The Top 5 Players in the Bulls and Cavs Series
*Photo via Getty Images
Without a doubt, the Cleveland Cavaliers vs. the Chicago Bulls is a more entertaining and notable series than the Washington Wizards vs. the Atlanta Hawks, the four remaining teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
In the Wizards and Hawks series, I’m pretty sure that even the most casual NBA fan will have trouble naming the Hawks’ starting five. In addition, it’s difficult to watch this series going forward due to the fact that John Wall, one of the best young floor generals in the league with superstar potential, is out with non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist suffered in Game 1 of the series.
But you won’t get that problem with the Cavs and Bulls series. The casual NBA fan can recite the starting five of both teams and can probably even single out who’s on the coaching staff. As good as Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap are, I hardly doubt fans will lose sleep if they miss their next playoff game.
In the Cavs vs. Bulls series tied up at 2-2, with both teams trading last-second shots via Derrick Rose (Game 3) and LeBron James (Game 4), you can bet that your favorite bar and hang-out spot will be occupied by the masses. Unfortunately this series came one round too early, but that doesn’t mean that we, NBA enthusiasts and the fans around the world, aren’t going to enjoy it.
The winner of this series will probably advance to the NBA finals, and that’s why it’s the series worth talking about. That’s why it’s only right that OTG Basketball provides you with a 1-5 ranking of the top players of this series by significance.
1.Cavs, LeBron James-F
We should all agree here. James is the best player in the game today, and it seems that if there’s any ranking regarding who’s the best in the NBA in any aspect of the game, James will be involved in the argument.
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry definitely earned the 2014-15 NBA MVP award this year (I would’ve chose the Houston Rockets’ James Harden despite his playoff struggles). Of the other players who received votes for the highest individual honor in the NBA, Harden received 25 first-place votes and James received five. As long as James is playing he will be a part of the league MVP discussion for years to come, and in this series he has shown flashes of his greatness.
When the Bulls took Game 1 of this series in Cleveland, James, who decided that he wanted to blend in with his teammates, removing his headband weeks before, returned to his usual appearance and scored a team-high 33 points, along with five assists and eight rebounds, leading the Cavs to a 106-91 Game 2 win.
James scored 14 of those 33 points in the first quarter alone, making an early impression that the Cavs were not going to go down 0-2 on their home floor. With the Cavs facing a potential 3-1 deficit in Game 4, James stepped up just like he did in Game 2. He led the team to an 86-84 win, recording a near triple-double with 25 points, eight assists and 14 rebounds while draining the game-winning shot to avoid overtime, like Rose did for the Bulls the game before.
When the Cavs have faced adversity in this series, James has answered the bell because there’s no one else on the roster capable of doing so. Kyrie Irving can, but he is dealing with a right foot strain and tendinitis in his left knee, which has prompted James to be more assertive.
"I think I may have to change my mindset a little bit obviously with [Love] being out. It's something we all haven't been accustomed to this year with him being out for an extensive period or another of the Big Three being out for a long period of time since I had my injuries."
James said this following the Cavs’ Game 1 loss, but this statement applies here also. Kevin Love is out for the postseason with a dislocated shoulder. Anderson Varejao is out after tearing his Achilles earlier this year. Even if the Cavs were healthy, James and only James is responsible for how far the Cavs advance in these 2014-15 NBA playoffs.
2.Bulls, Derrick Rose-G
I don’t know how much life is left in Rose’s legs, but he sure does look great. He isn’t going to the basket like he once did earlier in his career that made him a poster candidate, but he’s getting there frequently. The Bulls have their best chance to get to the finals this year, and it’s because Rose has returned and shown flashes of his MVP self in this series.
He’s averaging 25.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists in this series specifically, leading the team. In the last two games at home, Rose has recorded back-to-back 30 point games, with the first in Game 3 being his 10th playoff game with 30 points or more. This stat tied him with Michael Jordan and Bob Love as the only Bulls with playoff double-digit achievements, according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune.
Rose’s last-second shot, also in Game 3, was the Bulls’ first buzzer-beater since MJ buried the famous J over Byron Russell of the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals.
There’s no doubt that Rose has help this year. Pau Gasol, nursing a hamstring injury keeping him out of Game 5, was added in the off-season. Nikola Mirotic, a Spanish league star whose rights were acquired from the Bulls on draft night in 2011, was signed this past July and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting (14 first-place votes). Jimmy Butler has developed into an All-star, and Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson are still on the roster.
In the end it all comes down to Rose. If he remains healthy, it will be very difficult for the Cavs to keep the Bulls out of the Eastern Conference finals, which would be their first trip since 2011.
3.Bulls, Jimmy Butler-G
Butler is having a career year. He was recently named the NBA’s Most Improved Player for the 2014-15 season, made his first All-Star team and is enjoying the best statistical year of his career, posting regular season averages of 20.0 points, 3.3 assists and 5.8 rebounds. Butler is the second most important player on the Bulls, and his development as a player has made it that way.
Butler isn’t just a defender anymore. He can hurt you on the other side of the court as well, and in the playoffs he’s shown the ability to do so. In his first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler actually posted better offensive numbers than Rose and was the leading scorer of the series with 24.8 points per game, shooting 40 percent from behind the arc and 47 percent from the field.
In the playoffs in general through 10 games, which includes this series against the Cavs, Butler is the leading scorer of the Bulls with 22.6 points per game. Against the Cavs, Butler has served as the second-leading scorer in Game 3 & 4 (20 points and 19 points respectively), and the first in Game 2 (18 points). Everyone remembers Rose’s game-winning buzzer-beater in Game 3, but few remember the 20 points by Butler that aided Rose and the Bulls to have that moment.
There have been many times this year where Rose has had to lean on Butler to share that load offensively in the backcourt, and because of his overall offensive improvements, Butler has elevated his role on the Bulls to the second option offensively. Not only does Butler have to score but he has to guard the other team’s best perimeter player on most nights, and in this series, it’s James. Due to his production and role, Butler has earned this spot in the rankings.
4.Cavs, Kyrie Irving-G
Irving is to James what Butler is to Rose. He’s the second option. The Robin to James-Batman, but that hasn’t been the case this past regular season.
Irving, the younger of the two with the fresher legs, has given James something he’s never had in his career: a bona fide point guard. Irving was a two-time All-Star and an All-Star game MVP before James arrived this year. Due to Irving’s greatness at the tender age of 23, James has actually leaned on him more times than not this year.
He’s given Irving the floor to shine not because he’s just being generous, but because Irving is one of the best players in the league. Before Irving underwent an MRI on Monday which revealed he has tendinitis in his left knee, already dealing with a strained right foot according to ESPN.com, he scored 30 points in the Cavs’ Game 1 loss and 21 in the Cavs’ Game 2 win. Without Love, the Cavs can still win a championship, but without Irving, it would be utterly impossible.
Despite his ailments, Irving won’t let his team down.
"I just ... I can't do it,” Irving told reporters before Game 5. “Mentally, I can't do it. I can't look myself in the mirror and sit on the bench or sit in the locker room while I watch my teammates go out there. I'd rather give 30 percent, 40 percent, rather than give none at all. I just literally can't do it. I can't sit on the bench and be hurt and be OK with that….My jumper may not be falling or the legs under me, but I'm just going to continue to just go."'
Because of those injuries, Irving has been a decoy the past two games, shooting 5-23 from the field. As great as James is, he can’t do it alone. Like he said himself, Irving has to fight through.
5.Cavs, J.R. Smith-G
Just the fact that Smith is on this list is a problem, or it could be a positive. And that’s the thing with Smith, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. To his credit, Smith has contributed as of late.
In the Game 3 Bulls win that nearly gave you a heart-attack (especially Bulls fans), Smith hit three crucial trey’s down the stretch which led up to Rose’s signature playoff moment, none more crucial than the 25-foot three-pointer that tied the game at 96 with 10 seconds left in the fourth. In Game 4, Smith scored 13 points, shooting 3-6 from downtown. After missing the first two games of this series due to suspension, Smith has to make amends for his absence.
With Love out unfortunately, Smith becomes the third option. I’m pretty sure the Cavs are hoping he keeps his emotions in check for the remainder of the post-season, because Smith’s reward to the Cavs can be so much greater than his transgressions.
There it is. That’s the list. The Cavs have more players on this list but that doesn’t mean they have the edge. It’s a sign of weakness. Smith is not just ranked because of the success he has had over the past two games, but because of his importance in this series. Even with Gasol out, the Bulls are in a comfortable spot. The Cavs are operating from a position of desperation and now James, at the top of the list, has to over-compensate because of the Cav’s injuries and the significant threat that the Bulls pose to their championship expectations. The rest of this series should be interesting.