- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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They're lined up around the corner to face the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs. Doesn't matter that the Bulls have the best record in the NBA, that they won 50 games in an abbreviated 66-game season, that they beat Miami, Boston and Atlanta -- among others -- without Derrick Rose in the lineup, that they're the best rebounding team in the league and have perhaps the best bench in the league. Doesn't matter a bit. They've had their eye on the Bulls for weeks, circling the best team in the Eastern Conference like road kill.
They've been brazen about it, too. They've come right out and said it publicly. You know how players for decades, when asked whom they'd prefer to face in the playoffs, say, "Oh, it doesn't matter who we face as long as we play our game." The New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers didn't much bother with that nonsense ... because they've wanted the Bulls for a while and didn't much care who knew. More than a week ago, when they should have been hell-bent on getting up to No. 6 in the Eastern Conference the Knicks' Jared Jeffries, about as thoughtful a player as you'll meet, said on ESPN New York when asked whether he'd rather play the Heat or Bulls, "I still think the Bulls."
And Philly's Evan Turner, a native Chicagoan, said when asked what it would mean to face the Bulls, told the Delaware County Times, "It means we're dodging the tougher team. That's what I think. ... I think we'll be able to compete well against Chicago and have an opportunity to win the series."
Probably, one of the historically awful Charlotte Bobcats, if asked, would say they wouldn't be so historically awful if they'd just been able to play the Chicago Bulls, you know, 12 to 15 times.
The Heat and Knicks, particularly, look at the Bulls, even after losing to them, and sneer, as though the Bulls are some physically challenged bunch of Sweathogs who have no business being in the ring with them and do what they do with mirrors or help from the great beyond. As though playing harder than your opponent every night and coming closer to maxing out than any other team in the league is something to be embarrassed about.
Anyway, the 76ers, it seems, have gotten what they wanted, a first-round date with the Bulls beginning Saturday at noon CT. So maybe this has brought on a sigh of relief in the locker room of the 76ers, who went from leading a division to holding on to the eighth and final playoff spot in just a few weeks. Hard to recall that a No. 1 seed that plays with such toughness and attention to defense has ever been thought of by such ordinary conference opponents as the 76ers and Knicks as, well, lacking ... but that appears to be the case.
Talk about a desirable position to be in at the start of the playoffs.
It doesn't come as any great surprise that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau says he doesn't much care what the Sixers or Knicks or anybody else thinks about his team and that he isn't about to use any of it to gin up additional motivation. The Bulls, taking that cue, say they, too, don't care. ... And if you believe that you probably also believe Kim Kardashian is great marriage material.
Don't get me wrong, every team knows -- whether its players and coaches say so publicly or not -- that there are favorable and not-so-favorable matchups. The Grizzlies knew it last year when they worked themselves in position to play (and beat) the No. 1-seeded Spurs. Five years ago the eighth-seeded Warriors were a matchup nightmare for the top-seeded and defending conference champion Mavericks, and everybody in the NBA knew it going into that series.
It's understandable that the Sixers, having been popped around by Miami, would rather play the Bulls, especially with Derrick Rose's effectiveness in question after all his injuries, but saying it publicly is something that ought to burn the Bulls. Champions chafe at anything in search for an advantage. Can you imagine Michael Jordan not using a perceived slight to his advantage? In the playoffs?
Look, the Bulls won't win the Eastern Conference without Rose being a player of great impact, which is pretty much what Jeffries said. Rose doesn't have to be (and won't be) completely healthy early in these playoffs, but he does have to be effective. Same goes for Luol Deng. The bet here is that the Bulls take out Philly in five games, and they should get some rest while the Hawks, who give the Celtics trouble, wrestle with Boston for six or seven games.
The Bulls can't afford to presume anything, and don't, which is one of the many reasons they can reach the Finals. They're a terrible foul-shooting team and miss more point-blank shots than a good team should. Easy baskets are so hard to come by, perhaps because the Bulls simply don't concentrate enough on offense. During an in-game interview recently, Thibodeau talked about the defense not being good enough, even though the Bulls were holding the opponent to 33 percent shooting at the time. Long scoring droughts are much more likely to sabotage the Bulls this postseason than leaky defense.
But none of that should be a major problem against the 76ers, who'll surely play every bit as hard as the Bulls but don't have the personnel, particularly a go-to star in close half-court games, to beat the Bulls four times in a series. Along the way, we'll find out whether the Bulls are healthy enough and improved enough offensively over last season to take out Boston in the second round and/or Miami in the conference championship.
Perhaps the greatest attribute the Bulls have is their ability and willingness to grind, something the more talented Heat aren't as good at doing. The compressed regular season was more a grind than any during the past dozen years, and the Bulls are as doggedly determined game-by-game in the playoffs as they were from Christmas Day through Thursday. They'll assure themselves of the only thing that's necessary right now: getting past the 76ers, some of whom will now find out whether they really want what they asked for.
Some 76ers who viewed the Bulls as an easier first-round opponent may learn a hard lesson.