Friday, April 8, 2011Posted: 9:00 p.m. Updated: 10:30 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
No. 1 and now were going to the sun, said Joakim Noah.
Were going to Orlando and its sunny out there. We havent seen the sun in a long time. Thats what I meant, elaborated the center. It means what it means. We are the No. 1 seed and we have home-court advantage. We are not satisfied and we are trying to catch up to San Antonio. We are focused on our next opponent and thats Orlando.
Typical of these Bullsand their charismatic centerthe visiting locker room at Quicken Loans Arena was happy, but not over the top Friday night, following a 93-82 victory over the Cavaliers that clinched the top seed and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Its the next step, so we still have ways to go. Were not done. We have to keep playing, keep improving and get ready for the next game, said Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau. Youre chasing the league-leading Spurs. You want to put as many things in your favor as possible. It doesnt guarantee anything. Thats how you have to approach it.
Led by Carlos Boozers 24-point, 10-rebound effortin the city where he began his NBA careerthe Bulls were never truly in danger against their inferior opponent.
After making their living by scoring in the paint the previous evening, the Bulls (59-20) opted to try their luck with perimeter jumpers in the games early going. While the strategy was somewhat effective because of the Bulls accuracy, the hosts were too close for comfort mostly due to the initial scoring burst of third-year Cavaliers forward J.J. Hickson (22 points, 15 rebounds).
With the score tied at 14 piece, the Bulls followed a timeout by going on a 10-0 run that featured heavy doses of Boozer and Derrick Rose (11 points, eight assists). Cleveland, however, rallied back behind their bench, particularly backup point guard Ramon Sessions (13 points), resulting in the Bulls leading by the score of 29-26 after the opening period.
Instead of increasing the lead, as they are prone to doing, Chicagos Bench Mob meandered through the beginning of the second quarter, allowing the Cavaliers (17-62) to stay within close range. Taj Gibson (nine points, four rebounds), however, singlehandedly brought the second unit out of its malaise, scoring four consecutive baskets to propel the Bulls to a double-digit advantage.
The second quarter, they were playing so well and I wanted to extend their minutes," Thibodeau said. "I thought it would be good for the bench and good for the starters, and I probably knocked the starters out of rhythm a little bit. But they were playing so well and defensively, they were doing a very good job. Our bench has been so consistent all year. Those guys step up, they play hard. Some nights, we dont make shots, but they give you great effort, great defense, rebound the ball and they share the ball.
The visitors took advantage of Clevelands sloppy execution by converting turnovers and offensive rebounds into easy scoring opportunities, a scenario that persisted when Thibodeau reinserted his regulars, with the exception of sharpshooter Kyle Korver (10 points), who made his presence felt with his usual marksmanship.
But the home team made another stand before the break behind Hickson and veteran point guard Baron Davis (10 points, six assists), cutting the Bulls lead to 54-46 at halftime.
A lack of urgency marked the return from the intermission for the Bulls, eventually infuriating Thibodeau enough that he put a halt to the action in the aftermath of an alley-oop from Davis to center Ryan Hollins that received scant attention from his players.
His instruction didnt immediately help matters, as Cavaliers swingman Alonzo Gee (11 points) hit a corner three-pointer to make it a one-possession contest, igniting a sellout Quicken Loans Arena crowd primarily in attendance for a tribute to longtime Cavaliers announcer Joe Tait.
Noah (11 points, eight rebounds) was a catalyst in the third quarter, as the Bulls extended their advantage to double digits once again, while Luol Deng (10 points, nine rebounds, six assists) was quietly in the midst of a typically solid all-around performance and Ronnie Brewer (12 points, four rebounds, three assists) provided a spark off the bench with his slashing and finishing.
A generally sloppy affair, both teams struggled with mishandling the ball, but although the Bulls didnt definitively put away their Central Division rival, they went into the final frame holding a 78-63 lead.
Theres a lot of areas we can improve in. everything, every aspect of the game. We know were pretty good in a lot of areas. We hold ourselves to a very high standard and we want to play as perfect as possible, said Noah. We definitely can play better pick-and-roll defense. We can stop the three-pointer, we can stop transition betterjust getting back in transition a little bit betterand offensively, theres a lot of things that we can do better.
Chicagos reserves maintained the visitors comfortable cushion early in the fourth quarter and it appeared as if the Bulls would cruise to the inevitable victory. But the lackluster nature of their effort became evident as time went on, with the Cavaliers making a final push to cut the deficit to single digits.
Boozer carried the offensive load for the Bulls down the stretch, asserting his will on the game with his strong interior play, deft passing and mid-range jumper, ensuring the win. The Bulls will host the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference playoffs on the opening weekend of the NBA postseason.
I loved the way we passed the ball. I thought we were very unselfish, said Thibodeau. We did what we had to do to get the win.
You still have to play well and it doesnt guarantee anything, but when you study the numbers, having a Game 7 at home is an advantage, he continued. You want to put as many things in your favor as you can.
Concurred Noah: Its good to be a No. 1 seed, but at the end of the day, we understand that theres a bigger picture. Were staying focused, but its definitely an achievement and were excited about it.
If we come with the right mentality, we feel like we can beat anybody.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.