Wizards the ideal matchup for Bulls
Through its play and a little luck, Chicago has a promising East playoff path ahead
Any sane person would rather face playoff neophytes John Wall and Bradley Beal than Hall of Fame-bound Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett this postseason. And any sane person would rather do battle with the fading, fretting, fragile Indiana Pacers than LeBron James and a band of two-time champions.
On Saturday they'll begin playing NBA playoff games on hardwood, but today we'll settle for fleshing them out on paper, which means the Chicago Bulls did pretty darned good Wednesday night, losing the season finale in overtime in Charlotte. It might not sound logical, making the case that losing to the seventh seed on the final night of the regular season could somehow help propel the Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals, but that's the case that'll be made here.
The Bulls were very, very unlikely to reach the conference finals going through the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat. OK, the Nets are hardly unbeatable; it's fair to be skeptical of any team, playing close to full strength, that gets blown out of its home season finale by the Knicks without Carmelo Anthony. But the Nets, after starting the season 10-21, finished it 34-17.
And Miami on some levels has been as leaky as the Pacers these past few weeks, losing three straight and five of six. You want a bigger sample size of the Heat's mediocrity? Miami's record the past 25 games, which is nearly one-third of the season, is 11-14. Still, put a reasonably healthy Dwyane Wade back in that lineup alongside an agitated LeBron James, and Miami has a better shot than not of finding its championship form.
You want to avoid, if possible, people who have rings, guys who know how to win championships, which is to say Wade, James, Bosh, Allen, Pierce and KG, among others playing for Miami and Brooklyn. You'd rather square off against guys who have no idea yet what they're in for, no matter how talented, like Wall and Beal, and then guys who have a 4-11 record against other playoff teams since the All-Star Game, like the Pacers, who've revealed themselves to be so fragile they could have trouble in the first round putting away the Hawks.
The Bulls couldn't have gotten a better draw, even to the point of getting a Washington Wizards team that won the regular-season series 2-1. The Wizards want the Bulls in the playoffs, set their sights on them the last few weeks of the season as they moved from seventh to fifth. The Wizards aren't shy about their feelings toward the Bulls, that they can't score enough to get in a high-octane battle, that they can't stay in front of Wall and Beal, that the Bulls physically just aren't as good as the Wizards.
And that's just the kind of team the Bulls should eat for lunch in a seven-game playoff series, a team whose best two players haven't navigated the intensity of the playoffs, a team that thinks offense is somehow going to rule the day in the postseason. Yeah, the Wizards won two January games against the Bulls when they were still pulling themselves together following the trade of Luol Deng, figuring out how to incorporate D.J. Augustin, and reworking the offense around the passing talents of Joakim Noah.
|Sunday||Wizards at Bulls||6p|
|Tuesday||Wizards at Bulls||8:30p|
|April 25||Bulls at Wizards||7p|
|April 27||Bulls at Wizards||Noon|
|*April 29||Wizards at Bulls||TBD|
|*May 1||Bulls at Wizards||TBD|
|*May 3||Wizards at Bulls||TBD|
|* If necessary -- All times CT|
When the teams met April 5, the Bulls led by 26 points and won by 18. They went to Washington annoyed they'd already lost twice to the Wizards, who for the third meeting had Chicago's undivided attention. Chances are, Coach Thibs isn't going to have to dig all that deep to strike that same nerve in his players to get them ready for Games 1 and 2 in Chicago.
No doubt, the Wizards have the personnel to score, inside (Nene and Marcin Gortat), from the backcourt (Wall and Beal) and from the wings (Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster). But team defense -- the Bulls rank No. 1 in that department among playoff teams in games against other playoff teams -- ought to slow the Wizards enough for the Bulls to win in six games.
By that time we'll find out if the Pacers have recovered completely -- particularly the once-effective defense that abandoned them recently -- and are ready to make good on all those early-season promises about how they'd catch Miami, after first cruising by the Bulls. Or whether they're still the completely lost outfit that needed to run the reserves against Milwaukee, lest experience the pain of having the starters get KO'd by a tomato can like the Bucks.
Either way, the Bulls have at least an even chance of beating the Pacers in the second round. The Bulls haven't just outplayed the Pacers (and for that matter, the Heat) for a week or two; they've outplayed Indy for 3½ months. The Bulls, after their 12-18 start, finished 36-16, the best record in the Eastern Conference over that period.
So what could betray the Bulls against either the Wizards or Pacers? Well, for one, the Chicago bench ain't what it was three years ago when the Bulls had the best reserve unit in the league (Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, John Lucas, Kurt Thomas) or even last postseason when Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli were charging in. It's basically a two-man bench (Taj Gibson and Augustin) that Thibs is throwing out there, meaning Noah simply can't get in foul trouble, especially now since he's the team's best and most important passer. And two, the Bulls still go long, long periods when they simply can't score, and the Wizards are improved enough defensively to really exacerbate that.
Mike and Mike
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau dishes on moving forward from adversity this season, Joakim Noah's influence on Chicago, the upcoming matchup against the Wizards, John Wall's development and more.
Nobody in the Eastern Conference except Miami is guaranteed to win a single series, even in the first round. It's difficult, on the other hand, to see a single upset in the Western Conference, unless it's Memphis giving OKC a hard time. But the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Rockets really do seem pretty rock-solid to advance, 1 through 4. The East, however, after completely boring us to death the first two months, could really take on some theater if the Nets can get past Toronto for a shot at Miami. The uniforms may be black and say "Nets," but Pierce and Garnett make it a Celtics engine powering that car, and they despise Miami with every fiber of their being. Hell, Pierce and Garnett are only in Brooklyn because they wanted one more good shot at dethroning the Heat.
At the beginning of the New Year, "SportsCenter" was looking for "outrageous NBA predictions" and insisted I make one. So I did: "Either Miami or Indy will not reach the Eastern Conference finals" is essentially what I said, not believing a word of it at the time. It's not so outrageous anymore. If you believe in 3½ months of basketball and the results they produce, then the Pacers or Heat being upset before the conference finals isn't such an outrageous prediction anymore.
Both being toppled is unlikely, but the Bulls don't have to concern themselves with the champs until the third round. Nobody had the Bulls going that far after Derrick Rose suffered his knee injury and Deng was traded. There was more (foolish) talk about the Bulls tanking to get into the lottery than reaching the conference finals.
But a sustained combative stretch of basketball, which has become this team's signature, and now perhaps the good luck of losing an overtime game at just the right time to rearrange the seeding seemingly in their favor, may have put the Bulls in position -- for the first time in three postseasons -- to have a run of something that may matter nearly as much as being good: good fortune.