The Cleveland Cavaliers began the 2009 playoffs by sweeping the Detroit Pistons, a Central Division rival who they had faced in two competitive playoff series in 2006 and 2007; this year, the Cavs’ postseason journey also starts with a battle against a Central Division foe—the Chicago Bulls, a franchise that tormented the Cavs by eliminating Cleveland from the playoffs five times between 1988 and 1994. Chicago eked out a pair of 3-2 triumphs in 1988 and 1989 but by the end of that era the Bulls were clearly superior, sweeping the Cavs 4-0 in 1993 and beating the Cavs 3-0 in 1994 even though Michael Jordan had become a Birmingham Barons outfielder. For any longtime NBA fan who vividly remembers watching Jordan, Scottie Pippen and company battle against Mark Price, Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance and Craig Ehlo it is hard to believe that more than 15 years have passed since the last time these franchises faced each other in postseason play.
Cleveland and Chicago split their 2009-10 regular season series 2-2 but that is a very misleading statistic; the Bulls’ first win happened during Cleveland’s sixth game of the season when the 3-3 Cavs had not yet found their rhythm and the Bulls’ second win took place last week with LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and Delonte West sitting out the whole game and Antawn Jamison on the bench down the stretch for precautionary reasons after he tweaked his ankle: it is quite telling that the Bulls—who desperately needed the victory as they battled the Toronto Raptors for the final playoff spot—struggled to beat the shorthanded Cavs 109-108. Sandwiched between those two losses, the Cavs routed the Bulls in December and then defeated the Bulls in Chicago in March despite being without the services of O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
The reality is that a series between Cleveland’s second unit and Chicago’s first unit would be pretty competitive but a series between Cleveland’s All-Star studded lineup versus a Chicago squad that has the worst record among the league’s 16 playoff teams (41-41) is a serious mismatch; the Cavs have five current or former All-Stars—LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Antawn Jamison, Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas—four of whom made the squad within the past two years. The Cavs are too big, too talented and too deep for the Bulls.
What about the way that last year’s 41-41 Bulls pushed the then-defending NBA Champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round? There are several important differences to keep in mind: (1) The Celtics’ frontcourt was severely depleted compared to the unit they deployed during their championship season, as Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe were out due to injuries while James Posey and P.J. Brown were no longer members of the team; (2) the Bulls received significant contributions from Ben Gordon (a team-high 24.3 ppg versus Boston in the playoffs) and John Salmons (18.1 ppg versus Boston in the playoffs), neither of whom are on the roster now; (3) the Celtics had trouble dealing with the Bulls’ youth and athleticism but this year’s Cavs can counter by either going small to nullify those advantages or else by using big lineups to overpower the Bulls in the paint.
The Bulls’ best player is 2009 Rookie of the Year/2010 All-Star Derrick Rose, a dynamic and explosive point guard. Rose led the Bulls in scoring (20.8 ppg) and assists (6.0 apg) this season and he performed extremely well down the stretch, averaging 25.4 ppg and 7.0 apg as Chicago went 6-2 in April to overtake Toronto in the standings. However, he is not a three point threat (16-60, .267) and his midrange jumper is improving but is not yet a consistent weapon; think of Rose as a much smaller and less deadly version of LeBron James circa 2007: Rose is great in the open court and a powerful finisher at the hoop but Cleveland’s defense is designed to wall off the paint, deny middle penetration and force the opposing team to make contested jump shots. Rose averaged 17.0 ppg on .438 field goal shooting (well below his overall field goal percentage of .489) in three games versus Cleveland this season.
The Bulls’ second leading scorer is Luol Deng (17.6 ppg), an injury prone small forward who seemingly had a breakout season in 2006-07 but has been regressing ever since; injuries kept Deng out of the Boston series last year but even if he plays well he cannot make up for the scoring that Gordon and Salmons provided. The Bulls struggle offensively because they have no postup game and because Rose is the only player they have who can consistently create a shot for himself or his teammates. The combination of Chicago’s offensive woes and Cleveland’s strong defense means that it will be difficult for the Bulls to score 85 points per game in this series.
Joakim Noah (10.7 ppg, 11.0 rpg) could be an X factor for the Bulls because of his frenetic style of play but the Cavs can wear him down early in the game by posting up O’Neal and then later on they can counter with their own energy guys, Anderson Varejao and J.J. Hickson.
There are only two possible concerns for the Cavs about this series (other than the obvious, namely an injury to LeBron James): (1) Shaquille O’Neal has been out of the lineup since February 25 and the only times that the Cavaliers have struggled this season (not counting the de facto practice games that they have played for the past week or so) have been when the rotation underwent significant changes (first at the very start of the season when the Cavs adjusted to having two new starters and then again right after the Jamison trade); (2) all of the “resting” that the Cavs have been doing recently means that some players will have to get readjusted to going back to their normal amount of minutes/shot attempts. It had originally been suggested that O’Neal might not return until the Conference Finals, so the Cavs are actually fortunate that they can get the adjustment period out of the way against an inferior opponent that likely is not equipped to exploit any slight slippage that the Cavs may experience in game one.
The Cavs certainly enjoy enough matchup advantages to be able to sweep the Bulls but keep in mind that there have only been seven 4-0 sweeps in the NBA playoffs in the past four years. The Cavs have authored three of them (Washington in 2007, Detroit and Atlanta in 2009) and been on the wrong end of one of them (San Antonio in the 2007 NBA Finals). I expect the Cavs to sweep the Bulls but would not be shocked if the Bulls win in Chicago to extend the series to five games.