NBA Playoffs: Bulls get back to basics, even up series against Hawks

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If Game 1 between the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks was an aberration — after all, the Hawks converted tough jumpers at an extremely high rate, and rode the high of those makes into a well-executed defense and an improbable victory — then Game 2 was oddly typical.

The Bulls are no strangers to offensive inefficiency, and on those nights when Derrick Rose struggles to keep his turnovers down or his field goal percentage up, Chicago still holds the means to gut out ugly wins. For all of Rose’s strengths, the Bulls didn’t climb to the top of the Eastern Conference standings due only to the brilliance of his drives or his ability to set up his teammates; Chicago won a gaudy number of games by leading the NBA in effective field goal percentage allowed and dominating the boards on both ends of the court. The Bulls are as active and bothersome as any team in the league on the defensive end, and though Game 2 began with the MVP trophy being presented to Rose in front of his home crowd, it ended with the Bulls taking care of business in a manner that only included Rose as one valuable part of a successful team-wide effort.

The Bulls were back to their dominant ways on the glass, as they grabbed 32.6 percent of the available offensive boards while limiting the Hawks to a far lower mark on the other end. Joakim Noah — who had seven offensive rebounds and 14 boards overall to go along with his 15 points — was the star in that effort, but Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng grabbed a combined 19 defensive rebounds to prevent the misfiring Hawks from securing any extra opportunities.

Atlanta’s shot selection finally came back to bite them, and without a superior rebounding performance like the one they had in Game 1, the Hawks had no means to score reliably. Jamal Crawford and Josh Smith made some particularly questionable decisions, but the less prolific output from Joe Johnson (who finished with 16 points, just a few shy of his 34-point outburst from Game 1) was just as damaging to Atlanta’s cause. The Bulls didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard, but the Hawks still had trouble keeping pace, and scored at a rate of just 83 points per 100 possessions. That mark is atrocious, but was an inevitable result of Atlanta’s desire to shoot contested jumpers and live with the consequences.

The problems of Atlanta’s offense were due to no explicit fault of Jeff Teague’s, as the emergency point guard dropped a team-high 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field. That said, Teague’s limitations did come into play; Johnson and Crawford initiated much of Atlanta’s offense, and while that strategic decision minimized Teague’s turnovers (he didn’t commit a single TO in Game 2, after giving the ball away just once in Game 1), it put a lot of pressure on Atlanta’s ball-handling wings to create a stable offense. That’s possible when all of the Hawks’ jumpers are falling, but once the defensive pressure increases and the exasperation sets in, the Hawks sometimes stymie their own offense at the point of attack. To a degree, it becomes less about what the Bulls are doing defensively and more about what the Hawks aren’t doing offensively. The ball movement becomes unproductive, the cuts and curls are mere tokens, the effort to really run a legitimate offense is subpar. These are the realities of the typical Atlanta Hawks, and even though Teague is doing an admirable job of filling in for Kirk Hinrich, the absence of the Hawks’ true starting point guard has stifled their already stiflable offense considerably. Things were going to be tough for Atlanta to maintain their offensive production even with Hinrich in the lineup (as-was?), but now this team seems capable of little more on the offensive end than splashes of hot shooting and benefiting from their occasional good fortune. It’s not easy for any team to execute against Chicago’s defense, but Atlanta doesn’t make it any easier on themselves, either.

Game 2 fell more in line with series expectation, though it’s likely that Chicago’s offense will improve from here through schematic means; we already saw a foundation for improvement with an increase in side screen-and-roll action, a fairly effective counter to the defensive pressure that had kept Rose from getting to the basket in Game 1. If the Bulls continue to work those side angles and implement more variety into their pick-and-roll attack while spacing the floor well, they’ll create more opportunities for Rose to charge toward the rim with a full head of steam or use his active dribble to create new passing lanes. Atlanta, on the other hand, is still too reliant on the bounce of the ball, not to mention the often questionable decision-making ability of its high-usage players. Johnson, Crawford, and Smith are often too willing to take a poorly chosen shot or stop the ball with isolation play, and though on their best days those three are a sight to behold, the norm is something a bit less fantastic. It’s 4-of-14 shooting for Smith with four turnovers. It’s 2-of-10 shooting from Crawford and a -9 plus-minus for the game, the single lowest for any player on either team. It’s dreadfully low scoring efficiency in what could have been a very winnable contest.

This is the result of a game in which the Hawks are the Hawks and the Bulls are the Bulls. If Atlanta wants to win a few more games and make this a series, they had better start working toward a few more aberrations.

Watch all of LeBron James’ 46 points in Game 6

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There is going to be a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals Sunday because of LeBron James.

George Hill had a strong game (20 points), Jeff Green and Larry Nance Jr. had their moments, but it was all about LeBron — 46 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in 46 brilliant minutes.

Rather than try to describe his game to you — including the dagger threes late — just watch.

And enjoy. There are still some people out there (mostly on Twitter, it seems) who just want to tear LeBron down for some reason. I pity them. Not just because they are wrong, although they are. Rather, it’s because they are depriving themselves of enjoying one of the greatest players ever to lace them up. LeBron can bully people in the paint, hit step back threes, is as gifted a passer as the game has seen, and just plays a smart, high-IQ game we have got to watch grow over the years. If you can’t enjoy that, you don’t love basketball.

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.