When the Cleveland Cavaliers dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to the Chicago Bulls Monday night, it was the first time the team’s “championship or bust” goal looked to be in danger. Sure, it was just one game, but looking at everything surrounding it, the dynamic had definitely shifted.
The Cavs were without premier forward Kevin Love for the remainder of the year, and were also in the first of a two game suspension for J.R. Smith. Suddenly, it appeared as though Cleveland might not be able to survive missing crucial pieces, and with LeBron James having an inefficient game to boot, the team quickly looked as though it was mortal.
As we prepare for tonight’s Game 3 showdown in Chicago, the dynamic has shifted once again. Cleveland blew the doors off the Bulls in Game 2. James was an aggressive terror throughout the night, and doubts concocted from Game 1 were quickly erased. Though the series is now tied, anyone who believed the Cavs were in trouble is reversing their thought process.
Again, though, the series is tied. The Cavs aren’t in a position to eliminate Chicago tonight, and are taking the court in what will no doubt be a raucous United Center. There is still plenty of work to be done if Cleveland wants to move on to the next round, and despite the convincing Game 2 victory, many are of the belief Chicago is still very capable of stealing this series back.
If the Cavs want to prevent this, the formula is simple. They cannot let up, nor can they head to the Windy City with a thought process of “let’s at least win one.” The Cavs took the momentum in Game 2, and if they want to prevent the Bulls from throwing a counter-strike, they need to keep their foot on the gas by any means necessary.
Clearly, such a statement isn’t reinventing the wheel. I highly doubt anyone within the Cleveland locker room thinks they can just coast for a little bit because Chicago is over-the-top intimidated right now. Players are certainly saying all the right things, with James going so far as to claim the team needs to come out tonight even better than they did in Game 2.
As we know, though, saying the right thing and actually doing it are two different concepts. The Cavs claimed they were ready to go before Game 1, then put forth an absolutely putrid opening quarter. A well-rested team with plenty of time to prepare looked sluggish and out of sorts in every way imaginable.
So, while they’re certainly implying they know the importance of not letting Chicago back into the series, they have to follow through with this as well. The Bulls are no doubt going to hit the floor running tonight, energized by their hometown fans who will clearly try to rattle the visiting Cavs. Cleveland has to prepare for the Chicago team they saw Monday, the one which couldn’t miss from the field and refused to back down. Again, it’s a 1-1 series, so the Bulls are hardly going to play desperately.
However, Cleveland needs to look at how this series has played out so far as a reason to both believe in themselves and to see why they need to slam the door on the Bulls without hesitation.
Remember, Chicago gave the Cavs their best on Monday night. They found open looks all game, and it certainly felt like they hit all of them. At the same time, Cleveland still had a chance to win until the final two minutes. They took a clear shot to the jaw, yet were still able to claw their way back into the contest.
Likewise, in Game 2, it was Cleveland who doled out its haymaker, ripping the game wide open just moments after tipoff. However, the Bulls were only able to cut the deficit down to eleven at best before the Cavs ran away with the victory.
Chicago blitzed Cleveland, but still had to fight to secure the victory in Game 1. The Cavs returned the favor in Game 2, yet the Bulls didn’t display the same resolve.
And therein lies the point. Cleveland knows the formula now. If they come out as aggressively as they did in Game 2, they know they can knock Chicago off its game. They know they can do so without the help of Love. They know they can do it without Smith, but will no doubt welcome him back tonight as his suspension has been fully served.
But, they have to continue being relentless. They can’t rely on a couple clutch baskets deflating the Bulls and that’s that. The aggression has to be present from the first minute to the last. The Cavs saw what needs to be done to gain complete control of this series, and they need to repeat this strategy until Chicago is officially out of the picture.
Tonight’s game will go a long way towards proving whether or not Cleveland is ready to officially run roughshod on Chicago. The Bulls may not be reeling, but they’ve definitely taken a shot. If you’re the Cavs, the only appropriate response to this is as basic as it gets: keep pouring it on.