LeBron James has been the one constant for the Cavaliers (39-29) in a season of twists, turns, and roster overhauls. He is having another banner season with 27.0 points, 9.0 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game while shooting 54.4 percent, but based on his supporting cast this season, it can be argued this could be the best season of his career at age 33.
James had another huge game Thursday night with 35 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and a thunderous dunk over Jusuf Nurkic that nearly broke social media, but it wasn’t enough in a 113-105 loss to the surging Portland Trail Blazers.
Playing without injured all-star forward Kevin Love, along with regulars Cedi Osman, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr while also losing Rodney Hood to a back injury, James was playing with reserves Jeff Green, Kyle Korver and J. R. Smith, while Jordan Clarkson and John Holland rounded out the rotation because Ante Zizic was ineffective in the first half.
It’s unknown who will be available for this game, but Korver likely will get the start at shooting guard to keep Smith comfortable as a sixth man. Cleveland are fending off Washington for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference while battling Indiana for the Central Division lead and the third seed.
Chicago (24-44) continue to be creative with their personnel down the stretch as they try to remain competitive within the confines of NBA rules while also enhancing their chances for the No. 1 draft pick. The Bulls have the fifth-worst record in the Eastern Conference but also “improved” six games clear of Memphis for the worst mark in the league after sending the Grizzlies to their 19th straight loss Thursday night with a 111-110 victory.
Zach LaVine scored 20 points and Denzel Valentine hit five 3-pointers off the bench to account for all 15 of his points. The Bulls played without rookie forward Lauri Markkanen, who has started all 60 games he has played, and regulars Justin Holiday and Jerian Grant while starting David Nwaba and Noah Vonleh in the front court
Three keys to the game
Cavs going for the season sweep - Cleveland have won the three games between the teams by a combined 32 points, including a 22-point romp in the only game at the United Center. The Cavaliers, who have not swept the Bulls since the 2005/06 season, are trying to return the favor after Chicago won all four games last season.
Chicago counting those ping pong balls - How much did Thursday night's win help or hurt the Bulls? Consider the win, coupled with New York's ninth straight loss, has left the Bulls with the ninth-worst record in the NBA. If those standings hold the rest of the season, which is hardly guaranteed, the Bulls would have a 1.7 percent chance of winning the draft lottery, while the Knicks now have a 2.8 percent chance of winning as the eighth-worst team.
Chicago are pretty much locked into the bottom nine of the league, it's how teams around them do the final month of the season that will determine how many ping pong balls they will get for the No. 1 pick.
Korver thriving in a starting role - Usually a top reserve with a specific purpose of stretching the floor with his perimeter shooting, Korver has seamlessly stepped into the two spot alongside George Hill. The 15-year veteran has hit eight of 14 from 3-point range and 13 of 20 overall while scoring 41 points in starting Cleveland's last two games. Prior to getting the call Tuesday night in Phoenix, Korver's last start had come March 4, 2017, against Miami.
Matchup to watch
PG George Hill vs PG Kris Dunn - Both players will be in a position of necessity to not only distribute the ball but score given the respective personnel around them. Hill has steadied Cleveland's half-court offense, averaging 10.1 points and 3.2 assists in 14 games since being acquired, but he has not hunted his shot and has not taken ten attempts in a game since March 3.
Dunn has averaged 12.7 points and 4.7 assists in his last 12 games since missing time with a sprained big toe, but he has not been hesitant about letting it fly when open, averaging 11 shots in those games.
Hill has the luxury of handing off to James while Dunn right now has LaVine and little else. If either of these guards have a big scoring night, it could lead to a win.
Cleveland Cavaliers projected starting lineup
PG - George Hill | SG - Kyle Korver | C - Ante Zizic | SF - LeBron James | PF - Jeff Green
Chicago Bulls projected starting lineup
PG - Kris Dunn | SG - Zach LaVine | C - Robin Lopez | SF - David Nwaba | PF - Noah Vonleh
James has gotten anything he has wanted against the Bulls offensively, averaging 30.3 points and 9.3 assists in three meetings this season. He has made eight of 15 shots from 3-point range while shooting 58.6 percent overall.
James has posted six 30-point games in his last 14 matchups with the Bulls, averaging 28.4 points while shooting 54.0 percent. He also has 7.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game in those contests with five double-doubles and a triple-double in that stretch.
Korver, who averaged 8.2 points in nearly two full seasons with the Bulls from 2010-12, has totaled 33 points in the three Cavaliers victories, hitting eight of 17 from beyond the arc and 11 of 22 overall. He has averaged 9.5 points in 37 lifetime games with the Bulls, connecting on 47.4 percent of his long-range shots. Korver has made three more 3-pointers in 13 of those games.
The good news for Bulls center Robin Lopez is he has averaged 13.0 points on 65.4 percent shooting in the three meetings with Cleveland this season. The bad news is he probably will not play that much as coach Fred Hoiberg continues to give Cristiano Feliciano extended minutes.
LaVine will face the Cavaliers for the first time since February 1, 2017, when playing for Minnesota. He had a 21-point game against them in the 2015/16 season but has totaled 16 on eight-of-30 shooting in the other three matchups.
There has been no betting line established due to the unknown statuses of the injured players on the Cavaliers.
While the Cavaliers are trying to extend a trend in which the road teams have covered in five of the last six meetings, they have covered in just eight of the last 33 meetings between the teams. Cleveland are 5-13 against the number in their last 18 matchups with conference rivals and 6-15 in their last 21 road games.
The Cavs are also 7-21 against the spread in their last 28 when playing a game after they failed to cover and 6-14 in their last 20 when coming off a loss.
Chicago are 4-1 against the spread in their last five home games and last five overall but also have covered just once in their last five games following a victory. The Bulls, though, are 2-9 versus the number in their last 11 matchups with Eastern Conference foes.
It bodes well for the Cavaliers they rallied late against the Trail Blazers on Thursday night because it showed the players who are available are ready to fight. Even with a lesser opponent in the Bulls, this is still a game where James may need to have a dominant triple-double in order for Cleveland for to win.
By dominant, it may have to be one in which James has at least 35 points and 15 assists to go with however many rebounds he grabs on the defensive end. James has gotten masterful at picking his spots to dominate, and this will be the key challenge for him since he has picked apart the Bulls defensively all season.
But he will need a running partner for this game, and the best candidate for that is Smith. He took only three shots in 27 minutes at Portland, and that ratio cannot happen in this contest given how short-handed the Cavaliers are. Smith and Korver must take at least ten shots each for Cleveland to be effective offensively.
It's hard to figure out what the Bulls will give on a game-to-game basis besides effort. Dunn and LaVine can be a serviceable backcourt, but having Markkanen sidelined for a third straight game due to back spasms robs coach Fred Hoiberg of what he really wants to see; a young nucleus going in a forward direction.
This will be a choppy game, but look for James to deliver as Cleveland record a 109-102 victory.
The game will be televised locally on Fox Sports Ohio and NBC Sports Chicago and nationally in Canada on SportsNet One. Tip-off time is 8 pm EDT.
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