Pau Gasol, Derrick Rose, and Jimmy Butler powered the somewhat forgotten third-seeded Chicago Bulls past the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday night 91–82 to take a 2–0 series lead in the Eastern Conference’s opening round and bring them ever closer to a much-anticipated second-round matchup with Cleveland.
While the Bulls are certainly expected to roll past the underdog Bucks, there’s not much chatter about them winning the East, much less making it past LeBron’s Cavs in the next round.
But it would be fun to see.
Cleveland already took Game 1 with the Cavs’ Big Three combining for 69 points in the opener.
They, like Chicago, are expected to roll as well.
Then the fireworks start.
Four years ago, before Derrick Rose’s career took an injury detour, his Bulls were the top seed in the East and Rose was named league MVP. Meanwhile, LeBron’s Heat earned the second seed.
The teams met in the conference finals, and though Chicago took the opener in convincing fashion, 103–82, Miami roared back behind a fierce defense with four straight wins to take the series 4–1 and advance to the NBA Finals.
It turned out to be Chicago’s best shot at a title—until this season.
While Rose then missed much of the next three seasons with various leg injuries, LeBron and the Heat won four straight East titles—as well as a pair of NBA championships, for good measure.
Now LeBron is back in Cleveland with the NBA’s newest Big Three of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and LeBron.
But this isn’t Miami where LeBron had Dwyane Wade, who led the Heat to a title in 2006, or Chris Bosh, who was a nightmare matchup for opposing centers who normally man the lane.
Irving is a scoring guard, but his defense isn’t comparable to Wade’s in his prime. Meanwhile Love, another great scorer, hasn’t quite thrived as the third-option in Cleveland’s game plan.
Fortunately, they still have LeBron. The four-time MVP might not win another this offseason, though there’s little doubt that he’s considered the best in the game. He’ll have his hands full against Chicago, though.
Chicago retooled their offense in the offseason in signing Pau Gasol, who at 34 is having a career resurgency. The 7-footer averaged 18.5 points, 1.9 blocks, and a career-best 11.8 rebounds a game for the Bulls. He combines with Joakim Noah, last year’s defensive player of the year, to make a formidable low-post presence—easily the best in the East.
Even more glaring, though, is the coaching comparison.
While the jury is still out on Cleveland’s rookie coach David Blatt, Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, who was named the NBA’s top coach in 2011 (as a rookie), is generally considered one of the top five coaches in the league after guiding the Bulls through numerous Rose injuries into the playoffs the last three years.
He knows the path to the Finals runs through LeBron—even if he’s not in Miami.