Kyrie vs. D-Rose will be an important matchup (Photo courtesy of
In the Eastern Conference, the #2 seeded Cleveland Cavaliers come off of a four-game sweep of the Boston Celtics to face the #3 Chicago Bulls, who are coming off a tough six-game series victory against the Milwaukee Bucks. This may be the best matchup of the playoffs thus far.
While the Cavaliers seemed to handle the Celtics fairly easily in their four-game sweep, Game 4 of the series produced two major blows for the Cavaliers. Star forward Kevin Love dislocated his shoulder early on in the game, and he will be missing the rest of the playoffs. Also, guard J.R. Smith will be out for the first two games of this series, due to being suspended for his roles in a few brush-ups in the Celtics series.
The Bulls come into this series with a relatively healthy team, despite Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose’s season-long setbacks; but, they certainly did not enjoy having to be taken to six games in the first round. The success of the Bulls lies upon the knees of Rose, and the two extra games he had to play in the Bulls-Bucks series could prove to be costly in regards to his long-term health throughout the playoffs.  The Bulls are also riding on the play of Jimmy Butler, who is a star in the making and makes an instant impact on both ends of the floor.

Here are my three keys to the series, along with my prediction on the series outcome.

  1. Rebounding – Chicago
    The Bulls have many, many options in the front-court, and they will not be afraid to use all of them. Their strongest front-court lineup may not even consist of their two All-Stars, in Noah and Pau Gasol. While both have the capability to put up double-digit rebound totals on a nightly basis, the Cavaliers must also be ready to go up against Gibson and Nikola Mirotic. Gibson has been battling injuries throughout the second half of the season, and he clearly showed that he is not 100% throughout the Bucks series. These four days of rest surely benefitted Gibson. A healthy Gibson allows the Bulls to strongly limit the minutes of Gasol and Noah, hereby making their playing time more meaningful and effective. Gasol and Noah are at their best when both play 30-35 minutes per game. The other backup forward is Mirotic, who is enjoying a great rookie season. He came in second in the NBA Rookie of the Year voting, and poses as an inside-outside threat. Noah, Gasol, Gibson, and Mirotic should all have success rebounding the basketball in this series against a Cavaliers team that enjoys going with a small lineup. The Cavaliers will have to find rebounding production now without both Anderson Varejao and Love. Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov are great rebounders, but they are going to need help from the rest of the team (Kendrick Perkins??). The overall rebounding key is for the Bulls: they may have success in rebounding the ball, but will they shoot the ball well enough to capitalize on their second chance opportunities?

  1. Bench Play – Cleveland
    The Cavs need James Jones and Mike Miller without Kevin Love
    (rest of playoffs) and J.R. Smith (Games 1 and 2).
    One of Cleveland’s greatest strengths was their bench. Now, the loss of Love will hurt. Thompson, the first forward off the bench for the Cavs all season long, will now be forced into a starting role. Thompson has excelled in his new role this season, and he will now have to adjust his play. The loss of Smith will force one of Iman Shumpert, Mike Miller, James Jones, or Matthew Dellavedova into the starting lineup, which should be Shumpert. This will also disrupt the bench rotation in the first two games of the series, as this deep into the season, players get used to a routine. The losses of Smith and Love will certainly hurt, and other players will have to step up and account for the missing minutes. The Cavaliers have an interesting bench now, consisting of long-time, journey-man NBA players. Along with Perkins, Miller and Jones, the Cavs have Shawn Marion on their bench. All of the veterans must perform at their best this series for Cleveland to relieve stress off the hands of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Luckily for Cleveland, all of these players have an excess of playoff experience, and this should go a long way toward maintaining Cleveland’s success in the series.

    Chicago possesses strong front-court options off the bench, in Gibson and Mirotic, but lack the guard depth to compete with Cleveland’s bench. Kirk Hinrich and Aaron Brooks must give the Bulls good minutes in order to limit D-Rose’s minutes, and the Bulls may turn to Tony Snell for some key minutes off the bench, shall either Jimmy Butler or Mike Dunleavy get into foul trouble.

  1. LeBron James
    I still have not talked about LeBron. And why is that? Because he’s THAT important that he deserves his own, unique key to the game. This is a series that can define LeBron’s second tenure in Cleveland. LeBron didn’t win series like these his first time around. I envision the Celtics-Cavaliers series in 2009, where a stacked Cavs team consisting of the likes of LeBron, Mo Williams, Shaq and Antawn Jamison failing to make it out of the second round. The Bulls are a team that can really challenge this Cavs team, and I expect the winner of this series to win the Eastern Conference. 

    LeBron does not need to be the hero. He does not need to score 40 points a game. So what does LeBron need to do? He needs to score 20-25 points a game, grab close to 8-10 rebounds a game (especially without Love), and gather 8-10 assists per game. He needs to take his shot when it’s available, but must also dish it to his teammates. He must have all the confidence in the world in Kyrie Irving, and he needs to know that his veteran teammates, Mike Miller and James Jones, will knock down key three’s all series long. Additionally, LeBron must challenge Jimmy Butler on both ends of the floor. If LeBron puts up a consistent 25-8-8 line all series long, the Cavs will win this series.

I believe the Bulls will win one of the first two games in Cleveland, and the Cavs will win one of the second two games in Chicago. Cleveland will then take control of their home court in Game 5, and rally to win a contested Game 6 at the United Center. Cavs in 6!

Series Schedule:

Game 1: Bulls at Cavaliers, Monday (7 p.m. ET, TNT)
Game 2: Bulls at Cavaliers, Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, TNT)
Game 3: Cavaliers at Bulls, Friday (TBD, ESPN)
Game 4: Cavaliers at Bulls; Sunday, May 10 (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
*-Game 5: Bulls at Cavaliers; Tuesday, May 12 (TBD, TNT)
*-Game 6: Cavaliers at Bulls; Thursday, May 14 (TBD, ESPN)
*-Game 7: Bulls at Cavaliers; Sunday, May 17 (TBD, TNT)
*-if necessary
Chicago Tribune, ESPN,