Bulls Take a Big Step Forward with Win Over Cavs

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Bulls Take a Big Step Forward with Win Over Cavs

Thursday, November 5th

by Mark Schanowski
CSNChicago.com

Before the season began, Cleveland was the popular pick to be the Beast of the East, after adding Shaquille O'Neal in a trade with Phoenix, and Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon as free agents.

But the Cavs have been so-so at best in the first week, while Boston looks like the class of the league at 6-0. Still, winning at Cleveland is no small feat, especially when you consider the Cavs had the best home record in the NBA last season at 39-2.

Talk about showing poise under pressure, the Bulls made big plays on both ends of the floor down the stretch, with the Cavs making the key mistakes. Okay, maybe LeBron James did get fouled on that drive to the basket in the closing seconds, but so what? The Bulls played great defense on the King, forcing him to take a tough off-balance shot. Luol Deng has quite a history with James, going back to their high school days, and he didn't back down in guarding LeBron with the game on the line. James finished with 25 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, but thanks to the Bulls' alert defensive rotations, he only got off 17 shots, which is about 8 to 10 less than the Cavs' coaching staff would like to see him take. Both teams shot only 41 percent from the field, and who would have thought the Bulls would be able to win a game in Cleveland with the final score in the 80's. Vinny Del Negro and his staff talked a lot about improving the Bulls' defense during training camp, and apparently all that hard work is paying off. This was a game won on the defensive end.

On the other end of the floor, the Bulls looked better at times against the Cavs, thanks to pushing the ball in transition whenever possible. My pre and post-game show partner, Kendall Gill, says the Bulls are a much more effective team when they run the floor and look for good shots early in the shot clock, instead of holding the ball and letting opposing teams set their defense. Both Rose and Kirk Hinrich did a good job of forcing the tempo against Cleveland, allowing the Bulls to get quality shots against a team with superior size and strength.

LEBRON STILL THE KING IN CLEVELAND

Wouldn't it be something if the Bulls could convince LeBron to leave Cleveland next summer, and team up with Derrick Rose to make the Bulls the team to beat in the Eastern Conference for years to come? Yes, the summer of 2010 has already been dubbed the "Summer of LeBron", because of James' upcoming free agency which could dramatically alter the balance of power in the NBA. The Bulls should have enough room under the salary cap to sign one maximum contract free agent, and even though LeBron has never been mentioned in connection with Chicago, it's fun to dream.

The Bulls had a chance to witness first-hand what an overwhelming talent James has become Thursday night in Cleveland. The reigning M.V.P. ran the court like a gazelle, and threw down fast break dunks with his head above the rim. It's awfully tough to guard a 24 year old monster who's more powerful and faster than just about anyone else on the floor. Add in the fact he's become a dangerous long range shooter and hard-working defender, and you have the best basketball player on the planet right now. Fans in Cleveland are trying to enjoy THIS season with the possibility of LeBron and Shaq bringing the city its first NBA championship, but the thought of losing James to New York or Miami or yes, even Chicago, is never too far from their minds.

DENG IS BACK

One huge positive for the Bulls so far has been the play of Deng, now in his 6th NBA season. Deng's last 2 years were short-circuited by a series of injuries, but he looks like he's back to the form that had NBA personnel people calling him a future all-star after the 2006-2007 season. Watching Luol attack the offensive boards Tuesday night against Milwaukee had to bring a smile to Bulls fans everywhere. He's never been known as a powerful offensive rebounder, but time and again he battled taller Bucks' players to get 2nd chance opportunities in a game the Bulls really needed to win. The 20 rebounds he pulled down were a career high, and the leadership he showed in bringing the Bulls back from an 18 point deficit is also a very positive sign for the season ahead.

Deng said throughout the pre-season that he felt fine physically, and there were no after-effects from the right leg stress fracture that caused him to miss the end of last season and the playoffs. But until Luol could go out in the regular season and show he could compete without fear of getting hurt again, it was only natural for fans and maybe even his teammates to be a little apprehensive. We all know the Bulls have a number of issues they're dealing with right now, starting with Rose's nagging ankle injury, so having a healthy Deng is crucial for the team to keep its head above water during a very difficult stretch of the schedule. Deng might not average 20 points a game, but his ability to hit the mid-range jumper and attack the basket gives the Bulls an offensive weapon they didn't really have down the stretch last season. And, his offensive rebounding prowess allows Vinny to go with a smaller line-up at times that will have Rose and Kirk Hinrich in the backcourt and John Salmons and Deng at the forwards.

It's easy to criticize the Bulls' offense right now, with so many of their top shooters struggling to make open jumpers. Rest assured that will improve in time. Salmons, Hinrich and Rose are just too good to shoot below 40 percent from the field. Once the outside shooting gets better, the Bulls will be able to attack opposing defenses in a variety of ways. November is probably the toughest month on the schedule, so the goal is to just stay close to .500. If they can accomplish that, they're set up to make a strong push the rest of the way.

What do you think about the state of the Bulls right now? Where do they fit in the Eastern Conference power rankings? Please leave a comment in the section below, or drop me an e-mail.

Mark Schanowski hosts our Bulls pre and post game studio coverage with 15-year NBA veteran Kendall Gill. You can also watch Mark on SportsNite Sunday through Thursday at 6:30 and 10.

Five Things To Watch: Bulls battle Celtics in pivotal Game 5 on CSN

Five Things To Watch: Bulls battle Celtics in pivotal Game 5 on CSN

Watch as the Bulls take on the Boston Celtics today in Game 5 on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. And be sure to stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live-streaming coverage of the Bulls.

1. Point guards need to be better. It’ll be Isaiah Canaan starting Game 5 at the point for the Bulls, but their game plan can’t be to have him play 34 minutes again. That means one of Jerian Grant or Michael Carter-Williams is going to have to give the Bulls some semblance of good run at times early in the second and fourth quarters. And that’s assuming Canaan can replicate Game 4’s performance.

2. Perfect time for a Jimmy Butler takeover game. Jimmy Butler has been good, not great, in this series. And for a No. 8 seed to upset a No. 1 seed, the eight seed’s best player needs to be great. Butler is shooting just 41 percent – and 24 percent from deep – despite averaging nearly 25 points per game. This could be a game where he decides to take over. When he does that (and is hitting jumpers), he’s unstoppable and can win a game himself.

3. Niko, Portis or Zipser? The Bulls wouldn’t have won Game 1 without Bobby Portis, and they would have had a much tougher time closing things out had Paul Zipser not gone for 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting. One of those two, or the struggling Nikola Mirotic, needs to step up in a big way for the Bulls, especially with Rajon Rondo out and Dwyane Wade struggling.

4. Is this now Isaiah Thomas’ series? With the Celtics going small Isaiah Thomas appears to have found his way offensively. He was dynamite in Games 1 and 2 with one of Gerald Green or Marcus Smart in the small-ball lineup. The Bulls don’t have enough options to throw at him when he’s on his game. There’s a reason he’s an MVP candidate, and if he decides this series is over the Bulls can’t match him.

5. The series is on the line. The Bulls are eight-point underdogs heading into Game 5, and the series is essentially on the line. A loss tonight means the Bulls need a win Friday at home AND a Game 7 road win in Boston against the top team in the East (record-wise). That just isn’t feasible. The season is on the line, and you can bet Fred Hoiberg has told his team as much – as if they needed to be told.

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Rajon Rondo return seems possible for Game 5

Rajon Rondo return seems possible for Game 5

Calling a Rajon Rondo return likely would be a bit strong, but it’s certainly become a possibility in the last 24 hours as the Bulls traveled to Boston before Game 5 of their first-round series against the Celtics.

Rondo participated in Tuesday morning’s practice before the team departed to Boston, going through five-on-five scrimmages to test his broken right thumb he suffered in Game 2 in Boston.

Multiple sources confirmed to CSNChicago.com Rondo has been making progress with the aim to get back on the floor sooner rather than later, but the probability of a Game 5 return hasn’t been determined yet. A report from ESPN stated Rondo staged a private workout in Boston to further test the thumb.

One source described it as Rondo playing with one hand in practice, which would in theory make him an easy target for the Celtics if he returns, considering his right hand is his dominant one.

Most have said it's too early to call while one source tells CSNChicago.com that “If he can play he will," while the fact the Bulls haven’t released an injury report has added to the intrigue of an already wild playoff series.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said before practice that Rondo is out “as far as we know right now," a statement that certainly seems intentionally ambiguous in hindsight.

If he returned it would be a remarkable turnaround considering one of Rondo’s teammates called his thumb injury the "worst I’ve ever seen in my career," leading to cautious words from Hoiberg.

“This is honestly the first time he has touched a basketball with that right hand. We’ll see how it goes. He’s going to continue to condition and do everything he can,” Hoiberg said. “Just watching him wince a little bit when the ball was coming to him makes me think it’s a longshot. But if there’s anybody who can do it and will try to fight through it, it’s Rondo because of the competitor he is.”

Rondo said he couldn’t grip a fork with his right hand, let alone a basketball when he spoke to the media this weekend, and the official diagnosis stated he would be evaluated between 7-10 days, pushing things right between Games 6 and 7, if it gets to a decisive seventh game in Boston.

Hoiberg plans to start Isaiah Canaan at point guard, as the Bulls have lost the last two games after jumping out to a surprising 2-0 lead, mostly on the strength of Rondo’s leadership.

Rondo was seen shooting with his left hand before practice began and had a light brace surrounding his right hand. He missed a handful of games late in the regular season with a right wrist injury, so he’s not just nursing one serious injury but a moderate one as well.

“He’s our floor general out there,” Jimmy Butler said. “He knows everything, knows every matchup, every position, and he’s still helping over there from the bench, but we really want him healthy and out there for us.”