It’s about time.
We have waited how long for this? Less than a year? Seems more like a lifetime. The Bulls against the Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. Probably the last, best chance for the Bulls to show LeBron James that they can beat him when it matters.
Or, to put it another way, if the Bulls can’t beat a Cleveland team that is without an injured Kevin Love (and a suspended J.R. Smith for two games), they might as well crawl in a hole and die. But this is no time to think dark thoughts. The Bulls have reason to believe that this is their moment.
Here’s how they do it: That thing they did in Milwaukee the other night? Winning by 54 points to move on to the conference semifinals? Yeah, do that. Thanks for reading!
OK, here’s how they do it: With everybody at every moment. In other words, this is not solely about Derrick Rose, no matter how convenient it is to make him the story. In truth, the Bulls have counted on him for exactly what he has given them, an inconsistency that comes with being a guy playing on knees that have seen three surgeries.
I don’t know about you, but I gave up on Rose being the old Rose a long time ago, and my life has been much more peaceful because of it. I’m not saying he can’t make a big difference in the Cleveland series, which starts on the road Monday. He can, for better and worse. I’m saying we’re stuck in the past when we expect him to do things he can no longer do. It’s like asking a tree stump to dance and then ripping it for its lack of rhythm. Rose can’t play defense? And you think that’s going to change now?
But back to the everybody-at-every-moment mantra. Yes, it’s the type of things coaches say. It also happens to be necessary.
Jimmy Butler needs to concentrate on his clampdown defense first. He needs to make things difficult on James. Nobody stops LeBron except LeBron, but Butler can be the bug floating in the King’s glass of milk. Butler’s scoring will take care of itself.
Joakim Noah needs to bring everything he has – and maybe some of what he doesn’t have anymore – to the biggest series of his career. That means 12-15 rebounds a game. That means a skirmish or 10. That means a motor that won’t stop, despite all the wear and tear and Thibs.
Pau Gasol needs to continue to be the scorer the Bulls have been missing for years. He has been a revelation for a town that was used to having Rose be the one-through-five scoring option. He needs to make the Cavs pay for being without Love, who has a shoulder injury. And when Kyrie Irving drives past Rose, Gasol has to use those long arms of his to at least offer some resistance at the basket. That’s not asking the world. It’s asking for minimum wage.
Nikola Mirotic needs to get healthy enough to give the Bulls some semblance of the player he was in March, when he averaged 20.8 points and 7.7 rebounds. It’s impossible to overstate what he adds when healthy and engaged.
Taj Gibson needs to bring 10 points, five rebounds and one or two of those soul-crushing dunks to every game of this series. And his defense.
Mike Dunleavy, if you can shoot against Cleveland like you did in Game 6 against the Bucks, that would be good. Thank you.
And Rose. He needs to bring his explosiveness to the hoop. The Bulls could use that extra gear consistently from game to game in this series, but anybody who has watched Rose this season knows that his knee problems have robbed him of consistency. He can’t seem to put a string of good games together. But please know this: The knee bone is not connected to the heart. This is about whether his body will cooperate and nothing else. And none of us has any idea whether it will.
For the Bulls, this series has to be all of the players together at all times, the way a Tom Thibodeau team is supposed to operate. Anything less won’t work. The Cavs (and the Heat before them) can operate on the basis of one or two great players. The Bulls don’t have anyone named “LeBron.’’ They do have something called “Bulls basketball.’’ It can be bigger than one person.
This is about everybody at every moment. Bulls in seven.