After four grueling games wherein the previous two contests needed last second heroics from Derrick Rose and LeBron James respectively, the Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls is now down to a best-of-three series. Outside of Game 2, which was fairly lopsided in favor of the Cavaliers, each game displayed the type of atmosphere that describes what playoff basketball is all about.
Cleveland, who’s already missing the services of Kevin Love, will have to contend with whatever’s left of Kyrie Irving’s body as the All Star point guard has been playing through a sore right foot while dealing with left knee tendinitis. His production has noticeably declined from Game 1 to Game 4 and he’s now at 18.5 points on an un-Kyrie-like 36% shooting from the floor. After scoring 51 points on 15-32 shooting and nine assists in Games 1 and 2, Irving has scored just 23 points on 5-23 shooting with just two assists in Games 3 and 4.
Coach David Blatt even had to hide Kyrie on the defensive end as he simply could not keep up with the explosiveness of Derrick Rose, thus, forcing Matthew Dellavedova to expose himself to the abuse of the one-time MVP. Although Rose as gone off two games, Dellavedova has been doing an excellent job defending Rose one-on-one and in the pick-and-roll.
Chicago hasn’t been spared from its own injury problem as their main big man in Pau Gasol already missed Game 4 and is listed as questionable to play in Game 5. Gasol injured his hamstring in Game 2 and forced his way into playing in Game 3 which only aggravated the condition.
While both teams have had its stars suffer from injuries, their main men are relatively in good physical condition. Although Rose did suffer a stinger to his shoulder in Game 1 while James rolled his ankle in Game 4, this series is building up to be one that could go the distance and it is very important for their MVPs to be on top of their game.
LeBron James has struggled against the defense of Jimmy Butler as the 4-time MVP has been held to ghastly inefficient numbers. James is shooting 37% while committing 5.7 miscues after the first four games. On the other hand, Derrick Rose isn’t having his best shooting performance but he’s been able to put the ball in the hoop by scoring 25 points per game for the Bulls. Rose has regained that bounce in his step which is scary for the Cavs.
With the injuries and slump that has tormented their leading contributors, the message of stepping up has never been this important for the rest of the Cavaliers. In order for Cleveland to claim this series, everyone needs to amp up their aggressiveness but more importantly remain mentally prepared as, based on the outcome of the previous two games, one miscue could create that separation for good.
“Obviously one of our best playmakers as far as creating (with) the ball is a little hampered right now, in Kyrie,” said James during his media session on Monday. “He is a guy that I was able to play off of, because he can penetrate and get in the gaps and create two on the ball and I can be the recipient of the ball. The injury has hampered him a little bit.
“It is what it is,” James said in regards to both teams dealing with injuries. “I can’t say we should be better off or we should be worse off. We feel good about our chances in Game 5.”
One bright spot for the Cavs is Timofey Mozgov as the talented center, who was expected to be among the difference makers in this series but became barely noticeable in the first three games, finally showed up for the first time and registered 15 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks while altering a whole lot more shot attempts in Game 4. He had a plus-minus rating of +7 which, putting it in context to the competitiveness of this series, is virtually similar to a +12 under normal circumstances. With Pau Gasol out, Mozgov is faced with one less of a roadblock so it’s up to the Cavs’ playmakers to find his seven foot frame around the basket.
The Game 4 win, as ugly as it was, provided a lot of good takeaways for the Cavaliers as they lick their wounds and prepare themselves mentally for another tough grind in Game 5. Cleveland is going ALL IN.