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NBA Playoffs: Bulls win yet another nail-biter

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It’s hard not to feel for the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers came into the series as heavy underdogs, each one of their games against the mighty Chicago Bulls has come down to the last few possessions, and they still find themselves on the verge of being swept after another heartbreaking loss.

The Pacers needed to do two things in order to turn the series around — make shots and contain Derrick Rose. To their credit, they were able to do the latter extremely well. The Pacers trapped Rose aggressively and used a number of larger defenders on him, and were able to wall off the paint against him. They ended up forcing Rose into five turnovers and a 4-18 shooting night, and only one of Rose’s field goals came from inside of 19 feet.

The Bulls weren’t able to get much offense outside of Rose, either. Carlos Boozer had another terrible game, managing only four points on 2-1o shooting from the field, and Luol Deng required 19 shots to get his 21 points. If it wasn’t for the dead-eye shooting of three-point specialists Keith Bogans and Kyle Korver, who went 5-6 from beyond the arc, the Bulls would have been completely dead in the water offensively in Game 3.

Unfortunately for the Pacers, they completely failed to generate any offense of their own against the league’s top defense. The only thing that really worked offensively for the Pacers was Danny Granger shooting contested two-point jumpers, both in the half-court and in transition, and that is not a formula for sustainable offensive success. Darren Collison and A.J. Price dribbled aimlessly and tossed up shots. Roy Hibbert struggled to get comfortable in the post. The 18-foot jumper Tyler Hansborough had in Game 1 has completely abandoned him. Paul George struggled. Dahntay Jones was able to get to the hoop a few times, but that was about all the Pacers were able to muster on offense.

With the game tied and 55 seconds left to play, the Pacers called a time out to set up a play, but Darren Collison ignored what appeared to be an open Danny Granger and tried a tough floater in the lane, which he missed. On the ensuing Bulls possession, Derrick Rose let the clock run all the way down to five before exploding to the basket and making a left-handed layup over three Pacer defenders to put the Bulls up by two. It was Rose’s first layup of the game. Before Rose’s layup, Kyle Korver was instrumental for Chicago — he scored or assisted on 12 straight Chicago points during one stretch in the fourth-quarter, and kept a key offensive rebound alive that eventually turned into a pair of Rose free throws with 2:31 remaining.

After Rose’s layup, Danny Granger’s contested three missed on the Pacers’ final possession, and the Pacers are now in a 3-0 hole. Indiana should be proud of their effort in all three losses, and clearly has something to build on for next season if they don’t pull of a miracle and come back, but ultimately they didn’t have enough offensive firepower to crack Chicago’s dominant defense.

Chicago has some things to worry about, but ultimately a win is a win in the playoffs, and Chicago has taken three in a row. The Pacers have shown that the Bulls’ offense can be slowed to a crawl if you can trap Derrick Rose effectively and force the rest of the Bulls to beat you, but the next team that Chicago faces may not be able to trap Rose nearly as well as the Pacers have, and there’s a very good chance Carlos Boozer will be a lot more effective than he has been against the Pacers. The Bulls have shown some cracks in their armor, but they’ve yet to give up a game. Until somebody actually beats them, they shouldn’t be taken any less seriously than they were at the end of the regular season.

Cavaliers’ defense foundation for blowout win

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers gestures in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Cleveland blitzed Toronto from the opening tip.

Literally.

Cleveland cranked up their defensive pressure by getting back to aggressively blitzing Raptors’ guards Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan every time they came off a pick. Or they would chase DeRozan over the top of the pick and trail him, never letting him get comfortable to pull up from the midrange. Whatever the defensive scheme, the Cavaliers were physical with Lowry and DeRozan — the pair was 4-of-14 shooting in the first half.

From the start, the Cavaliers defense dictated the flow of the game and set the tone for a 38-point blowout win.

It is that defense they will need to close out this series on the road Friday night.

“We understood that coming back from Game 3 and Game 4 we just didn’t play our defense the right way,” LeBron James said after the game. “We didn’t play how we should have played, and they took advantage of every moment. We had to get back to our staple; we had to get back to what we wanted to do defensively in order for us to play a complete game. That’s the most satisfying thing, the way we defended, holding these guys to 39 percent shooting.”

Defense triggered the offensive runs by the Cavaliers in the first half — Cleveland had eight steals and scored 20 points off turnovers before halftime. Playing with a renewed energy, the Cavs did a fantastic job fighting over screens and disrupting plays, and they closed out on shooters at the arc. It was their best defensive game of the series. It was the polar opposite of how they played in Toronto.

“I think our intensity picked up, our aggressiveness picked up, we were very physical to start the game and it just kind of led to us getting out in transition, us getting steals and getting easy baskets,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.

“They were locked in, from the start to the finish,” according to Raptors coach Dwane Casey.”The force that they play with is different here and we didn’t meet it.”

Back home and with their backs against the wall, you can expect a very different, very desperate Raptors team. Lowry and DeRozan will shoot better.

But if the Cavaliers pack their defense and take it north of the border this time, they should close out the series.

LeBron James was dunking all over the Raptors (VIDEO)

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With their defense creating turnovers to get breaks — and the Raptors’ defense just breaking down — the Cavaliers put on a dunking exhibition against Toronto Wednesday.

LeBron James led the way, with 23 points and plenty of dunks. Here is another.

To change things up, here is an and-1.

Cavaliers retake series lead at home with rout of Raptors

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers drives to the basket in the second quarter against the Toronto Raptors in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on May 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Eastern Conference Finals have been all about the comforts of home. Through five games between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, the home team has come out on top convincingly every time. Wednesday’s Game 5 was no different, with the Cavs destroying the Raptors, 116-78 to take a 3-2 series lead.

After a pair of awful games in Toronto, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving stepped up at home to score 25 and 23 points, respectively, to go along with 23 from LeBron James. The big production from their stars was enough to keep the Raptors at bay — the only other Cavs player to score in double figures was Richard Jefferson, who had 11 points, but it didn’t matter.

On the other side, after coming up huge at home in Games 3 and 4, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 7-for-20 from the field Wednesday, and nobody else did much to pick up the slack. After not trailing by 30 at a half at any point this season, Toronto trailed by 31 at halftime, and the lead ballooned to 100-60 at the end of the third quarter. From the beginning, this game was one-sided.

The Cavs can close out the series on the road on Friday, ensuring James’ sixth straight trip to the Finals. But the Raptors have been a different team at home during this series, and in a do-or-die situation they should come out with more fight. It’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did Wednesday.

Report: Joakim Noah having “positive dialogue” with Bulls about future

Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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And the spin keeps on happening.

First came the report that Joakim Noah was telling teammates he was out of Chicago. Followed by Noah’s agent — the person charged with keeping Noah’s options open — saying that was not true.

Now comes team management — the people who said they want to keep Noah with the Bulls — saying the sides are still talking, and they want him to stay. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

Veteran Bulls center Joakim Noah, his representatives and the Chicago front office continue to have a “positive dialogue” about a new contract amid a report that Noah has been telling teammates he’s ready to leave the franchise, a league source told ESPN.com on Wednesday.

Those close to Noah, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, are still hopeful that he will be able to work out an agreement to stay in Chicago long term.

I’m going to let you in on a real insider bit of knowledge on what team Noah will play for next season:

Whatever team pays him the most money.

I know, it’s crazy, but sometimes people make a decision about where to work based on pay. Right now, everything is posturing. Come July 1, money will go on the table, and then Noah will know just how badly the Bulls want to keep him vs. other teams wanting to bring him in. Once the money is out there, if things are roughly even, then minutes and role on the team, lifestyle, weather and all the rest come into play.

But Puffy had it right — it’s all about the Benjamins.