1. The Bulls trio of Taj Gibson, D.J. Augustin and rookie Tony Snell have given Chicago much-needed scoring punch and solid play off the bench in January. Can the Cavaliers bench match the Bulls’ production?
Chris Manning, Right Down Euclid Co-Editor: They can, but it largely depends on the type of night Dion Waiters has for the Cavaliers. Taking a look at the last two games (against the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks) the Cleveland bench scored 33 points against the Nuggets and eight against the Mavericks. Against Denver, Waiters had 19 points on 8-11 shooting in 28 minutes and against Dallas, he had zero points on 0-4 shooting in 17 minutes. The proof is in the pudding here – the Cavaliers bench goes as far as Waiters can take them. Jarrett Jack’s statistics have been down almost across the board this season, Tyler Zeller mostly gets his points when teams pay attention to Waiters and Earl Clark is well, Earl Clark. As a result, the Cavaliers bench will provide as much as Waiters can provide. After all, there’s a reason they became one of the league’s highest scoring benches when the Syracuse product made the switch to the sixth man role on November 20th.
Marlowe Alter, Right Down Euclid Staff Writer: Gibson, Augustin and Snell have been instrumental in the Bulls going 6-2 since trading Luol Deng to the Cavs 16 days ago. Augustin has been on fire lately, averaging 18 points and seven dimes over his past six games and hitting 56 percent of his threes in the last four contests. Gibson is a versatile, tenacious defender and is everything that Bulls coach Tom Thibdeau loves in a player, while Snell is earning more minutes on the wing. Cleveland’s bench on the other hand is mostly cold, relying on the inconsistent Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack for important minutes. Waiters and Jack can score the ball however, both are overly reliant on jump shooting and both are poor defenders. Waiters is especially terrible finishing at the rim converting just 41.4 percent of his shots per NBA.com (of players with at least 150 attempts inside five feet, only Damian Lillard has a worse shooting percentage). The only way Cleveland’s bench comes anywhere close to matching the Bulls’ is if Waiters gets hot. Anthony Bennett is receiving DNPs, Earl Clark isn’t any good and Tyler Zeller is playing sparingly backing up Anderson Varejao. At some point, Varejao will break down if he continues to play 35 minutes a night. The Cavs must find someone who can help the aging, injury-plagued center. Spencer Hawes anyone (winks)?
Jason Patt, BlogABull.com Contributor: The Cavs have a couple capable scorers off the bench in Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack, but they’ve battled some inconsistency. Waiters put up a goose egg in a loss to the Mavs on Monday, which just shouldn’t happen. Meanwhile, Gibson has been steady all year, while Augustin and Snell have come on strong of late. Augustin’s overall numbers with the Bulls aren’t that special, but he has been especially good over the past couple of weeks, and he was instrumental in an overtime victory over the Lakers on Monday. Snell has seen increased minutes with Luol Deng out of the picture, and the first-round pick has shown some flashes of his potential. However, the Bulls’ bench will take a hit against the Cavs, because Augustin will start in the place of the injured Kirk Hinrich. The Bulls have brought back Mike James to fill in as the backup point guard, but he struggled in his stint with the Bulls earlier this year and lacks the punch Augustin brings. So with this in mind, the Cavs’ bench may have the advantage.
2. This will be the first time Luol Deng plays his former team. What will their interactions be like during the before, during and after the game?
CM: Considering how classy and professional Deng is, I can’t expect this goes any other way than a brief exchange pre-game, hugs post game and intense play during the game. For instance, knowing how Joakim Noah plays, if Deng attacks the rim and Noah is the only one standing in his way, Noah will attempt to block Deng’s shot. But in all honestly, I’m really looking forward to the interactions between Deng and his former coach, Tom Thibodeau. It has to be a complex situation considering how much Thibodeau loved Deng as a player. In short, it will be a tad awkward before and after, but highly competitive during the game. It will be even more if this game was taking place in Chicago.
MA: Deng is a classy individual who is overwhelming loved by his teammates, coaches and the fans after having spent his first nine-plus seasons with the organization. Noah has already said “it will be weird” facing his former running mate and Gibson echoed Noah’s words. Surely, it will be a little emotional before and after the game for both the Bulls and Deng but during the game, the competitive spirit takes over and everyone will be out there trying to hand it to each other. However, the atmosphere would be far more exciting if this game were in Chicago.
JP: Bulls players, coaches and executives all made it a point to talk about how much they respected Deng after he was traded, so I’m sure emotions will be pretty high. Joakim Noah didn’t even speak to the media for several days before finally talking about the trade. However, considering how competitive the Bulls and Deng are, there’ll be no love lost during the game. Noah has already said he wants to “kick his ass,” which is classic Noah. But after the game, I’m sure all the Bulls and Deng will be quite chummy.
3. Joakim Noah has been playing at an All-Star level of late, and he has really helped fuel the Bulls’ resurgence. How do the Cavs deal with Noah and limit his effectiveness?
CM: This is really all on Anderson Varejao. He has been rebounding at an absurd rate as of late and, if he can keep this level up, might just be able to match Noah’s energy levels. Interestingly enough, this is the first time Varejao will be put up against Noah from the opening tip, as Andrew Bynum was the starting center in the three previous Cavaliers-Bulls matchup. In those games, Varejao averaged 5.7 rebounds and 5.7 points in an average of 25.6 minutes per game. As a starter, Varejao plays over 30 minutes a night and is averaging a double-double. But everything considered, Noah is a better player in almost every area. But Varejao plays at the level he has of late and Tyler Zeller provides 8-10 solid minutes, the Cavaliers should be able to battle Noah effectively.
MA: Noah has been on a tear lately, grabbing 10 or more rebounds in 13 straight games. He’s averaging over 14 boards per game during that time while posting 14.1 points and nearly two blocks. Noah is most dangerous when he secures second or third opportunities on the offensive end. He’s tied for sixth in the league (along with Tristan Thompson) averaging 3.7 offensive rebounds a contest. The Cavaliers, specifically the frontcourt, must match Noah’s effort and energy otherwise he will be a terror on the offensive end. If Cleveland can limit the Bulls’ second chance points, Chicago is very beatable.
JP: For as great as Noah has been, Anderson Varejao has been playing extremely well in his own right. In the month of January, Varejao is averaging 10.2 points, 14.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists, and he’s coming off an 18-point, 21-rebound performance. Noah makes a killing on the offensive glass, getting a lot of points off tip-ins and put-backs. If Varejao can control the defensive glass and limit the amount of second-chance opportunities created by Noah, that can go a long way in shutting down the Bulls’ often suspect offense.