By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) – Taking center stage as the Bulls and Cavaliers tip off Game 1 of their second-round playoff series Monday night in Cleveland will be, of course, star LeBron James.
Three times James’ career, he’s run into the Bulls in the postseason. All three times, he’s helped vanquish Chicago in five games.
In 2010, James and his top-seeded Cavs beat the overmatched, eighth-seeded Bulls in the opening round.
In 2011, James and his second-seeded Heat dispatched the top-seeded Bulls in a competitive conference final that nonetheless left no doubt which was the better team.
In 2013, James and his top-seeded Heat topped a fifth-seeded, short-handed Bulls squad that was without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng.
This time around, it’s James’ squad working short-handed, with star forward Kevin Love out the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury and starting guard J.R. Smith suspended for the first two games. So James will carry more responsibility for producing and creating offensively.
The catch for the Bulls is just how many resources they should devote to defending James? Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau has been ruminating on it.
“The only thing you can do with him is you can try to make him work for his points,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t really give him a steady diet of anything. You have to mix it up on him. The thing that makes him who he is he can beat you a lot of different ways. It’s not only his scoring. It’s his passing. He’s seen every type of defense there is. We just have to be tied together, try to make him work and you can’t neglect the rest of their team. That’s what makes him who he is.”
Jimmy Butler will receive the lion’s share of responsibility in guarding James, as it would be a surprise if he didn’t mirror every minute that James logs, then some.
The key will lie in how well Butler can handle James one-on-one. In the two games that Butler was healthy against the Cavs this season, James averaged 23.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists while shooting 50 percent. He averaged 25.3 points and 7.4 assists on 49 percent shooting in the regular season.
After deservedly earning a reputation as one of the league’s best defenders last season, Butler in recent weeks has openly admitted he hasn’t played up to his defensive capabilities.
Now would be the time to do start doing that, for the Bulls know that James can get everyone involved even when he’s not at his best.
“It’s a team effort,” Bulls big man Pau Gasol said. “We’ll all be active. Because of his size and ability to pass, he gets everybody involved, gets other guys easy looks. So you don’t want to lock in too much on him because that opens it for the rest of the guys and then he opens the floor up for himself.”
Highly regarded for his defensive acumen, Thibodeau predictably explained that the only way the Bulls can slow James and fellow Cavs star Kyrie Irving is to play effective team defense. He wasn’t buying into the concept of letting James and Irving work on islands and get their points – with the intention of rendering the rest of the Cavs obsolete – and he also fears what Cleveland’s role players will do if given space and opportunity.
“With a guy like LeBron, we need our whole team locked into him and not at the expense of opening up everything else,” Thibodeau said.
“If you overcommit, you’re going to open up a lot of other things. But you also have to make sure that they’re not just running freely because they can beat you by themselves. It’s a combination of the two. I don’t think you can have a steady diet of anything. We have to mix it up and understand what the matchups are and what’s going on in the game.
“Any team that has LeBron and Kyrie, you’re not short-handed.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.