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Thursday, April 17, 2014
Three keys for Bulls vs. Wizards

By Nick Friedell

Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah's Bulls face a young and talented team in the Wizards in the first round.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Taj Gibson and his Chicago Bulls teammates didn't try to sugarcoat how difficult a matchup they believe they have in front of them against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals that start Sunday night at the United Center.

"Tough team, man," Gibson said after Wednesday night's loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. "Tough, tough team. They gave us so many problems in the regular season. Great shooters. They've got some great bigs in Nene and [Marcin] Gortat. John Wall is playing some phenomenal basketball. Bradley Beal is playing great basketball, too. Their bench is even loaded up. I don't know. It's going to be tough, man."

The Bulls respect the Wizards, but they still believe they can beat them.

Let's take a look at a few of the keys in this series:

1. Slowing down Wall

John Wall is in the midst of the best season of his career, averaging almost 20 points a game with almost nine assists. The job of defending Wall will fall to the point guard duo of Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin. Hinrich spent some time playing with Wall during his rookie year and doesn't seem surprised he has become so good.

"When he came into the league he was very talented," Hinrich said. "A good player, and just kind of the natural maturation [of a player]. He's gotten to an All-Star level; he's a great player and a great guy so I'm happy for him."

Hinrich's job over the last two weeks will be to make Wall miserable, though. The question for Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is how many extra minutes he'll be willing to use Hinrich in the playoffs. After spending the past few years battling various injuries, Hinrich has stayed relatively healthy by playing between 25-30 minutes this season. Thibodeau is going to have to decide how far he wants to push Hinrich because the veteran is clearly his best defensive option.

2. The battle on the blocks

No matter which Bulls player talks about the Wizards, usually one of the of the first things they mention is the big man duo of Nene and Marcin Gortat. The pair has given the Bulls trouble in the past, and it's worth noting the one game the Bulls beat the Wizards in this season was when Nene didn't play because of an injury. In order to win this series, the Bulls must find a way to control the battle between the big men. It will be up to Joakim Noah and Gibson to hold down the fort.

"They got a very tough frontcourt in Nene and (Marcin) Gortat," Noah said. "So we have to be ready for that. They have a great backcourt as well with Wall and (Bradley) Beal. They have a lot of talent so they're definitely a tough matchup. It's not going to be easy. Every game's going to be a tough battle, but I think we're a team that's battle-tested. We know what it takes and this is exciting. You never know what's going to happen in the playoffs. I just can't wait to compete."

3. Butler takes center stage

Since Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland, Jimmy Butler has filled in on the defensive end without missing a beat. The question for him now becomes after a full season of playing 40-plus minutes a night, will he be able to withstand the pressure of the playoffs on both ends of the floor. Butler will be asked to guard Beal and will be looked upon to provide an offensive punch. It's a tall order for the 24-year-old, but one that he's willing to embrace. His teammates believe in him, and he continues to gain more confidence in himself.

"I think we did well," Butler said of the season. "We did what we were supposed to do -- make it to the playoffs. Now it's time to win 16 games and bring the chip home."