BKN-BULLS-NETS

Joakim Noah’s heart lifts Bulls to ugly win over Nets

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Joakim Noah pushed Kris Humphries in the back, positioned himself between Humphries and C.J. Watson for a rebound and lunged out of bounds to save the ball as it took a sharp carom across the baseline. Noah’s heave was headed out of bounds on the sideline, but Kirk Hinrich jumped to save the ball, making a pinpoint pass to Nate Robinson. With 21 seconds on the shot clock, Robinson drilled a long 3-pointer like time was running out and he needed to save a possession.

Thanks to an incredible effort by the plantar-fasciitis-suffer Noah, the Bulls saved their playoff hopes with a 90-82 win over the Nets tonight.

Noah played 25:29 – just enough over his limit of 25 minutes to prove a point – and all 25 minutes and 29 seconds were essential to the Chicago’s win. It wasn’t just that Noah made positive plays, though he certainly did, but his teammates fed off his resolve. The Bulls cheered heartily from the bench and defended physically on the floor, lifting each other as they willed themselves to play just better than Brooklyn.

Then Noah took over.

In the final 7:39, Noah had nine points, six rebounds and a seizure-inducing blocked shot:

Plays like that helped Chicago hold the Nets to 35 percent shooting, and compared to the series’ first game, the big difference came in the paint:

Game 1: 28-of-38 (74 percent)

Game 2: 15-of-36 (42 percent)

The Bulls uglied the game, which worked to their advantage.

Kirk Hinrich orchestrated an offense that scored just 95.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. But he also hounded Deron Williams into 1-of-9 shooting.

Luol Deng forced shot after shot, scoring 15 points on 16 attempts. But highlighting the small forward matchup overwhelmed Gerald Wallace, who scored just two points on 1-for-7 shooting.

Nazr Mohammed… well, there wasn’t much ugly about his game. He played big defense in the interior, and he shot 4-of-5, making two 15-footers and two 16-footers.

In Game 1, the Bulls were –13 in the 12 minutes neither Noah nor Taj Gibson played. Tonight, Chicago was +6 in its 12 minutes with Noah or Gibson – and that’s a credit to Mohammed.

Tom Thibodeau outcoached P.J. Carlesimo tonight – both by making tactical changes from Game 1 and by inspiring his players to give their all – and now it’s the Nets coach’s turn to make adjustments.

Here’s a thought: Don’t start both Wallace and Reggie Evans. They have value for their defense and rebounding, but though those two forwards mostly play with three plus offensive players – Williams, Brook Lopez (21 points) and Joe Johnson (17 points) – the Nets had an offensive rating of 47.6 (!) in the 17 minutes Wallace and Evans shared the court tonight.

In an muddy game, those Brooklyn possessions were perhaps the deepest in the muck, though there were certainly other contenders.

Noah made all three of his fourth-quarter shots, and after each one, he grimaced while laboring up the court. It looked like his legs could crumble beneath him at any moment.

But he kept pressing.

Watch Kevin Love drop 25 points on Toronto

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Before Game 5, Cavaliers’ coach Tyronn Lue told Kevin Love just to stay aggressive. Channing Frye told him the same thing.

Love took that advice to heart. From the opening tip of Game 5, Love was attacking — backing down the overmatched Luis Scola and knocking down threes. Love had 12 points in the first quarter on his way to a game-high 25, helping spark an easy, 38-point Cavaliers win in Game 5.

Now, can Love do this on the road in Game 6?

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.