How Kevin Love’s injury impacts the Eastern Conference:
It is yet another tough day to be a Cleveland sports fan. The current state of affairs as it relates to NBA playoffs has experienced a monumental shift now that we are armed with the knowledge that Kevin Love will most likely be out for the rest of his first ever playoff run in addition to J.R. Smith being suspended for the Cavs next two playoff games. We have seen injuries plague many teams around the NBA this season, notably the Thunder, but this one may be the most devastating of them all, potentially snatching away a title from LeBron and his red hot Cavaliers team. There has been much more open dialogue about other teams remaining in the playoffs, and we will observe how these changes to the Cavs roster affects these teams, notably the Chicago Bulls.
Biggest beneficiary in the East: Chicago Bulls
This one seems almost too obvious of a choice to anyone who has been following the NBA recently. Chicago has now transcended into the most offensively talented team in their conference and their path to the NBA finals has certainly become a little clearer than it was just a few days ago. This is somewhat of a surprising notion for a Bulls team that has struggled to take care of the ball in addition to struggling in putting away a young, inexperienced, and less talented Bucks team. This is not to say that all the praise in the world should not go to Jason Kidd and his team for their ability to continually make life difficult for the Bulls offensively, which has helped Milwaukee quietly climb back into the series after a very impressive road win and fighting off elimination twice in a row. It has mainly been due to the Bulls inability to handle the Bucks defensive length and wingspan which has proven to be very effective in terms of contesting shots and creating turnovers. All things considered, the Bulls have been playing terrible recently by their standards, but I think 10 out of 10 people will tell you they will move on from their first round matchup, myself included. How poorly Chicago has been taking care of the ball is a major cause for concern and certainly won’t fly against their next potential playoff foe in the Cavs, who will be looking to get more easy transition buckets now that the offensive resources at their disposal have been significantly depleted. I am running under the assumption that the Bulls won’t drop two straight against the Bucks, including a final game at home, and that they quickly return to a closer version of their normal standard of play.
That being said, it is hard to argue that the Bulls don’t have a legitimate shot at dethroning the King in the playoffs if they advance to the next round. Throw in the fact that the Cavs are without another huge perimeter threat in J.R. Smith for their next two games and we can really see how daunting of a burden winning will be for LeBron and Uncle Drew. If the Cavs face the Bulls in the next round they are going to be in huge trouble, no question. If I’m Thibs I attack the main Cavs weakness, which is their newfound lack of three point shooting. I would take a page out of Jason Kidd’s playbook and counter Irving defensively with someone who is bigger and has a longer wingspan to contest outside shots (Jimmy Butler). Not only does it decrease Irving’s chances of getting hot from long range as he has demonstrated very proficiently thus far in the playoffs, but it also forces him to drive into a very defensively sound group of Chicago bigs that in all likelihood will force him to give the ball up to other teammates, a gamble that I am sure the Bulls would love to take. I think that the Bulls plan offensively is rather simple as well: play keep away from LeBron. The Bulls are in a favorable position offensively because of the multitude of scorers that they have. The Cavs will have a tough time containing all the scoring threats that the Bulls have. Whether it’s making a determined effort to get the ball to Gasol down low, feeding Butler or Mirotic as they run off ball screens, or spacing the floor to create driving lanes for Rose to get to the basket; there are many offensive variations that Coach Thibodeau can run depending on how LeBron is positioned defensively. Being able to properly react to different defensive schemes thrown at them can be a huge advantage for the Bulls. This definitely won’t be a cakewalk for them since their first two games are on the road and the Cavs still have the best player in the world who may decide to bear the whole team burden on himself, but there are definitely tactical individual matchups to be exploited successfully both offensively and defensively.
With the Hawks coming back to Earth after their incredible regular season and an up and down Wizards team still standing in the East, the Bulls can see a glimpse of a coveted NBA Finals appearance if they can clear the Cavaliers hurdle. That potential matchup will be close if these two teams face off against each other because we always seem to underestimate LeBron’s ability to bring the best out of anyone he plays with, but the Bulls know that if they revert to their consistent style of play they have shown this season, then they have a very realistic shot of making a deep run. However, in the short term they need to address their turnover issues and move the ball better to utilize all the offensive potential that they have on their roster so they can begin to trend towards the right direction. That being said, I would be much more optimistic about what the future holds based on the recent developments if I were a Bulls fan. It will be fascinating to watch.