What the Bulls should do when the lockout ends

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The Bulls were one of the NBA”s best success stories last season. Nobody saw them as serious contenders coming into the year, but first-year head coach and defensive guru turned the Bulls into the league’s best defensive team, the Bulls’ bench mob made them perhaps the deepest team in the league, and Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP award winner in the history of the league. The Bulls finished with the NBA’s best regular-season record, and while they only managed to take one game off of the Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, they clearly gave LeBron, Wade and co. all they could handle.

Now the Bulls have to make the leap from title contender to champion, which is even tougher than the leap from good team to title contender. Here are some ways they could do it:

1. Add some versatility to the offense

This was a point that came up over and over again  when the Bulls had trouble scoring during the playoffs, but the Bulls were never a great offensive team at any point last season. The Bulls finished 12th in offensive efficiency during the regular season, and were 8th out of the 16 playoff teams in post-season offensive efficiency. The Bulls’ plan was to grind teams down with their defense and depth, keep games close, and let Derrick Rose take over late in games. It worked until it didn’t — when Rose got locked down in the fourth quarter by LeBron James a few times in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls had no answers, and their fourth-quarter performances ultimately cost them the series.

Rose has room for improvement as an offensive player, especially from the perimeter. Early in the year, Rose’s improved jump shot was a big storyline, but eventually Rose’s jumper went back to being a weakness — Rose shot a career-low 38% on long twos last season, and while he made huge leaps as a three-point shooter, he still only made less than a third of his shots from beyond the arc. In the postseason, his jumper completely abandoned him, and he shot just 39.6% from the field and 24.8% from deep in the playoffs.

The Bulls and Rose need to find ways to generate offense when Rose isn’t able to get into the paint and convert at will if they want to win a championship in the next few years.

2. Plan for the postseason

Derrick Rose took home the MVP trophy, but Chicago’s group of defensive minded super-subs like C.J. Watson, Omer Asik, and even Kurt Thomas were just as important to Chicago’s regular-season success as Rose was.

However, when the rotations tightened for the playoffs, Chicago’s depth stopped being the asset it was in the regular season, and Watson, Asik, and Thomas barely saw the floor. From the day the season starts, whenever that might be, the Bulls have to start planning for teams like the Celtics and the Heat instead of trying to figure out a post-season rotation on the fly — playoff basketball is very different from regular-season basketball because of how much more important individual matchups become and how many more minutes the best players play, and the Bulls have to keep that in mind all season long.

3. Don’t forget what made you a contender

The Bulls had the best record in the regular season because they played a tougher, more swarming brand of defense than any other team in the league, outworked their opponents, and generally broke whatever team they played on a given night. They played like a team with something to prove all year long. If they rest on the laurels of their success last season, they could lose what made them so good — the fact that they played every game like a Game 7. If the Bulls stay hungry, they should be able to capture one of the top two spots in the East again. If they can then find new sources of offense and settle on a true playoff rotation, they could easily bring the NBA Finals trophy back to Chicago.

Cavaliers tie series with Pacers in Indiana, 2-2

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Sunday night’s game between the Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers was raucous. Bankers Life Fieldhouse was rocking, and despite Indiana’s best effort to put back seemingly every offensive board it encountered, LeBron James‘ 32 points was just too much to overcome.

Facing the possibility of going down 3-1 in the first round, the Cavaliers pulled out the win, 104-100, and sent the series back to Ohio for Game 5.

The game came down to the final period following a surge by the Pacers to end the third quarter. The teams were tied several times midway through the fourth, but a tip shot by Thaddeus Young wth 6:13 left gave the Pacers the lead as fans in Indiana went wild.

Cleveland then came roaring back. At the three-minute mark, James drove to the basket and scored. Thirty seconds later, Kyle Korver hit a big-time 3-pointer to put the Cavaliers up by four points, a mark the Pacers couldn’t recover from.

LeBron scored again with 1:52 left, and despite some weird late-game antics — featuring none other than Lance Stephenson — the Cavaliers were able to remain resolute down the stretch.

James finished with 32 points, 13 rebounds, and seven assists. Kyle Korver added 18 points on 4-of-9 shooting from deep, and Kevin Love had five points with 11 boards.

Victor Oladipo struggled for Indiana, scoring 17 points but shooting just 25 percent from the floor. Seven Pacers finished in double-digits, with Young notching an impressive double-double of 12 points and 16 rebounds.

Game 5 will be played in Cleveland on Wednesday, April 25.

Wizards beat Raptors in Game 4, tie series at 2-2 heading to Toronto

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The Toronto Raptors were far and away the best team in the Eastern Conference this season. The Washington Wizards were … well, very Wizard-y.

So considering their regular seasons, the fact that Washington was able to tie the first round series between the two teams at 2 games apiece on Sunday is pretty astonishing.

Bradley Beal had 31 points and five rebounds for the Wizards while teammate John Wall added 27 points to go along with a whopping 14 assists. Washington shot an impressive 41 percent from 3-point range as four of five starters finished in double-digit scoring.

Despite Beal’s performance, it was Wall who saved the day for the Wizards. Beal was disqualified after fouling out with around five minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Beal didn’t agree with the call, and could be seen throwing a towel near the Washington bench.

For his part, Wall either scored or assisted on 10 of the Wizards’ final 14 points of the game. That helped stave off the likes of DeMar DeRozan, who led all scorers with 35 points.

The series heads back to Toronto for Game 5, which will be played on Wednesday, April 25.

Marcus Smart wants to be back for Game 6 vs. Bucks

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Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart has been out for some time after injuring his thumb earlier in the year. The absence of one of Boston’s most important guards has been felt even more so after Kyrie Irving went down following knee surgery.

In short, the Celtics would like to have Smart back on the floor.

We’re now close enough that Smart has begun to give solid timeframes to reporters. Speaking to media on Sunday, Smart said that his plan is to be back for Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks. Boston took on Milwaukee on Sunday in Game 4.

Via ESPN:

Right now, [a Game 6 return is] the plan and we’re still on the same track,” Smart said before Game 4 on Sunday. “I’ve been doing everything but contact, so I will be able to go and start that.”

Smart said he believes the thumb is ready for contact.

“The surgery did its job,” said Smart, who injured himself March 11 while diving for a loose ball in a game against the Indiana Pacers. “Thumb is holding up well. I feel ready, I feel strong enough to get back out there. I’m just waiting on the OK.”

The series between the Celtics and Bucks has been tumultuous, a back-and-forth affair as an injury-riddled Boston squad takes on a healthy but offensively-sluggish Milwaukee team. Smart could add a shot of life for Boston in a much-needed way.

The Bucks won Game 4 and the series is now tied, 2-2. Game 6 would be on Thursday, April 26 if need be.

Manu Ginobili leads Spurs over Warriors

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Although the San Antonio Spurs were outmatched against the Golden State Warriors, Manu Ginobili was an integral part of the Spurs staving off elimination against the reigning champs on Sunday. San Antonio beat the Warriors, 103-90, to put the series at 3-1.

The 40-year-old wingman scored 10 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter in San Antonio as Ettore Messina logged a playoff win at the helm of the team. Gregg Popovich, who sadly lost his wife this past week, did not coach.

Ginobili was 5-of-10 off the bench, adding five assists and three rebounds in the win. LaMarcus Aldridge led all Spurs scorers with 22, notching a double-double with 10 rebounds.

Meanwhile, the only Warriors player to score more than 12 points was Kevin Durant, who rose above all scorers with 34 points to go with 13 rebounds. Klay Thompson shot an embarrassing 25 percent from the field, scoring just 12 points.

Ginobili put the dagger on the Warriors with 90 seconds to go, hitting a spinning flip shot over Draymond Green to give San Antonio a 10-point lead.

The series heads back to Oakland for Game 5 with the Spurs trailing, 3-1.