When a team has LeBron James, it’s easy to think it can overcome any challenge, obstacle or deficit. That was not the case Monday night, as the shorthanded Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Chicago Bulls, 99-92.
The Bulls led 27-15 after the first quarter and never looked back, limiting the Cavs to just 42 percent shooting from the floor and 7-of-26 (26.9 percent) from three-point range. And that, perhaps, is where the Cavs missed Kevin Love (shoulder) and J.R. Smith (suspension) the most.
“It was the spacing on the floor,” Cleveland Plain Dealer Cavs beat writer Chris Haynes said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “They tried to keep a form of spacing out there with Mike Miller on the floor, but Mike Miller, he’s virtually a one-dimensional guy. He’s somebody that’s just going to be a spot-up shooter, primarily. With Kevin Love, you have multiple facets of him being able to play out on the perimeter as well as mix it up down there in the post. So they definitely missed him greatly, as well with J.R. Smith, a guy who’s just a spacer, who just fits so well with Kyrie (Irving) and LeBron (James) being a catch-and-shoot player. They were outmanned and they’re going to be like that for another game. It definitely showed tonight.”
James had a great game statistically – 19 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and one block – but given the circumstances, it wasn’t enough.
“You look at (those numbers) and say, ‘How much better can he get? He almost had a triple-double,’” Haynes said. “But if you look at the offensive end, that’s where they really need him most. Yes, he’s going to have to be a beast on the defensive end, guarding multiple positions. But with J.R. Smith out and Kevin Love out, that’s a ton of scoring that you’re missing out on. So you’re going to need LeBron James to average 30 – or somewhere close to it each and every game – to give his team a chance to win. Because 19 points, that’s just not going to get it done.”
Irving, to his credit, overcame a 1-of-7 start to finish with 30 points on 10-of-23 shooting. He was also 9-of-9 from the foul line.
“Kyrie did his part,” Haynes said. “LeBron is going to have to bring that level of intensity up. So if he has to give up a little bit of the energy on the defensive end to make sure he can muster up that type of form and energy on the offensive end, then so be it. He needs to play better offensively. He needs to run the offense. He needs to be a threat. He just simply wasn’t that on this night.”
The Bulls had three players – Derrick Rose (25), Pau Gasol (21) and Jimmy Butler (20) – score at least 20 points. Still, the Cavs made a run at the end despite trailing the entire game.
“They finally figured out how to contain the pick-and-pop of Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose,” Haynes said. “They were having a field day. Whenever they went into their coverage of operating in that pick-and-pop, Pau Gasol found himself open time and time again for that mid-range jump shot. He’s one of the best midrange shooters we have in this league at the big-man position, and so they were able to slow that down and cut that down. And hey, it is their home court. Once you make a couple of plays, you get the crowd involved in the game. And so that definitely helped them.
“As long as you got Kyrie Irving and LeBron James on the floor, you’re always going to have a chance,” Haynes continued. “But it was a situation where they just didn’t have much energy, much effort, in that first quarter. That kind of sunk them. They had their moments, but at the end of the day, you got Derrick Rose in a rhythm. Once he gets involved, it was pretty much lights out.”
Game 2 is Wednesday in Cleveland at 7 p.m. ET.