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Cavs Will Battle Bulls in the Playoffs for the First Time Since the Michael Jordan Era

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.

Numbers Adding Up Quite Nicely for the Cavs

cavaliers_pregameThe most important number for the Cavs is their league leading 61-13 record, a mark that all but assures that they will have home court advantage throughout this year’s playoffs (barring an unimaginable collapse in the final eight games). However, there are some other numbers that are also quite impressive and that bode well for the team as LeBron James and company attempt to reach the NBA Finals for the second time in three years and try to win the franchise’s first championship (not to mention Cleveland’s first major professional sports title since the Browns ruled the NFL in 1964).The Cavs own a 36-1 home record, so if they win their last four games at the Q they will tie the mark for the best home record in NBA history, set by the NBA Champion Boston Celtics in 1986. In those 37 home games, the Cavs have outscored their opponents by 14.3 ppg and held them to .414 field goal shooting. Although some pundits question Cleveland’s ability to win on the road in the playoffs-they apparently are unaware of LeBron James’ game five exploits versus Detroit in 2007 or the fact that in the past three years the Cavs have won 10 road playoff games-the Cavs own the league’s third best road record (25-12), ranking just behind the Lakers and Magic in that category. The Cavs are certainly capable of winning at least one road game in any playoff series, which would mean that their opponents would then have to beat the Cavs twice at the Q in order to advance.

The Lakers held the top spot in the NBA for longer than any other team this season but the Cavs roared past them by going 16-1 in March, tying the league record for most wins in a calendar month. The Cavs are currently riding a 13 game winning streak, the longest in franchise history. While the Cavs are peaking heading into the playoffs, last year’s NBA Finalists are not doing nearly as well. The Lakers went 10-5 in March, though to be fair it must be noted that they played 11 games on the road, closing out the month with the first six games of a season-long seven game East Coast swing. The injury-riddled Celtics went 9-7 in March; it is not clear when defensive anchor Kevin Garnett will be fully healthy and the Celtics hardly strengthened their bench by signing point guard Stephon Marbury, who has averaged just 3.2 ppg on .314 field goal shooting since joining the team. Although the Orlando Magic are certainly closing the season on a strong note (12-2 in March, including their current six game winning streak), considering their lack of deep playoff experience it is difficult to believe that they would beat the Cavs in a seven game series.

The Cavs lead the NBA in points allowed (90.9 ppg) and point differential (9.4 ppg) while ranking a close second to the Celtics in defensive field goal percentage (.429). LeBron James attracts a lot of media attention for his scoring and passing-and he fully deserves the praise that he is receiving-but many people are missing the important fact that the Cavs are a dominant defensive team. Of course, James plays a big role in Cleveland’s defense, ranking second on the team in blocked shots and sixth in the league in steals. Those numbers only tell part of the story, though; like many young players, when James first came into the league, he did not understand how to play effective defense either in a one on one sense or from a team defensive standpoint-but now he understands both concepts very well, he accepts the challenge of guarding the other team’s best player on key possessions and he sets a tone that makes it clear to everyone on the team that defense is a top priority. He certainly deserves to be placed on the All-Defensive Team this season.

Last month, I wrote that LeBron James “had a short ‘to do list’ prior to this season.” He has obviously made great strides on defense and he is shooting a career-high .770 from the free throw line. The third item on the list was his perimeter shooting. James is shooting .336 from three point range this year, the second best percentage of his career, but after hovering around the .300 mark until January he shot .400 from long distance in February and .386 in March. At this point, his three point shooting is adequate and certainly seems to be continuing to improve. The one and only weakness remaining in his game is his midrange shot. As I mentioned in the above article, the NBA.com “Hot Spots” charts list red hot, lukewarm and cold zones; James’ only hot zone is still the paint, while he is cold in the midrange areas immediately on either side of the paint. He is actually cold on the entire right side of the court, which may be partially the result of a smaller sample size since he shoots much more frequently from the left side of the court and the top of the key area.

The defensive game plan for elite teams in a seven game series versus Cleveland will continue to be to build a wall around the paint to keep James out and thus try to force him to shoot contested two point jump shots in the midrange area. If James can either make a reasonable percentage of those shots and/or wear down the opposing team by bulling his way into the paint despite their best efforts to contain him, then there is likely no way to beat the Cavs in a playoff series, because they have proven that they will rebound and defend on a nightly basis and their role players have demonstrated that they can consistently be at least adequately productive. Also, the important addition of Mo Williams means that the Cavs have an All-Star level player who can create shots for himself and others; he is a very accurate outside shooter, so his presence will force the defense to spread out and make it much more difficult to keep James out of the paint.

Cavs Have Weathered the Injury Storm

Zydrunas Ilgauskas may be returning to action as soon as Thursday. Even though the Cavs obviously missed his length, his physical presence in the paint and his shooting touch, they scraped together enough wins during his absence to still contend for the best record in the NBA. In fact, the Cavs only trail the Lakers by a half game and they have a better winning percentage than the Celtics.

The Cavs were 19-3 when Ilgauskas injured his foot. They went 2-1 in the next three games without him and then won five games in a row when he came back. He was only sporadically effective, though, and after he produced eight points and five rebounds in a 104-95 loss to Miami the Cavs ran some more tests and discovered that Ilgauskas had a small fracture in his foot. Ilgauskas has not played since that time and the Cavs have gone 8-3 without him, losing to a horrible Wizards team, a mediocre Bulls team and the league-leading Lakers. The Cavs beat Boston and New Orleans at home and finished their Western road trip with three straight victories after the setback in L.A.

Although the Cavs have not lost much ground in the standings, they clearly did not play at the same level without Ilgauskas, not just because 19-3 is obviously a better record than 10-4 but also because when Ilgauskas was in the fold the Cavs were posting an astonishing point differential of better than 13 per game, which would have shattered the NBA record in that category (12.3 ppg, set by the 1971-72 Lakers). Now their point differential has dropped to 10.7 ppg overall (including 7.5 ppg in the past 11 games); that is still tremendous and still the best in the league this season but the drastic decline reflects that the Cavs have not only been losing more frequently but also that they have squeaked out some close decisions, including three wins out West by six points or less.

The two main players who picked up the slack for Ilgauskas were LeBron James and Anderson Varejao. James has reached double figures in rebounding five times in the past 11 games after doing so only twice in the first 31 games of the season. He has shifted to power forward and even center at times when the Cavs used a small lineup and he has narrowly passed Ilgauskas, Varejao and Ben Wallace to take over the team lead in rebounding for the season (7.4 rpg). Varejao took Ilgauskas’ place in the starting lineup and has been playing more minutes than usual. After not receiving much playing time early in the season, rookie J.J. Hickson has been pressed into service, taking over Varejao’s role as the first big man off of the bench. Hickson has played well at times but this is where injuries really affect a team; Varejao can capably replace Ilgauskas in the short term but then there is not anyone on the team who can fill Varejao’s old role.

When starting shooting guard Delonte West went down with a broken wrist five games ago the Cavs’ depth was once again tested but Sasha Pavlovic—a starter during the run to the Finals in 2007—has played well in West’s absence. Cleveland’s performance in the past month should forever put to rest any notion that this is simply a one man team. While James is indisputably playing at an MVP level, the Cavs legitimately have 10 players who can be productive members of a winning squad.

Cleveland faces Sacramento at the Q tonight before heading to Orlando to play the Magic for the first time this season. The Magic wreaked havoc during their recent trip out West—beating all three division leaders—so the Cavs could definitely use Big Z if he can return in time to match up with Dwight Howard.