Are you ready? This is the matchup we have all been waiting for in the Eastern Conference. Many consider Bulls vs. Cavs to be the de facto East Finals, especially after the Hawks fell in the opening game of their series against the Wizards. So who will win this clash of the titans? Let’s breakdown the five keys that will decide this NBA Playoffs series:
1. Battle of the Big Men
The Cavaliers are still heavy favorites to win this series even without Kevin Love. Love’s unique combination of rebounding and perimeter shooting will be sorely missed, but Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and Kendrick Perkins are capable of holding their own against Chicago’s vaunted front court of Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic. Mozgov was acquired specifically to deal with Pau Gasol on the low block. In three games against the Bulls, Mozgov played quite well on both ends, limiting Pau to just 37.2 percent shooting from the field. Mozgov and Thompson also combined to average a ridiculous nine offensive rebounds per game against the Bulls this season. The Cavaliers will easily win this series if those numbers remain the trend.
Edge: Bulls have the slight edge in this matchup only due to their superior depth.
2. Turnover Margin
The scouting report has always been the same against any team led by LeBron James: They will make you pay for turnovers. With that in mind, it’s no surprise the Cavs went 3-1 against these Bulls by winning the turnover battle 51-47. The Bulls were extremely careless in their first round matchup against the Bucks, committing over 16 turnovers per game. By contrast, the Cavs only turned it over 12 times per game in the opening round. It is interesting to note that LBJ leads all players this postseason, averaging 4.8 turnovers per game (Rose is second with 4.3). Bottom line, the Bulls have no chance in this series if they lose the turnover battle.
Edge: Cavs have been much better at valuing possessions this season
3. David Blatt vs. Tom Thibodeau
I see David Blatt as being in the same position Erik Spoelstra was during LeBron’s first season with the Heat. He is a young coach learning on the fly, but has premium talent to work with. Spoelstra was able to lean heavily on James, Wade and Bosh when they clashed with the Bulls in the Eastern Finals that season, but was badly out-coached by Rick Carlisle in the NBA Finals. Blatt will not be able to rely on his talented roster to win this series because the talent disparity between these teams is almost non-existent. It could easily be argued that the Bulls are the more talented team. James and Thibodeau have squared off so many times that it would not surprise me if James is the most vocal person in the huddle. Blatt will have to manage a depleted bench now that Love is out and JR Smith is suspended for the first two games. Thibodeau, on the other hand, has struggled figuring out which front court combination should close out games. He’s also been criticized this season for calling too many plays from the sidelines, which limits his team’s ability to play in transition.
Edge: Thibodeau definitely has the edge considering his experience and deeper roster, but is just 3-12 vs. James in the postseason … he is likely coaching for his job in these playoffs.
4. Kyrie Irving vs. Derrick Rose
Kyrie Irving supplanted Rose as Team USA’s starting point guard during the offseason. Rose is well aware that he is no longer considered the cream of the point guard crop, and this series is his chance to creep back into that discussion. It was clear that Rose was a weak link defensively in the first round as Jason Kidd made it a point to pick on him throughout the series. However, Rose is far more comfortable defending Irving because of the time they spent together at USA Camp learning each other’s tendencies. In three head-to-head matchups this season, Rose has actually gotten the better of Irving by holding him to just 37.2 percent shooting from the field. Rose, on the other hand, shot 46.2 percent from the field against Uncle Drew. It will be interesting to see if Lebron switches onto Rose in late game situations as he has done in the past.
Edge: The numbers suggest Rose has the edge. He will have to outplay Irving for the Bulls to advance
5. LeBron James vs. Jimmy Butler
Remember last year when a young man named Kawhi Leonard came out of nowhere to go toe-to-toe with King James in the NBA Finals? Jimmy Butler will have to put together a Kawhi Leonard-esque series for the Bulls to advance. James is 30 now, and he does not beat defenders off the dribble as easily as we have seen in the past. With that said, Butler will be asked to do three things against James: 1) limit his free throw attempts to less than seven per game, 2) force him to take contested jump shots at the end of the shot clock, and 3) make him work on the defensive end … Good luck Jimmy, that is much easier said than done. In all fairness, the Bulls will hedge their entire team defense towards James, but they will not double team frequently. James averaged five turnovers per game against the Bulls during their regular season matchups, but that was the only flaw in his game.
Edge: James has the clear edge, but the Bulls don’t have to win this matchup to take the series.
Prediction: Bulls in 6. Chicago has more depth, experience and a distinct coaching edge. The pivotal matchup may come down to Irving vs. Rose.