For the third time in five seasons, LeBron James will look to get by the Chicago Bulls in the NBA playoffs. This time, James is playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he might be more vulnerable to being eliminated by Derrick Rose and Co. than ever before.
Cleveland will host Chicago in Game 1 of their second-round postseason series on Monday night. The Cavaliers swept their first round series with the Boston Celtics, while the Bulls needed six games to get by the Milwaukee Bucks.
During James’ first season with the Miami Heat, he played the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals when Chicago had the league’s best record and home-court advantage. But even with Rose having an MVP season, the Bulls were not deep enough to get through more than five games against the Big 3 of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Two years later, Rose was hurt and much of Chicago’s roster was banged up. The Heat won four straight games after being upset in the series opener.
Chicago hasn’t been dominant this season. Eight teams won more regular-season games, and they lost two playoff games to a team that went just 41-41. But head coach Tom Thibodeau has his best assortment of players since taking over in 2010, and Rose is healthy for the first time in three years. Only the Warriors and Cavs have been given a better chance of winning the title, and with Kevin Love likely done for the rest of the playoffs, Chicago has a real opportunity to win the series. However, Thibodeau isn't sold that the Bulls have an advantage.
‘‘Any team that has LeBron and Kyrie [Irving], you’re not short-handed,’’ Thibodeau said.
Having undergone multiple knee surgeries, Rose is no longer the player that beat out James for the MVP award in 2011. His 17.7 points and 4.9 assists per game in 51 regular-season games were a far cry from what he averaged at his peak, but the point guard has shown flashes of his old self in the playoffs. In the postseason opener, Rose scored 23 points and dished out 7 assists in just 27 minutes. Two games later, he led all scorers with 34 points.
James will almost undoubtedly be the best player in this series. He’s averaging 27 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game in the playoffs, proving that he’s still the best basketball player in the world. But without Love, James’ supporting cast isn’t as strong as Rose’s.
Rose was only Chicago’s third-leading scorer in the regular season. Jimmy Butler made one of the biggest improvements from last year to this year, averaging 20 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Pau Gasol has been rejuvenated in his first season with the Bulls, averaging 18.5 points and 11.8 rebounds per contest.
Butler leads the Bulls in scoring, Gasol tops them in rebounds and Rose leads them in assists. James is Cleveland’s leader in each major category. He’ll rely largely on Irving, who’s scoring 23.3 points per game in the playoffs.
Even though they don’t have home-court advantage, the Bulls can steal one of the first two games in Cleveland. J.R. Smith, the team’s top scorer behind James, Irving and Love, is suspended until Game 3 because of an elbow he delivered to Boston’s Jae Crowder in the Cavs’ last game.
When Rose is at his best, Chicago might be a better team than the Love-less Cavaliers. The Bulls remain one of the best defensive teams in the East, and Chicago is a top-10 offensive team.
However, Rose hasn’t proven that he can play like an All-Star on a consistent basis. The Bulls can steal a few games, but if James performs like he’s capable of playing, Chicago might not have enough to take the series. Butler and Tony Snell are expected to guard James for much of the series.
Rose was one of the best players in the league in 2011, and he shot just 35 percent from the field when looking to defeat James in the playoffs. James made 45 percent of his shots, averaging 25.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. The upcoming second-round series could produce similar numbers for both players.
After struggling in his first two months back with the Cavs, James helped Cleveland become the best team in the conference. The Cavs have won 41 of their last 53 games with James in the lineup, and there might not beat a team in the East that’s good enough to prevent him from reaching the NBA Finals.
It won’t be easy, but with a potential Game 7 set to be played in Cleveland, the Cavs should be able to edge the Bulls.
Game 1: at Cleveland, Monday, May 4, 7 p.m. ET, TNT
Game 2: at Cleveland, Wednesday, May 6, 7 p.m. ET, TNT
Game 3: at Chicago, Friday, May 8, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Game 4: at Chicago, Sunday, May 10, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Game 5: at Cleveland, Tuesday, May 12, TBA, TNT *
Game 6: at Chicago, Thursday, May 14, TBA, ESPN *
Game 7: at Cleveland, Sunday, May 17, TBA, TNT*
Cleveland-220, Chicago+190 [Bet Online]
Cleveland in seven