Sunday, April 18, 2010

Playoff Click-a-Bull (No Threat; Changes Needed; Reality Check; Shaq Lesson)

James and Co. hardly sweating Bulls
Even when at its best, Chicago still no threat to Cavaliers

The thing about one-sided matchups like the first-round Cleveland Cavaliers-Chicago Bulls playoff series is that they can deceive. For it was when the Bulls looked their best Saturday that their chances looked the worst.

Cleveland ended up winning 96-83, but the score was immaterial. The Cavs maintained a lead that hovered around 16 in the second quarter, then built it to 22 in the third before becoming bored long enough for a seven-minute scoring draught to allow the Bulls to climb to within single digits in the fourth.

The Bulls will tell themselves that if they can just shore up their poor shooting, improve their offensive rebounding and maybe jack up their intensity, they can be right back in this series.

But they will be wrong.

Even as a Brad Miller jumper cut the lead to seven with five and a half minutes remaining in regulation, there was never the sense that the Cavs were not in control. And indeed, the Bulls never got closer. A combination of missed shots and turnovers along with Antawn Jamison's flexing his muscles on the boards and a gut-slashing drive by LeBron James past Derrick Rose dismissed any notion of a "shock the world" scenario brewing.

James did not have to dance as he has in annoying the Bulls in the past. He didn't have to talk. ABC analyst Mark Jackson did accuse James and his teammates of "clowning" the Bulls at one point early in the third, when a couple of them went careening out of bounds like a circus act and came back all smiles when the effort hardly seemed necessary.

This was around the same time when Shaquille O'Neal officially reduced Bulls' spiritual leader, Joakim Noah, into a rag doll.

The practically sleak Shaq, down at least 15 pounds in his first game since thumb surgery in late February, spun around a flailing Noah for a dunk. The oldest active player in the NBA followed up a short time later by swatting the ball out of Noah's hands, off Noah's knee and out of bounds to force the turnover.

"That's the patented move ... the 'Diesel Truck with No Brakes,'" said O'Neal, who lured Noah into foul trouble. "You see when I get into that move, people get out of the way because they know I'm [going] and don't have any brakes."

Bulls Lose Game 1 to Cavs and Need to Make Changes

The first game of a playoff series is something of a feeling out process, getting a sense of what your opponent will do and where you are.

The Bulls, in losing Saturday 96-83 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, not only are trailing 1-0 in the series. But it should be obvious—and to no one’s surprise since the Cavs had the best record in the league—the Cavs are a much better team with LeBron James casually scoring 24 points, Mo Williams adding 18, Shaquille O’Neal returning with 12 points and three blocks and Anderson Varejao with 15 rebounds off the bench.

The Cavs took away the Bulls hopes and strength with a 50-38 rebounding edge, matching them in fast break points and holding a 38-14 edge in inside points through the first three quarters before finishing 42-26.

“They’re big,“ noticed Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. “They keep coming at you.”

That’s because the Cavs loaded up for a championship drive after last season’s conference finals loss by adding O’Neal and Antawn Jamison, and they feel it is their time.

“We’re confident,” said James, deigning to remove his sun glasses as he spoke to reporters after a long post game break. “Our goal now is to win an NBA championship. We have the look of a champion.”

There was little doubt of that Saturday as the Bulls had the look of a team just grateful to be there, satisfied about having closed the season strong with 10 of 14 to vindicate themselves after a 10-game losing streak in March.

So you say, maybe it was just nerves as the Bulls fell behind by 22 early in the third quarter before getting it together and getting within seven a few times midway through the fourth quarter.

“We can’t wait to play (Game 2 Monday),” said Derrick Rose, who led the Bulls with 28 points and 10 assists. “I know I can’t (wait). It’s going to be a fun series. This is something I live for. I think about every day, every minute of the day, playing against the best team in the NBA, one of the best players in the NBA.”

Call it a reality check

Bulls unable to shock anyone in opening loss

For a team that barely sneaked into the playoffs and was matched against the team with the NBA's best record, the Bulls arrived at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday with a lot of confidence and even a little bit of swagger.

Joakim Noah talked about ''shocking the world,'' and others readily offered that you never know what can happen in a best-of-seven series.

But it didn't take long in Game 1 for the reality of the monumental task they're up against to smack the Bulls across the face as they fell behind by 16 points just 10 minutes into the game.

After trailing by as many as 22, the Bulls rallied late but got no closer than seven as the Cleveland Cavaliers posted a 96-83 victory to take a 1-0 lead.

If they didn't know it before, the Bulls certainly know now they'll have to play at the top of their game to have any shot in any game against the Cavs -- especially in Cleveland.

''We can't get down on this game,'' Noah said. ''We have to stay confident. We missed a lot of shots today. We just have to keep fighting.''

O’Neal gives Bulls playoff lesson

In the vernacular of Shaquille O'Neal, this was a Shaq Diesel truck veering wildly without brakes, the Cavaliers' 325-pound center barreling into the first row of seats as he chased a ball out of bounds Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena.

To prevent anybody from being pummeled, O'Neal eventually found himself with his arms wrapped around the body of Cavaliers part-owner Nate Forbes, sitting in the seats that require a Quicken loan to purchase. Before O'Neal unlocked his embrace of the owner, realizing who it was, he hammed it up and held the hug long enough to pose during the Cavs' 96-83 victory over the Bulls.

As O'Neal clung to a man so deeply invested in the Cavs, it provided a metaphor impossible to ignore for every one of the 20,562 white-towel-waving fans and the rest of the NBA. The playoff T-shirts that went on sale last week may say "The Wait of the City (Is) on the Shoulders of the King,'' but O'Neal's strong hands are back to stop any accidents from happening.

Apparently so are the rest of his arms.

"Early in the game, Shaq just woke me up with one of those big elbows,'' Bulls rookie forward Taj Gibson said. "I was like, ‘Oh, so this is the playoffs.' ''

So this is the playoffs, which should start in earnest in Chicago any day now, right?

Less than 24 hours after the Blackhawks were outplayed in the third period of a Game 1 loss to the Predators, the Bulls appeared overwhelmed against a Cavs team that has that championship look in its eyes.

Unlike the 2009 playoffs, when the Bulls won respect and three games against the Celtics, this series doesn't seem destined to include seven overtime sessions or feature games worthy of replaying on CSN.

Remember that the Celtics were without Kevin Garnett, and the Bulls took advantage. This year the Cavs and all-business LeBron James welcomed back their aging star in O'Neal — and the Bulls are taking refuge instead.

"He doesn't have the lift he once did, but he was a factor,'' Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro said of O'Neal.

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