With both J.R. Smith and Kevin Love out for the first two games of the playoff series against the Chicago Bulls, Coach Blatt needed some alternative lineups to counter the Bulls tough starting group.
For Game 1, Blatt went with a smaller starting rotation, moving LeBron at the power forward position and starting Iman Shumpert and Mike Miller. This turned out to be a mistake as Miller only played 16 minutes in which the Bulls outscored the Cavs by 20 points. While some of this could be due to rusty shooting by Iman Shumpert and the lack of three point production by Miller, most of these points came from a lack of defense.
While James was shutting down Joakim Noah’s offense, Noah took to setting screens to get the Bull’s guards open. If the Cavs shut down the screen, the Bulls forced help-side defense, either Jimmy Butler or Mike Dunleavy, who shot 5-5 including four three-pointers in the first quarter, were left with wide open shots.
In another much more common scenario, the Cavs had to switch on screens, a vital mistake with the mismatches left. While LeBron could shut down the paint, Miller was often left to scramble to put a hand up on Pau Gasol. With D. Rose and Jimmy Butler’s tricky passing, Pau got plenty of uncontested shots right around the free throw line or elbow, which he knocked down easily. The Bulls got up early, and never looked back as the Cavs couldn’t keep up.
Luckily, David Blatt adjusted in Game 2. He imposed a new starting lineup, moving LeBron back down to a small forward and starting Tristan Thompson instead of Mike Miller. This adjustment paid huge dividends, with Thompson being an absolute animal on the boards and post offense.
First off, James had and easier matchup on offense, which led to 33 points in 34 minutes. This aggressive offense also led to more open shots by Kyrie, Shumpert, and James Jones, who collectively went 10 of 19 from three-point land. The shift from a small lineup to big lineup was crucial for the Cavs for two main reasons.
The big lineup allowed a better defensive matchup with Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, going up against Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. This allowed LeBron to still play small forward which led to better screen defensive and overall prevented open shots by the Bulls. This lineup’s benefits also translated onto the offensive end of the court. LeBron had more freedom to be aggressive with two bigger guys in the game and he took advantage of it, getting to the basket often as well as kicking out shots to open guards. LeBron ended with five assists, mostly off of drive and kicks.
In Games 3 and 4, Blatt kept the starting lineup intact and both games were close and dirty, grind-it-out type of games. So close, that both games ended on incredible buzzer beating shots. One heartbreaker for the Cavs with Rose’s banked three-pointer in Game 3:
And the other heartbreaker, this time for the Bulls, after LeBron James hit a corner jumpshot at the buzzer to win Game 4:
Cleveland did what it had to: regain home-court advantage and put themselves in a position to win Game 5 at home. Cleveland got off to a large lead thanks to their small lineup that shot their way into a 19 point lead. The Bulls made a huge comeback slowly cutting into the Cavs lead, but were unable to regain the lead as Cleveland took a 3-2 lead into Chicago for Game 6.
Game 6 started off well for the Cavs, despite the good start from Pau Gasol. Tristan Thompson played big, grabbing seemingly every rebound within his reach. Once Kyrie Irving went down, the Cavs made a huge run to take a 58-44 halftime lead playing Delly, Smith, Shumpert, James, and Thompson. To start the third, both teams struggled mightily to score. Cleveland went small again with the small lineup, and exploded offensively thanks to Matthew Dellavedova (19 points, three three-pointers), Iman Shumpert (13 points, two three-pointers), J.R. Smith (12 points, three three-pointers), and Tristan Thompson (13 points, 17 rebounds). Together, Cleveland defeated and eliminated the Bulls to advance to their first Conference Finals since 2009.
While no lineup is perfect, some certainly have advantages over others. Coach Blatt now needs to decide how he wants to manage J.R. Smith’s playing time in the coming games as he is coming off suspension. It will be interesting to see how he plays the big, as well as manage the bench minutes in the upcoming series.