The Chicago Bulls are feeling pretty good about themselves these days.
They are coming off a 54-point win over the Milwaukee Bucks and their next playoff opponent is missing two starters. That opponent would be none other than the Cleveland Cavaliers — who host the Bulls in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
The Cavs, of course, will be without Kevin Love and J.R. Smith for two games. Actually, they’ll be without Love, coming off shoulder surgery, for the rest of the playoffs. Smith was suspended by the NBA and won’t return until Game 3 in Chicago on Friday.
On the other hand, the Bulls are big, experienced and have a coach in Tom Thibodeau who is widely considered among the best in the league — and definitely thought of as the best of what’s left in the East.
So if you’re the Cavs, you should probably be scared. Right?
Well, maybe not.
"The way they’re built, they still can do the same things," Thibodeau said from Bulls practice. "They have a very versatile roster. The thing that makes them so versatile is LeBron (James), and Kyrie (Irving) because Kyrie can play off the ball as well as on the ball. LeBron handles the ball so much and he can go to (power forward)."
But what about Love?
"You’re talking about Kevin. He’s a great player," Thibodeau said. "But they have versatility that can give them shooting."
Unlike the Cavs, the Bulls enter the series with a full roster. And it sure doesn’t hurt that stars such as Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah have been down this road. Swingman Jimmy Butler is an All-Star, too.
Plus, it’s also safe to say the Bulls are really gunning for LeBron.
Whether James was with the Cavs or Miami Heat, the Bulls haven’t beaten him in the playoffs. In some of those series, the Bulls were either too inexperienced or two injured to stand much of a chance.
Now, it’s James and the Cavs who must overcome those types of obstacles.
"The story line is flipped," said Bulls swingman Mike Dunleavy. "We certainly have empathy because we’ve been in their situation before. They’re a really good team and they lose a great power forward and probably fill in with (James), who is the best power forward in the game when he plays it."
In other words, yes, the Cavs are down Love and Smith. But no, the Bulls don’t expect this to be a breeze. Far from it, actually.
As Thibodeau pointed out, the Cavs still have James and Irving and a handful of other quite capable players. As the whole world knows, the Cavs also possess home-court advantage.
A lot of people seem to think all the Cavs really need is a split of the first two games to control the series. They just need to stay afloat until Smith returns, the thinking goes.
But mostly, everyone who follows the NBA understands that with LeBron, all things are possible.
"He’s just a go-getter," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said of James. "There are so many different options. You can play him at (power forward), play him at (center) at times, and he’s like a point forward. He brings the ball up and pushes it hard. He really knows how to create for other guys. He makes his teammates better on every team he’s been on.
"We know they’re going to play an up-tempo game. We know that LeBron’s really going to dominate the ball a lot at the point. We just have to be ready. It’s going to be tough."
Tough? The Cavs? Without Smith at the start and Love for the playoffs?
You betcha, say the Bulls.
They are feeling good about themselves, no doubt. But the Bulls also seem to be very aware that you can never doubt players such as James and Irving — especially when the Cavs (still) have plenty of help around them.
"The way James can make plays and does everything — pick-and-roll, catch-and-shoot, post up, run the offense. And then Kyrie, he’s tough — pick-and-rolls, catch-and-shoot, one-on-one, the ability to make tough shots and make something out of nothing. Shumpert is under the radar. They’ll eventually get J.R. back. He’s a big shotmaker.