CHICAGO — The basketball gods threw everything they could at the Cavaliers. Somehow, some way, they’re headed to the Eastern Conference Finals.
With Kyrie Irving suffering a knee injury in the second quarter, Cleveland got an unlikely boost off the bench from Matthew Dellavedova, who scored a team-high 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting. That’s the kind of help LeBron James has been getting all series, ever since Kevin Love went down. Earlier in the series, it was Iman Shumpert stepping up. Thursday, it was Dellavedova.
The turning point came in the second quarter, when Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic clotheslined Shumpert and was whistled for a flagrant foul. At that point, the Bulls trailed by one. From there, the momentum shifted and the Bulls scored six points over the next 12 minutes.
“I think that second quarter has been a problem for us the whole series,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said after the game. “That took a lot out of us, but I thought the fight was there in the third quarter. We had a shot at it again. We could not get it to even striking distance, and could not get it under 10.”
Indeed, the Bulls scored 31 points in the first quarter and just 42 over the next three. With Irving out and James playing an inefficient game, Chicago could not capitalize. They were outrebounded 53 to 32 and shot just 20 percent from three-point range and 37.5 percent from the field. The Cavs shot 12-for-27 from three, including a combined nine three-pointers from Dellavedova, J.R. Smith and James Jones.
It wasn’t a pretty game, just as most of the series wasn’t pretty. But the Cavs prevailed in spite of everything, and are now poised to make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2009 (it will be James’ fifth time in a row after making it four straight times with the Heat). They’ll face either Washington or Atlanta to play for a trip to the Finals. They will be without Love. Whether they’ll have a full-strength Irving is very much up for debate.
But they’ll have James, the best player on the planet, and plenty of underheralded role players ready to step up. And for that, you have to like their chances.