The Cleveland Cavaliers cruised to a 76-66 third quarter lead and didn't look back, clinching home court for the duration of the Eastern Conference Playoffs and eliminating the Chicago Bulls from playoff contention. Thank goodness too, because a 1-8 matchup with the Bulls would be a bit of a nightmare for the Cavaliers. They are 1-2 against Chicago before tonight and had a difficult time against the Bulls in the playoffs last season. Except none of that happened. The Bulls went on an 11-3 run at the end of the third quarter, a 15-2 run to start the fourth quarter, and defeated the Cavaliers, 105-102
Despite the 13-point fourth quarter deficit, the Cavaliers kept the game close late. After a loose ball foul, J.R. Smith intentionally missed a second free throw with eight seconds remaining, but fell out of bounds on a rebound and attempted assist to Matthew Dellavedova for the game-winning shot. A Pau Gasol missed free throw gave the Cavaliers one last shot with 1.6-seconds remaining, but Smith's attempt was blocked to seal a Bulls win.
The real story here lies with the Cavaliers bench failure to keep a ten point lead in the second half. The Cavs bench was outscored by the Bulls bench 44-11. A second unit led by Kyrie Irving, Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, and Timofey Mozgov was -12 on the game in just about 6.5 minutes. It's an interesting idea to give Irving the reigns of the second unit, but the lineup has seen just 14 minutes this season before tonight and lacked the defensive effort at the start of the second and fourth quarters, opening up big runs for the Bulls. Irving's team-high eight assists, along with 11 points on 29.4 percent shooting was a mixed bag of both promising team basketball with the starting unit and poor shooting with a the back-ups.
The loss is certainly a shame given the starting unit played so well. Kevin Love had an impressive crossover against Nicola Mirotic and two-handed dunk over Gasol in a three-point play in the second quarter that excited LeBron James and Smith. Love had 20 points and 13 rebounds. Smith had seven three-point field goals on 14 attempts for 24 points, six rebounds, and four assists. James had a game-high 33 points, and was 4-5 from behind the arc, well above the season average.
Meanwhile, the Bulls held off elimination for one more game. Butler led the team with 21 points and six assists. He was largely helped by Brazilian power forward Cristiano Felicio in just his 29th career game. He led the bench with 16 points, a perfect seven-of-seven from the field and two-for-two at the free throw line. The Bulls are now 40-40 on the season, back at .500. The Bulls will need help from the Brooklyn Nets against the Pacers tomorrow to keep their playoff hopes alive. And the Cavaliers at 56-24 are still in first place in the East. The magic number to eliminate a 1-8 playoff matchup with the Bulls is still just one, something the Cavaliers would be happy to avoid.