Without question, the Chicago Bulls have spent the last 48 hours trying to figure out a way to slow LeBron James down in the most pivotal Game 4 of the NBA Playoffs this season. After the King’s Game 2 performance that seems like a tall task, but numbers show the Bulls are better on defense at home. They will need to be in order to keep the upper hand in this series. They will also need a third player to help contribute. Rose and Butler will get theirs every game, but they need a “Player X.” In Game 1 it was Dunleavy. Could Joakim Noah make his presence felt? Or maybe Pau Gasol? Both Noah and Gasol have been missing the entire series.
As for the Cavs, they hope to repeat the play of Game 2 led by the unstoppable James. J.R. Smith made his return following a two game suspension. This is promising, because his replacement, Iman Shumpert was hobbled because of a Game 2 injury after more than proving his worth. Yes, Chicago is a tough place to play, but is that enough to stop the amazing efforts of LeBron in the paint. More importantly, who will David Blatt play more? Shumpert or Smith? A lot of questions leading into Game 3 for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The starting five for the Bulls stayed the same as the first two games of the series because this is their ideal starting five when healthy. Some questions were boiling leading up to game time surrounding the starting squad of the Cavs. Questions were answered when we found out Blatt would go with Iman Shumpert proving his defense and rebounding are more important than the three point shooting of Smith.
The slow pace in the opening minutes was in the Bulls’ favor. Although they had no points to show for their great defense, the Bulls had five offensive rebounds early due to the towering play of Noah and Gasol. Playing at home seemed to effect the way Chicago played, especially the game of Jokim Noah who hit two free throws early after not making any in Game 2. Even though the first half of the quarter had the two teams combining for 2-17 from the field, the Bulls had a clear advantage in momentum.
James was aggressive early on taking four quick shots. He missed all of them, and the fourth miss went for a three in transition by the sharp shooting Mike Dunleavy. The shaky defense and lethargic offense of the Cavaliers forced their head coach to take his team’s first timeout with six minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Cleveland had two quick buckets out of the timeout to tie the game at 13. Then with a flick of his wrist LeBron James threw a half court touchdown to Timothy Mozgov that even the Bulls fan’s admired, swinging the momentum of the game to the Cavaliers. The streak would continue off two three balls by Game 2 bench stars Matt Dellavedova and James Jones. Both of course off of assists from King James. Those would be only two of his seven assists in the opening quarter, helping his team out to a six point lead by quarter’s end.
The bench of the Bulls began to will their team back into the game off the play of Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks. Not to be outdone was the Australian Dellavedova with a tough layup in the lane and a beautiful assist to the most consistent big man on the Cavs: Mozgov. With his defense in the paint and his ability to consistently finish on offense, Mozgov is making the absence of Kevin Love a lot less apparent for his team.
The inability of Noah to score allowed Cleveland to go small and fast by putting James Jones on him. Although Noah wasn’t scoring, his hustle, defense, and impeccable rebounding kept his team within four or five points. The referees were letting a lot of contact go to the disapproval of Mirotic who was on the ugly end of some iffy no-calls. Mirotic had quietly become the leading scorer for Chicago, but Cleveland was starting to wear down on him and slow his play.
The game was tied because of electric plays on each side of the court by Derrick Rose. If he wasn’t scoring, he was assisting or creating. James would not let all of the thunder be stolen from him, asserting what dominance he had left with a powerful drive and finish at the rack. He was reacting as if he sensed the half slipping away from his team.
Mike Dunleavy continued to be a nuisance to the Cavs with a huge and-one play putting his team up by one. If his 13 points were annoying the Cavaliers, then the dead on shooting of Dellavedova must have been making Tom Thibodeau clinically insane. He was routinely being left open at the top of the three point line and consistently hitting the shots he was allowed. If that continued, he would have become the “Bull tamer” of Game 3.
The Cavaliers would head to the locker room up two with a score of 49 to 47. LeBron had a disappointing first half scoring. 13 points off 14 attempts, but kept his team ahead because of his eight assists and five boards. Kyrie Irving had an extremely quiet first half because of what appeared to be an ankle injury suffered in the first quarter. Irving’s disappearance was covered up by the wonderful play of Cavs role player Matt Dellavedova. Nikola Mirotic and Mike Dunleavy combined for 24 first half points, more than half of the Bulls two quarter total. Even being down two at half, an emphatic rejection on Tristan Thompson by Noah would prove to be like a late round body shot to steal the half for the Bulls.
Rose came out in the second half all about business. He used his speed to dance around the Cavaliers defenders. When he could not go around them, he would initiate contact and get himself to the line. Reminiscent of James in Game 2, Rose knew what his team needed of him and he began to produce. The fans were getting back into the game because of Rose, so right on queue James spun off of Butler and threw down a dunk, something nasty. This was followed by an uncharacteristic taunting foul on James, proving the mental game of Noah over a series was working, even if only a little. The back and forth play made for an exciting game for the first time all series.
Tristan Thompson was clearly a man amongst boys under the rim. Offensive rebounding unlike any I have ever seen. Even when he was boxed out or tied up he would still tip the ball to a teammate or himself. With Thompson’s rebounding going unchallenged, the Cavaliers were up six with five minutes to go in the third. Later, the intense defense of James forced Dunleavy to take a timeout. By forcing the issue, LeBron was making it clear that he believed whoever emerged ahead at the end of quarter number three, would be in control of the game as well.
Rose must have agreed because he went right by three Cavaliers to lay it up and in and tie the game with the third straight bucket for the Bulls. With ten of his 16 points in the third, Rose took a seat as the early monster in the second half. Could the Bulls momentum continue with Rose on the bench?
The immediate answer was no. A missed shot and a dumb turnover would have the home crowd wondering how long of a breather their superstar would need.
The importance of the game was becoming more obvious because the banter and physical play only intensified as the Bulls took the lead. A pick set by Dellavedova led to some shoving and shouting that was determined to be a technical foul on Aaron Brooks and a common foul on Jimmy Butler. That not only tied the game up with free throws, but it gave Cleveland a one point lead after all shots were taken.
Rose re-entered the game with 30 seconds remaining in the third. That would prove to be a smart move by Thibodeau because Rose’s ability to get in the lane all night caused a the defense to collapse, leading to a wide open three by Dunleavy. The first bad play of the game by Dellavedova prevented Cleveland from getting a final shot attempt before the fourth. With the score close at 74-73, the Bulls had a slight advantage.
Derrick Rose was keeping himself situated at that free throw line at the start of the fourth quarter, giving his team a lead because of it. But with James unwilling to give control of the game up it began to take on a “James vs. Rose” vibe which Rose was winning, putting his team up three before Blatt took a timeout. This was clearly becoming one of the most entertaining game of the postseason.
Out of the timeout, Jimmy Butler stepped up huge with his fifth steal of the night which led to a foul on the other end. Butler hit both shots putting his team up five. Also the play forced James to voice his frustrations with Butler’s defense to an official. The defense on LeBron had been outstanding all game. At that point of the game, James was a nauseating 6-of-23 from the field. Strong defense from Butler with team help down low was unquestionably hindering James from doing what he did in Game 2.
Smith would hit a three to tie the game at 82. The story of the game was becoming the Bill Russell-esque rebounding and under the rim play by Tristan Thompson. No matter what Thompson or James did, Butler would not be stopped on either side of the ball matching Smith’s three with one of his own. Next came an ill-advised shot by LeBron that went out of bounds because of Butler’s defense. The next play led to a wonderful lay up by Rose. The Butler and Rose combination was proving to be too much for the Cavs, mainly because of the injury that was clearly hurting the deadly quickness of Kyrie Irving.
If Cleveland was going to make a comeback with two and a half minutes to go in the game it was going to be on the shoulders of James and Smith because no help was coming from any other teammate. Smith would stamp his value to the Cavs by hitting a monumental three bomb to tie the competitive game at 91. With each of the first two games not having a single lead change as each game winners won from start to finish, this instant classic had 17 lead changes with two minutes to go.
The defense of the Cavs in the paint would keep them in the game by keeping the deficit at one by a block on Rose. Cleveland’s next possession came with 55 seconds remaining because of a ridiculous no-call when LeBron clearly hit Butler’s head on a three-point shot. A foul called immediately on the other end would put James to the line, where he has been almost flawless all series. He hit both free throws to give his team a one point lead with 41.5 remaining. A heads up, spin around finish by Butler on the other end would put the Bulls back up, Butler’s eighth and ninth point of the quarter.
James would get a perfect look to try to win the game for his team but, unlike Butler, he couldn’t finish, leading to a rebound and foul committed on Taj Gibson. Gibson would hit both free throws putting the Bulls up three. Blatt chose not take his timeout and Thibodeau would choose not to foul, both very significant decisions by each coach. James drove the lane and kicked to a wide open J.R. Smith who would hit his fourth three pointer of the half to tie his team with Chicago at 96 with ten seconds to go.
Bulls chose again to not take a timeout and Rose dashed up the court. James tipped Rose’s dribble out of bounds with the clock stopping at three seconds exactly. Choosing not to take the timeouts gave Thibodeau a chance to draw up a play for Rose in the last seconds to break the tie. Dunleavy inbounded the ball to Rose who was blanketed by Thompson. Rose stopped running and tossed the rock up as time expired. BANG! A three ball for the win from Rose.
A humongous 30 points from Rose and the exceptional defense by Butler on James led to an exciting playoff win for the Bulls. LeBron shot horribly from the field, and saying Irving was quiet would be very generous. The most important game of the series went to the Bulls. Teams that win Game 3 of a series that was tied at one apiece win the series 80 percent of the time. I promise you, King James is well aware of that stat.