players rest during the regular season, Thibodeau seemingly refuses to do this and that could be a contributing factor to the Bulls consistent injury issues. Noah, Butler, Butler, Dunleavy, and Rose have all missed significant time this season. Luckily for Thibs his roster filled back up near the end of the regular season and he has all the tools at his disposal. The downside is that I'm not sure they're all at 100%.
Noah decided to start trolling Cleveland immediately following the Bulls game six victory over the Bucks. After a history of hating on the city of Cleveland for being boring he added more venom to the vitriol Cavs fans have for him by stating "I never thought I'd say this, but I'm very excited to go to Cleveland". Noah is a classic example of the type of player every other fan base hates, but if your a Bulls fan you love him. He talks trash, back it up by playing his tail off, and often seems to be their emotional leader on the court.
The truth is that Cavs fans should be happy to see him in this series. He's healthy enough to play, but he's been suffering through knee issues and it has shown throughout the season and continued into the playoffs. The Bulls are not nearly as effective as they used to be with Noah on the court and at times he will be a minus for them in this series. That's not something the general NBA collective would have thought headed into this season. The Bulls have trouble pairing him with either Taj Gibson or Pau Gasol because it causes a traffic jam in the paint and stalls their offense. Look for the Cavs to use any minutes Noah plays with any Bulls' big not named Mirotic to give LeBron a breather on defense. LeBron doesn't love to bang in the post, especially on defense, but Noah doesn't offer the Cavs much of a threat on that end nor does he punish the Cavs for playing small.
Rose vs. Irving was supposed to be one of the marquee match ups in the Eastern Conference after Irving showed the NBA what he could do during his rookie season. It never quite came to fruition due to Rose's inability to stay healthy and Irving being mired on a bad Cavaliers team. The two will finally be pitted against each other starting Monday night and their play will go a long way in deciding the series.
The injuries the Bulls have dealt with impeded them from creating any sort of consistent identity on offense. Rose is theoretically the Bulls best offensive player though Jimmy Butler might have a case to be made in that argument. Either way he's where the Bulls will look down the stretch when they need baskets against the Cavs and he can be inconsistent in that regard.
He's shown flashes of being able to get to the rim and finish with that trademark athleticism that originally endeared him to NBA fans, but his jump shot never really evolved to an elite level. If you can tempt Rose into taking threes and mid-range twos the Bulls offense can fall apart. He will have games where he makes a high percentage, but more often then not he won't. He started the Bucks series on fire and the world was ready to announce the official return of the Old Derrick Rose, but whether or not he's really back still remains to be seen.
Thibodeu's latest workhorse is probably the Bulls' best player. If Jimmy Butler could somehow average fifty minutes per game this series then Thibs would make it happen. In many ways he represents the Bulls best chance of beating the Cavs. Players who are picked 30th in NBA draft generally don't enter the league seeing themselves as stars and leaders of their teams. Butler initially gained praise for being an elite role-player, capable of both shooting the three and defending multiple positions, but he's evolved to the point where the Bulls need him to do even more than that and it's a role he isn't completely used to yet. Despite being their leading scorer there are still times where he is too timid on the offensive end, choosing instead to defer to other players when perhaps he is actually their most effective option.
Mike Dunleavy Jr.
Dunleavy is a dirty player and if you liked or were indifferent towards the guy before this series then trust me: that's about to change. He's already drawn the ire of Bucks fans by throwing his arm towards Michael Carter William's throat and I wouldn't be surprised to see him try to wind up JR when he returns.
Regardless, Dunleavy is also a solid basketball player and a key component of what the Bulls will try and do on offense. His three point shooting provides the spacing the Bulls need in order to operate an offense that is light on shooting and though he's not great at putting the ball on the floor his passing at times can make up for that. The Bulls will look to use a combination of him and Mirotic at times if the Cavs are successful in frustrating the Bulls offense when their employing two of their more traditional bigs. He shot .534 from beyond the arc in round one and I'm hoping he'll cool off in time for this matchup with the Cavs.
Pau Gasol is the one Bulls player I actually like. His resemblance to that of a llama probably has something to do with this. Gasol is going through many of the same issues that Dirk is over in Dallas at this point in their careers. They're both extremely skilled seven footers, one of the rarest NBA commodities, and that combination of skill and size makes them capable of contributing for playoff teams, but unfortunately they also move around the basketball court like they have bricks tied to their ankles.
Gasol had a semi-resurgence after leaving the Lakers, but the Bulls traditionally tough defense loses that edge with Gasol in the game. He offers little protection in the paint and if the Cavs go small like expected he won't be able to rotate around the perimeter. Either way the Cavs should be able to feast on him on that end. If they show themselves capable of doing so, Thibodeau will have some tough questions to answer over what bigs he should use.
The Bulls' four main players off the bench are Aaron Brooks, Nikola Mirotic, Tony Snell and Taj Gibson. I won't go too deep on these, but here's the skinny.
I was worried about the Cavs being able to contain a speedy point guard like Brooks in a series, but their ability to handle Isiah Thomas against Boston put that worry to rest. Brooks found limited playing time against the Bucks partially because that is what happens in the playoffs and partially because there was no one he could consistently defend on that team due to their length.
It's tough to call a forward shooting .316% from three a stretch four, but Mirotic is the closest thing to it for Chicago. What lineups Cleveland ultimately employs will go a long way to deciding how much playing time he gets. If the Cavs opt to use the Tristan/Mozgov combo heavily then I could see Mirotic minutes slipping.
If Mirotic's minutes slip then they will end up going to Taj Gibson. Gibson is an old school power forward. He bangs, his range doesn't stretch out to that fancy three point line, and he's got a little scrapiness to him that can make him a pain to play against at times. He's a much better defender than Mirotic and until this season was a mainstay of the Bulls crunch time unit over the infamous Carlos Boozer. I think he poses a better option for Chicago as their main backup big just due to the fact that the Cavs have two of the best players in the league at attacking the rim and without Kevin Love at the Cavs disposal I would suspect taking away drives will be the Bulls main priority in this match-up.
And lastly there's Tony Snell, the Cavs killer. I don't know why or how, but the main gets hot against the Wine and gold. He shot .60% against the Cavs in four games this season while averaging 11.5 points. That is about double his normal total of six points per game. May this trend please not continue or Twitter will be full of Cavs fans asking "What the Snell?"
Ding-Ding, Round 2
The Cavs have their work cut out for them with JR serving the first of his two game suspensions. Tons of guesses have been made as to who will play and where, but the truth is that it is still up in the air. One of, if not all, Mike Miller, James Jones, and Shawn Marion will get a chance to shine for the Cavs. Hopefully one of them will be able to turn back the clock for a game to help the Cavs at least split the opening two games of this series.
Seeing as how the Cavs have both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the two best players in this series, I don't see that being an issue.