The Chicago Bulls took a 1-0 lead in their second round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers last night, stealing home court advantage and setting up something close to a must-win game for the Cavs in Game 2.
At the heart of the Cavs’ loss was a lackadaisical, curiously careless performance from their leader LeBron James.
James put up 19 points on 9-for-22 shooting with six turnovers – his lowest output since a 2-for-10 night in Game 5 of last year’s Conference Finals. He appeared to lack focus and a sense of urgency.
Time and again, he settled for ill-advised shots – long twos and threes from two feet behind the three-point line:
These shots are close to inexcusable when you consider that all three of them were the culmination of possessions in which no other Cavalier touched the ball.
Yes, LeBron makes some of these lazy shots, but they remain low percentage looks for a player who can get to the basket, dominate in the post and draw a double team at will. For someone who freely refers to his own “very high” basketball IQ, it is puzzling shot selection at best. Alas, those with the highest basketball IQs tend not to feel the need to refer to them.
Some of his passes also lacked cogence – hence the six turnovers, the most crushing and dumbfounding of which came with 2:12 left and the Cavs in position to cut the Bulls’ lead to three or four before LeBron got caught in the air with nowhere to go:
He is averaging 45% shooting and 5.0 turnovers per game for the 2015 Playoffs and has yet to truly engage himself thus far. Now is the time.
With J.R. Smith suspended and Kevin Love injured, this was not the moment for LeBron to come out passive.
Kyrie Irving was Cleveland’s best player last night, playing with intensity throughout, energising the crowd and scoring or assisting on the Cavs’ first twelve points of the fourth quarter as they attempted to mount a comeback.
In the words of Cavs beat writer Chris Haynes, LeBron’s offensive performance was “lethargic, timid and ultimately played a large part in why the Cavaliers coughed up homecourt advantage on Monday night.”
The trouble was not just on offense for LeBron.
Several times he failed to contain Butler off the dribble, who poured in 20 points:
Derrick Rose also had no problem blowing by him and drawing the help to create this wide open look for Pau Gasol:
LeBron’s lethargic approach to the game was never more evident than when the Bulls ran down the court and he stood stationary in the corner, without making even a token effort to get back:
Very disappointing. Very un-Jordan-esque.
The Cavs’ entire team defense must improve after allowing the Bulls to shoot 50% from the field in Game 1.
And this is where coach David Blatt comes in.
The Bulls were able to manufacture open looks time and again, none more so than for Pau Gasol. The Spaniard was a sizzling 8-for-10 on jump shots, all but one of them uncontested:
Per NBA.com’s player tracking stats Pau shot 49% on catch-and-shoot field goals in the regular season and is shooting 64% on them in the postseason, so leaving him wide open to launch such shots at will was never the best strategy.
Surely Timofey Mozgov does not need to leave Pau to help so hard on a Mike Dunleavy baseline drive:
Pau had a large chunk of his success scoring out of the pick-and-pop with Derrick Rose, as Kyrie scrambled to aggressively double Rose after being screened:
It was not until 1:28 remained in the game that coach Blatt finally threw a different coverage at the play – putting Iman Shumpert on Rose and having Shumpert switch onto Pau to prevent the open shot:
That possession resulted in a no-chance fling by Rose as the shot clock expired. We have to question what took Blatt so long.
We also have to wonder what he saw in Mike Miller to lead him to believe that he was worth starting and playing 16 minutes last night. Having shot a mind-numbing 32.5% from the field over the regular season, Miller looks washed up on both ends and the Cavs were outscored by 20 points with him on the floor last night.
He is unable to stay with any of the Bulls’ perimeter players off the dribble and was treated like a rag doll when caught switching onto Pau down low:
In the 15 minutes that he and James shared the floor, they gave up six offensive rebounds – such as these for Dunleavy and Noah:
LeBron does not enjoy banging with bigger bodies beneath the basket, and Miller is not capable of it even if he is willing. Pairing them together on the frontline against a Bulls team that always features two legit big men is asking for trouble.
Expect to see more Tristan Thompson, Shawn Marion and possibly Kendrick Perkins in Game 2 as Blatt searches for adjustments. He has yet to establish himself as an above-average NBA coach, and the spotlight is now on.
All this being said, the Cavs should be fine. The adjustments they have to make are minor ones and J.R. Smith will be back by Game 3. Despite all their problems in Game 1 they only lost by seven points, with Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau leaning extremely heavily on his starters – does Tibs know any other way?
If Game 2 brings a more aggressive LeBron performance and better game management from Blatt it should also deliver a Cavs victory against a Bulls team that has been up and down all year and in reality is still struggling to establish its identity on both ends. I expect the Cavs to right the ship enough to advance to the Conference Finals, but whether they can win a title with over-arching questions still lingering over team defense, leadership and coaching is a different matter altogether.
The idea of either of these two teams challenging the Warriors seems very far-fetched at this stage.