After three knee surgeries and almost 200 missed games, Derrick Rose has been forgotten by many as the one-time top threat to LeBron James’ throne over the Eastern Conference — which he and his team have represented in the NBA Finals for four straight seasons.
LeBron last squashed a Rose-led Bulls team with the Miami Heat in 2011, after Derrick became the youngest MVP in league history and led his team to 62 victories in Tom Thibodeau’s first year on the job as head coach.
A lot’s changed since then. James has won the MVP twice more, and Rose has been supplanted as the game’s brightest young point guard by Steph Curry, the winner of 2015’s award. But Chicago still stands as the biggest in-conference threat to LeBron, and the semi-finals matchup between the Bulls and his Cleveland Cavaliers is the most intriguing showdown of the Eastern season.
Much remains to be seen after a spate of regular season games between the two sides that didn’t reveal much — various injuries, and midseason trades, meant neither team had their ideal lineup or momentum at the same time. The most mysterious factor of the series, though, is how Cleveland will fare and adjust without starting forward Kevin Love, who’s out for the year after separating his shoulder.
Young Tristan Thompson has been a nightmare for the Bulls on the glass and will be asked to keep that up as he fills in for many of Love’s minutes. But Cleveland’s offensive versatility will suffer without the hyper-skilled big man, and Chicago should be able to take advantage.
Jimmy Butler can’t stop LeBron (no one can), but he can give the game’s best player enough trouble to limit his overall impact. A lot will fall on the plate of Kyrie Irving, and on Rose’s with the task to stop him. This will be a trying challenge, to be sure, but in the end Chicago will simply have more.
Prediction: Bulls in 6.
— John Wilmes