It’s been an erratic, injury-filled year for Northeast Ohio hoops, but the Cleveland Cavaliers (20–35) are finally approaching full health — and not a moment too soon. The Cavaliers have two games this week against the Central division-rival Chicago Bulls (22–32), and they could end up being two of the most crucial in shaping the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. The first comes tonight at the United Center.
The Cavaliers are currently 2.5 games behind the Bulls for the final play-in spot, and as of today, there’s less than a month remaining in the season. The Cavs are up 1–0 in the season series thanks to a 103–94 win in Chicago on March 24. Winning one or both of this week’s games wouldn’t just inch the Cavs closer in the standings, it would give them the head-to-head tiebreaker. If the Cavs are going to make a push, it has to start here.
How to watch
Tonight’s game tips off at 7 p.m. Find it on NBA League Pass and Bally Sports Ohio.
Cavaliers: Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro, Kevin Love, Jarrett Allen
Bulls: Tomas Satoransky, Garrett Temple, Patrick Williams, Thaddeus Young, Nikola Vucevic
On Thursday, the Cavaliers finally went start to finish with the first five we’ve been longing for since Jarrett Allen arrived. The results were solid — they outscored the Golden State Warriors by six points in 16 minutes in a double-digit loss. That’s not much to go off, but a positive differential in spite of all the cobwebs is a good start.
As for the Bulls, Zach LaVine is out as he goes through the NBA’s health and safety protocols. LaVine has blossomed from an explosive scorer into one of the league’s most lethal and well-rounded offensive forces this year. Here’s hoping he stays healthy and can come back safely as the LaVine who’s lit up scoreboards all year.
Things to look for
- Vucevic, not-quite-fixing the problem. Since Vucevic began wearing red shirts to work, either he or LaVine has been Chicago’s leading scorer in all but one game. Vucevic’s shooting splits since joining the Bulls might singe your eyebrows: 22.5 points per game on 50.8 percent from the field, 45.6 from three, and 87.5 from the line.
But Vooch’s play hasn’t necessarily correlated with team success. After spending most of the year as a league-average outfit, the Bulls’ defense has ranked 25th since the trade deadline. Perhaps that’s because, for all Vucevic’s considerable gifts, he’s never been the most nimble navigator on defense. Sexton is one of the fastest guards in the league, and Garland’s handle grows more obnoxious by the minute. They could put Vucevic in a blender.
- A duel between young stars, kinda, sorta. The fourth and fifth picks in this past year’s draft, both Patrick Williams and Isaac Okoro have been about as-advertised as rookies. But Williams vs. Okoro won’t bring a nation to its knees the way, say, Anthony Edwards vs. LaMelo Ball or Kong vs. Godzilla would; both are averaging fewer than 10 points per game on the year, and neither can shoot atomic heat beams from their mouth without getting called for at least a flagrant 1.
Both players bear similar play styles and job descriptions: play within yourself on offense and hound opposing wings on defense. Okoro seems likely to defend Williams with LaVine out, but the Bulls may opt to hide a weaker defender on Okoro. Should these two match up against each other on both ends, it could make for a fun-if-not-quite-nuclear battle for draft-class bragging rights.