The Cleveland Cavaliers (6-7) officially kick off the most brutal part of their schedule Friday night when they host the Eastern Conference leading Chicago Bulls (13-3) to the Q.
This game is naturally being billed as the first showdown between Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving, a pair of young PGs who will be playing a lot of games against each other in the next few years. Of course Rose, the reigning MVP and one of the absolute best players in the game today has a pretty healthy head start on Irving. But it would still be fun to see how Irving matches up with Rose at this early stage in his career.
Unfortunately, we may not get to see that matchup. Rose has been battling a toe injury and will be a game time decision. He did not participate in shootaround this morning, though, and in my opinion it might be a long shot to see him play tonight.
If he is absent, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau will likely use a starting lineup of CJ Watson, Richard Hamilton, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, and Joakim Noah. Key subs for the Bulls include Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik, and John Lucas.
Make no mistake about it, the Bulls are a great team. They have the NBA’s 8th most efficient offense and the 2nd most efficient defense. They are a team that just controls games from the half court, a level of efficiency that will suit them well in the playoffs. They don’t turn the ball over much and they are the league’s top offensive rebounding team (in ORB%).
The Cavaliers are expected to get Anthony Parker back tonight. That would reunite the starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, Anthony Parker, Omri Casspi, Antawn Jamison, and Anderson Varejao. No matter how you look at it, this is a rough matchup for the Cavaliers.
The Bulls will want to slow this game down for the most part, although Rose is never afraid to push the tempo from the point (the Bulls are 8th in fastbreak points despite being 25th in Pace Factor…talk about fastbreak efficiency). But in general, they like to run their half court sets to slow the game down and force opponents to have to deal with Chicago’s half court defense.
One major matchup in this one will be Andy and Noah. There’s no denying that Noah has dominated Varejao in past matchups. Andy must play a better game against Noah to help the Cavs have a chance in this game. Rebounding is going to be a huge factor, and Andy must find a way to keep Noah off the boards. Varejao has shown growth as a rebounder this year and he needs to be physical with Noah to keep him away from the boards, particularly offensive rebounds.
Without Derrick Rose, CJ Watson has played phenomenally well. This is still going to be a matchup to watch even without Rose. With the Bulls playing such great defense, Irving needs to be smart with the ball and protect it. I applaud the aggressiveness he has shown recently…it’s what he needs to be doing to develop his game. But he needs to be mindful of the turnovers. The Cavaliers are a successful team at scoring in the paint in large part because their PGs create a lot of issues by driving. If Irving can mix up his scoring with some on the mark passes instead of throw-aways, the Cavaliers will have some chances to score and draw fouls inside in this game.
Finally, the Cavalier bench must have a great game against the Bulls’ reserves. The Bulls’ 2nd unit plays great defense, much like their starting counterparts. However, the Bulls’ bench is not scoring a ton of points for them this year. The Cavs must have a bench performance that dramatically outplays the Bulls’ bench in order for the Cavaliers to have much of a chance in this game. The Bulls’ starting lineup is just too deep and too experienced for the Cavs’ starting lineup to match up.
Who knows how many games the Cavaliers will win against many of the NBA’s elite teams over the next six weeks. No matter how this stretch plays out, though, there will be plenty of opportunities for this team to show what they are made of and how far along they really have come under Byron Scott. A surprise win against a divisional rival would be a great way to kick off this stretch of the schedule.