No. 2 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (53-29, 4-0) vs. No. 3 CHICAGO BULLS (50-32, 4-2)
Season Series: Cavaliers, 3-1. Cleveland was 3-0 with F Kevin Love in the lineup and 0-1 when he wasn’t; Love’s season ended last week because of a shoulder injury. Bulls G Jimmy Butler missed two of the four games, G Derrick Rose missed one. Cavs F LeBron James averaged 28.3 points, while G Kyrie Irving shot just 39 percent but averaged 21.3 points.
Story Line: How will the Cavs move on without Love? And how will they handle being without G J.R. Smith, who’s suspended for the first two games? The Cavs have depth; F Tristan Thompson, a rebounding machine, will get more minutes and there’s plenty of shooters on the Cleveland bench who can be dusted off. Meanwhile, the Bulls are trying to get to the conference finals for just the second time since the Michael Jordan era.
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Key Matchup 1: Thompson/Timofey Mozgov vs. Pau Gasol/Joakim Noah. The greatness of James, Irving, Rose and Butler notwithstanding, the key to this series will be how the big men handle their business. Gasol and Noah have both been on this stage plenty of times and have that veteran savvy to help Chicago; playing with the lights this bright is a new proposition for Thompson and Mozgov.
Key Matchup 2: James vs. Rose. James has taken the defensive assignment on Rose plenty of times in late-game situations in recent years, almost reveling in the chance to stop the Bulls’ offense where it starts. At some point, their paths will collide down the stretch of a close game and the winner of that 1-on-1 battle will likely be celebrating a victory on the scoreboard as well.
X-Factor: Bulls G-F Mike Dunleavy. This is the first time Dunleavy – the No. 3 pick in 2002 – has reached the second round of the playoffs. Most of his shots will be from 3-point range, and since the Cavs shoot so many 3’s it often puts the pressure on opponents to answer from deep. Dunleavy can.
Prediction: The Cavs are wounded, clearly. Chicago can easily win this. There’s arguments either way, but when in doubt, go with the best player and that’s LeBron James. Cavaliers in 7.