<
>

Rose, Bulls look to have weapons to avoid another LeBron letdown

CLEVELAND -- In the Tom Thibodeau era, the Chicago Bulls are unstoppable in the opening game of a playoff series against LeBron James.

It’s the rest of the series that’s the problem.

After a 99-92 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 on Monday, the Bulls again have an early edge in this second-round series against their archnemesis.

That makes three wins in the openers of three playoff series against James for the Bulls under Thibodeau. Thibodeau's squads, however, went 0-8 in the remaining games of the first two series and have at least three to go in this one.

For some, the specter of past playoff defeats lingers.

But put me in the camp of Derrick Rose, the Zen Pooh-dist. He isn’t here to talk about the old days of James stomping on the Bulls’ carcass on his way to the Finals.

“That’s the past,” Rose said. “I can’t think about the past right now or even put that in my head. I’m only thinking positive thoughts and just trying to lead my team in a positive way. I can’t think about how many times he beat us in the past. It’s over. We’re in the present now.”

These present Bulls, a much different team than the ones James dispatched in the past, are in pretty good shape.

Rose put in a star’s effort in his biggest playoff game since his MVP season, scoring 25 points and adding five assists and five rebounds.

He had a late-game injury scare when he got a shoulder stinger while fighting through a screen on defense, but he quickly shook it off. It was, he said, an injury he hadn’t dealt with before.

After losing to Miami in five games in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, Rose figured he’d have a few more chances against James and the Heat. But his body had other plans.

The Bulls' second playoff loss to James came without Rose, Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich. One win was a victory in and of itself.

Now that Rose is back in the playoffs -- after yet another, this time more minor, knee surgery this season -- he has been talking a lot about gratitude and having fun.

“The teammates I have right now, I’m grateful, I’m so fortunate to be playing with these guys,” he said.

Two teammates in particular will be the keys to helping the Bulls win that elusive second game against James.

This season’s big free-agent pickup, Pau Gasol (21 points, 10 rebounds, four assists), dominated with second-half pick-and-pop action. He went 5-for-5 on pick-and-roll jumpers, with three coming off Rose assists.

“When you got a player like that, like Pau, he’s very experienced, and a free-throw jump shot is like a layup to him,” Rose said. “Even if he misses a few, he’ll come down and knock down five in a row.”

Gasol scored 15 in the second half, while All-Star guard Jimmy Butler (20 points, six assists and five rebounds) scored 16. Both had key baskets when Cleveland got close in the fourth quarter.

Rose scored eight in each of the first two quarters and seven in the third. He missed six of seven shots attempted in the fourth, but he was still clutch distributing the ball late, and his one basket came at an opportune time.

Butler, Gasol and Rose scored five points apiece in a pivotal 15-0 run during a three-minute span in the third quarter that held off the charging Cavs -- for a little while, anyway.

The Cavs trailed 49-44 at the half, then tied it 53-all on a Kyrie Irving layup with 9 minutes, 3 seconds remaining. That's when the Bulls' (air quotes here) Big Three got going.

Butler followed with a 3, Rose hit an 18-foot jumper and a 3, and Butler added a fast-break dunk. Then Gasol scored five straight, and just like that it was 68-53.

“I didn’t know it was a 15-0 run,” Rose said. “When you’re in the game, you’re just focusing in on the game. ... When we were making our run, it was all about getting guys in the right spots and seeing how they were playing.”

The Bulls scored their next three baskets, all 18-foot jumpers, on Rose and Gasol’s two-man game. Gasol assisted on Rose’s jumper, and Rose assisted on Gasol's two shots.

But of course, it wasn't over. James (19 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists) and Irving (30 points, six assists) are too good.

Cleveland got back to within two, at 86-84, on a James putback, but Rose answered with his only basket of the fourth, a 20-foot step-back jumper. When the Cavs got within two again, Butler split a pair of free throws and hit a 3 off Rose assist. Rose then found Gasol for another 18-footer to give the Bulls some breathing room.

Irving, fantastic after a slow start, went scoreless for the game's final 8:57.

Although he didn't get much action in the paint, Rose's shot was true. He made some tough jumpers, step-backs and pullups, several of them with a man -- or a LeBron -- in his face.

With J.R. Smith, a tough defender, suspended for another game, the Bulls need to take advantage Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena.

In the win Monday, Chicago took advantage of Cleveland's defense and went 22-for-26 on open looks. Thirty-six percent of the Bulls' attempts were classified by ESPN Stats & Information’s video trackers as open looks. That’s a lot.

Will the Bulls get that many again in Game 2? Doubtful.

“I think the film will show a lot more tomorrow,” James said. “We’ll break it down and see what they like to get to.”

James then ticked off the Bulls’ offensive actions that he’d like to limit. You can bet the Cavs will change how they defend Gasol on the pick-and-roll.

“For me, a Game 1 is always a ‘feel-out’ game,” James said. “Obviously, they were exploiting us with our coverage. We’ll come in tomorrow, and we’ll watch film, and we’ll see ways we can take that away or make it a little more challenging. Obviously, Pau is a great midrange shooter. He made us pay.”

But if the Cavs take away Gasol's shot from 18 feet, Rose should have more room to drive or kick it out to shooters.

With the right supporting cast in Gasol and Butler, it’ll be up to Rose to make the right decisions and set the tone for the rest of the series.

Rose has been waiting for this moment for four years, but he’s not getting caught up in what he missed. He seemingly has found a deeper meaning in basketball than just accolades.

“I don’t even look at it as a sport anymore,” Rose said. “I look at it as art. With how many hours I stay in the gym, how many hours I spent with recovery, it’s just an honor to be here. I’m just trying to roll with it.”