8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Chicago -4.5
After one of the most highly anticipated debuts in recent sports history, the Cleveland Cavaliers must turn around and travel to the Untied Center to face the Chicago Bulls tonight in a matchup of Eastern Conference favorites. With his long-awaited return to Cleveland (0-1) dominating the sporting news throughout the Summer, LeBron James finally got to hit the floor in last night’s Season Opener against the Knicks, where his Cavs fell short in a 95-90 defeat. A concert-like pep rally coupled with a raucous crowd set the stage for the return of the four-time MVP, who was perhaps thrown off a bit by all of the pregame festivities; James totaled seventeen points on just 5-of-15 shooting (.333), including 1-of-5 from three (.200), along with five rebounds, four assists, and eight turnovers. After pouncing on the visitors early, who were blown out by Chicago the previous night of a back-to-back, the hosts were outscored 77-65 over the final three quarters of play. On the night, Head Coach David Blatt’s charges shot 45.7% from the field, including 9-of-24 from beyond the arc (.375), netted 17-of-20 from the charity stripe (.850), while dishing out 22 assists. However, like their star Forward, the Cavaliers were sloppy, committing nineteen turnovers, which the Knicks manufactured into 26 points. With that said, it surprising to see how ineffective they were defensively; Cleveland allowed New York to shoot a scorching 53.6% from the field, including 6-of-12 from downtown (.500), and struggled mightily to stop their ball movement, which produced a staggering 30 assists.
It will be a fascinating season-long story as to how James and his teammates develop from a collection of talent into a true team, comparable to how he and his former compatriots came together in Miami. Management made a concerted effort to surround him with a wealth of talent, engineering a trade to acquire perennial All-Star big man Kevin Love, adding him to a nucleus that already included the likes of fellow All-Star Point Guard Kyrie Irving. As it took time to gel with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, there will certainly be a period of adjustment for James in this new Big Three. After all, this is a very young team, with the majority of the key pieces having never even taken part in a Playoff Game, making LeBron’s guidance and leadership all the more important. However, the rewards could be great; as the two-time NBA Champion reaches the age of 30, both Love (26) and Irving (22) have their best years ahead of them, and should only get better playing with him. Their limitless potential was on display at times Thursday Night, as Love posted totals of nineteen points, fourteen rebounds, and four assists, with Irving leading the Cavaliers with 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting (.533), five rebounds and seven assists. Granted, there are still a pair of major issues that Cleveland will to have to get ironed out. First and foremost, the bench must find a way to contribute somewhat consistently; in the Opener, Blatt’s reserve platoon scored a scant twelve points with veteran acquisitions Shawn Marion and Mike Miller scoring a grand zero points in thirteen minutes of action, while New York’s accounted for 39 of their 95 total points. And therein lies the other issue; David Blatt was indeed an odd choice to lead this team, for while possessing a wealth of international basketball experience between coaching in Spain and Russia, the German has never coached in the United States, let alone in any capacity in the NBA. After last night’s loss it became readily apparent that the tactician will have to figure out how to cultivate a decent bench, while also providing more structure and organization on the defensive end of the court. But with the league echoing the play of the European Leagues more and more with each passing season, there is plenty of reward to go along with the risk of his hiring.
Meanwhile, while the Cavaliers made wholesale changes over the Offseason, the Chicago Bulls (1-0) tweaked their roster a good bit as well, with those changes netting some very favorable returns in the early stages of the campaign. After amnestying Carlos Boozer and his bloated contract, Chicago acquired veteran big man Pau Gasol via Free Agency in what could very well be the most important transaction of the term when it’s all said and done. The thirteenth-year Power Forward gives the Bulls something that they haven’t had in the four years that Tom Thibodeau has stalked the sidelines at United Center: a versatile big who can create his own shot in the post, but at the same time help facilitate the offense from within the paint or at the elbow. Teaming with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, the Bulls now have a pair of bigs that can together seal off the painted area and contest drives with their outrageous length. These two should also make for an exceptional passing tandem, as Noah actually led Chicago in assists last season (5.4), while Gasol has averaged a solid 3.3 assists over the course of his career. Their chemistry was already on display in Wednesday’s 104-80 drubbing of the Knicks in Madison Square Garden; The Spaniard led the team with 21 points on an efficient 7-of-11 shooting from the field (.636) with eleven rebounds, while Noah posted totals of three points, six rebounds, and a pair of assists in just twenty minutes of play. Defensively, they completely shut down New York, relegating the hosts to a mere 36.5% shooting, including just 3-of-17 from three (.176), while outrebounding them 47 to 38 on the night.
With all that said, there was another long-awaited return that took place, as the Bulls finally welcomed back what they hope will be a healthy Derrick Rose to the fold. After earning MVP honors in 2011, the explosive Point Guard has been haunted by injuries, including a pair of major surgeries to each knee that have cost him a ridiculous total of 197 games over the last three years, including the entire 2012-2013 campaign. The 26-year old lasted only ten contests last season, before succumbing to yet another knee injury, making his handling throughout the lengthy rehabilitation process of the utmost importance. With that said, Rose participated in the United States’ Gold Medal-winning FIBA World Cup tour, and looked impressive in the Preseason while Thibodeau monitored his minutes like a hawk. In the Opener in the Big Apple, he showed flashes of his old self, scoring thirteen points on 3-of-7 shooting (.429), tallying three rebounds, five assists, and a pair of steals in just twenty-one minutes of action. However, you could see the effect that he has one this offense, which has been one of the most stagnant in the league over the last three seasons; despite owning the league’s top defense in 2013-2014, Thibodeau’s offense ranked dead-last in scoring (93.7) and field goal percentage (.432). Now, with a healthy Rose and the addition of Gasol, the Bulls looked like a completely different group on that end of the court, shooting a solid 50.7% from the field, all the while besting New York in the paint (42-28) and in transition (14-8). Furthermore, the combination of Taj Gibson, Aaron Brooks, and Rookie wingman Doug McDermott added an encouraging 47 off the bench. And with that said, the rest of the NBA should be on notice…