Mike Dunleavy has played in 25 straight games for the Chicago Bulls since returning to action on February 10. Following an Easter Sunday matchup with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers, All-Star teammate Jimmy Butler has now appeared in six straight since March 23. At some point before the Playoffs begin, Dunleavy, Butler and the rest of the Bulls are hopeful that Derrick Rose will be healthy enough to join them.
On Sunday, however—in what could be an Eastern Conference second-round Playoff preview—Aaron Brooks started in Rose’s place alongside Dunleavy, Butler, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol. Despite 24 points from Dunleavy, 17 from Brooks and 16 from Butler, the red-hot Cavaliers posted their 18th straight home victory. Cleveland’s backcourt of Irving and JR Smith combined for 51 points, fueled by eight three-pointers from Smith and a highlight reel of spectacular shots from Irving. While being chased and defended by Butler throughout the contest, James added a workmanlike triple-double (20-10-12) to help secure the 99-94 Cavs win.
As the Bulls continue to get healthy, though, they remain confident in their ability to compete with anybody in the East. Butler spoke to that confidence after the loss in Cleveland when asked about potentially seeing the Cavs again down the road.
“We’re very confident in the group of guys that we have,” Butler said. “On top of everything else, I don’t think anyone is this locker room wants to go home early, let alone play to lose. I think you’ve got to go through them anyways. They’re the favorite to come out of the East anyways, so if we want to change that, then I think we’re going to be the ones that have to beat them.”
Heading into Wednesday’s slate of NBA games, the Cavaliers (50-27) and Bulls (46-31) currently occupy the No. 2 and 3 spots in the Eastern Conference. With only a handful of dates remaining on the regular season schedule, it’s possible these two teams could collide again if each can secure first-round postseason series victories.
“They’re real good,” Chicago head coach Tom Thibodeau said of having to go through Cleveland in the East. “They’ve figured it out. They’re playing great here. They’re playing great everywhere, for that matter. So we’re going to have to play well to beat them.”
Following his fifth game with twenty or more points since February 27, 13-year NBA pro Mike Dunleavy, Jr. caught up with SLAM to talk about that possibility of seeing Cleveland in the Playoffs and what Chicago needs to do down the stretch.
SLAM: With only a handful of regular season games remaining, how much are you guys thinking about the Playoffs right now?
Mike Dunleavy: We’re really thinking more about playing well going into the Playoffs. We’re thinking about getting our game right, and in turn securing wins. When you do that, the confidence will come. There’s no secret, with the way things are set up right now, there’s a chance we could see these guys [the Cavs] again. And hopefully we’ll be ready to battle.
SLAM: You played the Cavs tough at home, a place they’ve now won 18 straight. What do you take away from a game like this looking forward to a potential postseason matchup?
MD: Obviously they’re a really good team. They’ve played really well during the second part of the season. Give them credit against us—they made some tough shots. Some end-of-clock buzzer beaters that you just take your hat off too. It’s a team that we hope we’ll be good enough to play at some point down the line, but we certainly have our work cut out for us.
SLAM: Jimmy Butler is the guy who gets the LeBron James assignment when you guys face Cleveland, along with the other team’s top scorer every night. What does having him back mean for you guys?
MD: He brings a lot to the table for us. He’s a great player, and he takes that challenge every night defensively. He’s just somebody you can rely on and really count on when he’s out there. He’s really had a great season for us and we’re all excited for what’s ahead for him.
SLAM: Coach Thibodeau said he was pleased with the ball movement on Sunday despite the loss. How encouraging is that, to be able to develop consistent ball movement and chemistry heading into the Playoffs with guys returning from injury?
MD: Ball movement is something we stressed all year long. As the game is today, to be able to move the defense, and give guys with skill the opportunity to make plays and open up the floor is what we’re looking for and what every team’s looking for. So to start getting that continuity is important, and hopefully we can keep trending in that direction.
SLAM: You used that ball movement against Cleveland to connect on 8-of-12 shots for a very efficient 24 points. How are you feeling personally right now heading down the final stretch?
MD: I’ve been feeling good. I think we have a lot of guys doing a lot of good things right now and we’re heading in the right direction. Hopefully we’ll get Derrick back soon and make a push for this thing.
Brendan Bowers is an NBA writer who covers the Cavaliers and the NBA in Cleveland for SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @BowersCLE. Images via Getty.