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Can Rose-Butler combo topple LeBron's Cavs?

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Gregory Shamus/NBAE/Getty Images

CHICAGO -- Four years ago, Miami Heat superstar LeBron James literally stood in the way of Derrick Rose, and thus the Chicago Bulls' chances of making the NBA Finals.

Now back with Cleveland, James again looms large. But this time, Rose has a little more help.

Back in 2011, James helped lock up the smaller Rose, the newly-minted Most Valuable Player, late in games during that Eastern Conference finals series, and Miami won in five en route to losing to Dallas in the Finals.

With James in his face in the last four games, a beleaguered Rose shot 35 percent in that series, hitting just 23.3 percent of his 3-pointers (he took six per game) while averaging 23.3 points and 6.6 assists. He had to take 24 shots per game, because who else could create their own shot on that team?

Now, in their hotly-awaited second-round playoff series, Rose has All-Star Jimmy Butler by his side.

Butler will likely have to deal with James on both ends for about 43 minutes a game. Can he do that and still score?

“He’s got to do his job,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said of Butler’s key role this series. “That’s what we’ve asked him to do. He’s always guarded the primary guy. He’s got to go out there and do it.”

Butler, the 25-year-old with lots of zeroes and commas in his financial future, has continued his breakout season in the playoffs, and of course, he and Rose are the keys to the Bulls having a shot at winning this series.

Both have to put pressure on Cleveland’s defense, and at least one has to carry the team in scoring every game.

If Butler is locked up, then it’s imperative Rose attacks the rim and yes, makes his 3-pointers. If Rose is doubled, then he has to make sure Butler leads the team in shots.

It's not just them, of course.

Pau Gasol has to continue racking up double-doubles, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have to be able to move and bring energy on both ends, Nikola Mirotic has to matter, and the Bulls have to move the ball to find Mike Dunleavy and Tony Snell.

Thibodeau, who very well could be coaching his last playoff series with the Bulls, will be under the microscope on how he mixes and matches the frontcourt players. Can he make the right late-game adjustments in what promises to be a very tight series?

Everything is important, but it’s a star-driven league. Rose and Butler are the team’s best players and they have to shine in what could be a franchise-altering series.

Given that the duo only played Cleveland together once this season -- Butler missed two of their four meetings, while Rose missed one -- I’m interested in seeing if the Bulls have any advantage there. Cleveland can scout all they want, but they haven't had to actually defend these two together much.

“I don’t know how much you can read into that,” Thibodeau said Sunday. “Because you can also say we’ve been with our starters for 22 games. They haven’t played a lot. So we’re still trying to find chemistry.”

In their one game together, a 108-94 loss on Jan. 19 in Cleveland, they combined to go 11-for-30 from the floor. Butler led the Bulls with 20 points and Rose had 18 in one of the Bulls’ worst games of the Thibodeau era.

With Noah and Mike Dunleavy out that game, the Bulls started a three-guard lineup with Kirk Hinrich as the other guard. Hinrich, amazingly enough, played 27 minutes with no points and no assists.

James and Kyrie Irving led the Cavs, J.R. Smith hit six 3-pointers and Love offset a poor shooting game by going 9-for-10 from the line.

After the loss, Rose was emotional, calling out the entire team for poor effort during a multi-game slide. Thibodeau canceled an ensuing practice and the team had a meeting instead.

"Everybody has to be on the same page," Rose said in Cleveland that night. "Until then, we're going to continue to get our ass kicked.”

When the Bulls played them a few weeks later, they scored their only win against the Cavs this season. In the 113-98 victory, Rose had 30 points on 12-for-24 shooting, adding seven assists and committing only two turnovers.

That’s backing up your words.

Against Cleveland this year, Butler averaged 18 points per game on 40 percent shooting, adding 5.5 rebounds and four assists.

In three games against the Cavs, Rose put up better-than-average scoring numbers, 22.7 points on 46.3 percent shooting, including 38.5 percent on 3-pointers. He only averaged 1.7 turnovers per game, about half his season average.

Butler is coming into this series as a legitimate breakout star. He averaged 24.8 points (in 42.2 minutes) against the Bucks, hitting 47.6 percent of his shots (40.5 percent of 3-pointers), and averaging 7.2 free throw attempts per game, though he only connected on 79.1 percent.

Meanwhile Rose had an up-and-down series against a very tall, disruptive Bucks team. While fans often yell “Drive!” every time he pulls up for a 3, it’s important to note we don’t see the game on the same level.

Against Milwaukee, Rose averaged 19 points (in 36.7 minutes), shooting 41 percent from the field and an impressive (for him) 37.5 percent on 3-pointers. He also averaged 6.5 assists and 4.3 turnovers. In the Bulls’ two losses to Milwaukee, he combined for 14 turnovers, while he had 12 in the four wins.

The Bucks defense helped cause the Bulls to average 17.5 turnovers per game in the series, and it wasn’t a surprise. The Bucks led the NBA in opponent turnovers at 16.6 per game. Cleveland doesn’t do that as well, with opponents averaging 12.7 turnovers against it during the regular season -- 22nd in the NBA. The Bulls, who are instructed not to gamble on steals, were 29th at 11.7.

Both teams commit around 13 per game, Thibodeau’s “magic number” for turnovers, and were in the top 10 in turnover differential.

With Love out, and Smith suspended for the start, the Cavs’ advantage is lessened.

Let's not make this series harder than it looks. It will come down to which duo plays best, James and Irving or Rose and Butler.