By Cody Westerlund–
(CBS) Against the short-handed Cavaliers, the hot-shooting Bulls snagged a 99-92 win in Game 1 of their second-round series Monday night in Cleveland. Chicago shot 50 percent from the field and a scorching 55.6 percent from 3-point range in never trailing and making the big shots down the stretch to hold off the hosts, who were playing without Kevin Love and J.R. Smith.
Here are a few thoughts as the Bulls hold a 1-0 series advantage heading into Game 2 on Wednesday night.
1. For long stretches, the game largely turned into a pick-and-roll battle on both ends. The Cavaliers relentlessly attacked Bulls big man Pau Gasol, notably finding success at the start of the second half in finishing a rally from a 15-point deficit. Time and again, Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving (game-high 30 points) found the space he needed, as Gasol and Joakim Noah didn’t have the quickness to stay with him.
On the other end, the Bulls continually put point guard Derrick Rose in a high pick-and-roll with Gasol. It turned out to be more efficient, and that was a big difference in the seven-point game.
Rose had 25 points on 11-of-26 shooting, adding five assists and simply opening the floor for everyone by probing the defense. Gasol had 21 points on 10-of-16 shooting, including a 7-for-11 showing on shots from 15 feet or more. Gasol was 8-for-8 on uncontested shots from any distance, per ESPN Stats & Info.
“I thought Derrick did a great job with the pick-and-roll, trusting the pass,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said.
Unlike the Bucks, the Bulls’ first-round foe, the Cavaliers were conservatively defensively. They didn’t blitz Rose much, instead hanging back to corral with their big men. That’s what left Gasol open often.
“The free jump shot is like a layup to him,” Rose told reporters in his postgame interview session
“It’s a good play, it’s an easy play.”
This is difficult to quantify, but in watching the game, you came away with this feel: The Bulls just got easier shots than the Cavs did.
That bodes well for Chicago moving forward.
2. Jimmy Butler mirrored LeBron James minute for minute, only resting when the Cavs star was on the bench. Butler logged 44 minutes, 12 seconds and was magnificent, if not quite as efficient offensively as usual. James had 19 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists, but Butler hounded him into 9-of-22 shooting from the field. Butler won the scoring column tally with 20 points himself on 7-of-16 shooting, adding five assists and six rebounds.
“Jimmy’s a fierce competitor,” Thibodeau told reporters. “We have great respect for all their players, and I know Jimmy does as well. But that doesn’t mean you’re afraid to compete against them. Jimmy’s not afraid to compete against anyone. I think he’s shown that throughout his career, and when you’re playing against this team, it’s going to test your will. You’re going to have to compete for 48 minutes.”
Butler’s longest rest came at the start of the fourth quarter, when he got several minutes on the pine. It makes good sense for Thibodeau to mirror Butler’s rest with James’, but there’s a concern worth noting. When Butler headed to the bench at the start of the fourth quarter, it coincided with the regular rest pattern of Gasol and Rose, so Chicago lacked its three best offensive playmakers.
The start of the fourth quarter saw the Bulls score just two points in three-plus minutes before Butler and Rose returned. The Bulls originally had Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson and Noah on the floor to open the frame.
It’s an easy fix but one that needs to be made down the line, as we could be in for a handful of tight finishes, and every small drought could be the difference.
3. Thibodeau greatly shrank his rotation, as just seven players – the starters, Gibson and Hinrich – played more than 10 minutes. Aaron Brooks (9:05) and Nikola Mirotic (2:25) also played. Tony Snell didn’t.
Mirotic’s limited role was telling. It appears Thibodeau is going to rely heavily on Gibson this series, as he’s better defensively and gives the Bulls their best power forward option in either staying in front of James on switches or closing out on shooters at the 3-point line. (The Bulls used an interesting cross-match in Game 1, putting Noah/power forwards on Cavs guard Iman Shumpert so Butler could guard James, who was often playing the four.) Thibodeau has often lauded Gibson’s offensive rebounding as well.
Mirotic’s role comes in stretching the floor and creating off the dribble as well against bigger men, but if the Bulls are going to carve up a Cavs defense with holes elsewhere as they did Monday, Thibodeau’s thinking is understandable.
That said, Thibodeau is playing with fire in giving Noah regular minutes. Noah was scoreless on 0-of-4 shooting, and he was harassed by James as well and had four turnovers. Chicago is too often playing four-on-five offensively.
Noah also didn’t deter the Cavs at the rim, continuing a trend.
Opponents finished at a 45.5 percent slip at the rim on Gibson in the regular season, per NBA.com. They did so at a 48 percent clip against Gasol. They did so at a 51.7 percent rate on Noah.
It’s time for some of Noah’s minutes to go to Gibson and/or Mirotic. He’s not doing enough elsewhere to justify getting nearly 29 minutes like he did in Game 1.
4. Where are those folks now who thought the absence of Love (out for season with a shoulder injury) wouldn’t make a big difference?
The replacement crew of Mike Miller, Tristan Thompson and James Jones scored a combined seven points on 1-of-6 shooting in about 61 minutes. Smith’s absence due to a suspension hurt too, as Cleveland shot just 7-of-26 on 3-pointers.
It put a great deal of pressure on James and Irving and was too much for the Cavaliers to overcome. They combined for 15 of their team’s 17 assists and eight of nine turnovers, being forced to carry the entire load, as CSN’s Vincent Goodwill pointed out.
Cleveland will be in the same predicament in Game 2 before Smith returns for Game 3.
“We’re in a great position,” Gasol said, speaking generally but well aware of the breaks. “We have a good opportunity in front of us, so let’s not waste it.”
5. Rose left holding his right shoulder in the final minute after running into a screening Thompson while defending. He was fiercely grimacing, but everything turned out to be fine. Rose suffered a stinger that went away in about five or 10 minutes after some shooting pain, he said.
Had the game gone to overtime, Rose said he would’ve returned. He was simply thankful for the chance to get back out on the floor and have a chance to shine in such a big game.
“I’m just appreciative of everything, the sport, just working out every day, getting back out on the floor, my fans,” Rose said.
“I owe so much to the sport. I don’t look at it as a sport anymore. I look at it as like art with how many hours I stay in the gym, how many hours I do recovery.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.