Posted on: April 12, 2011 3:35 am
Edited on: April 13, 2011 8:54 am

Your Tuesday morning NBA playoff scenarios

Updated playoff positioning following Monday night's games. 
Posted by Matt Moore

We've got 16 teams, and a lot of them are locked in place. Here's where we stand in terms of playoff positioning going into Tuesday night's games. 

Eastern Conference:

The East is locked. With Miami's win over the Hawks combined with Boston's loss to the Wizards, along with the Sixers loss to the Magic, we have our first round playoff match-ups.

1 Chicago vs. 8 Indiana
2 Miami vs. 7 Philadelphia
3 Boston vs. 6 New York
4 Orlando vs. 5 Atlanta

Boston lucks out in this scenario. Without a legit center and against a weak rebounding team, their biggest concerns are mitigated, and it could allow them time to get back on their feet. Shutting down explosive stars is their business. Philadelphia, on the other hand, is the exact kind of team Miami could overlook. While the Sixers are outmatched at nearly every position outside point guard (even lacking a superior center). The Magic knew they were headed for the Hawks for weeks, same with Chicago and Indiana. 

New York landing as the six is considerably higher than many thought they would in the preseason. Philadelphia has to be unnerved they surrendered the sixth spot, but given their beginning, it's still a win. 

A likely Easteron Conference semi-finals series between Boston and Miami would begin with Game 1 in the great state of Florida. 

Western Conference: 

Things are much more liquid in the Western Conference. Denver's win over Golden State secures Denver in the fifth seed. The Spurs locked up the No. 1 seed a week ago. Other than that, everything's up in the air. Dallas' win over Houston after L.A.'s loss to the Thunder Sunday puts the 2 seed back in play. The Mavericks are now a half-game ahead of the Lakers for homecourt in a theoretical second round. The pressure is now on L.A. to break their five-game losing streak and close out the season to secure that seed. But then, lowering themselves to actually trying in games like this are not really the Lakers style. 

And oh, look at that, Oklahoma City is only a half game behind the Lakers. If the Lakers lose out, it's possible L.A. could wind up in the fourth spot, as crazy as that is. 

Meanwhile, as Denver is the dividing line between the insanity up-top and the looniness on the bottom, there's a continuing shuffling in spots 6-8. Portland remains in the driver's seat for the sixth seed. With the Hornets' loss to the Jazz, which was about as badly timed as it could have been, the Hornets have fallen to the 8th seed. Memphis is now in the seventh spot. The Grizzlies face the Blazers Tuesday night with the season series tied 1-1. Winner gets tiebreaker. Portland wins, they lock up the sixth. Grizzlies win, it comes down to Wednesday night's games. This situation is made trickier by not knowing how the top will look. In reality, everyone's trying to avoid the Lakers. But since L.A. could land anywhere between 2 and 4, there's no way to effectively duck them. If Portland wants to avoid the Lakers, for example, and think winning is the best way to do so, they could beat the Grizzlies, then watch Phil Jackson pull his starters against San Antonio and Sacramento. 

There's no way to tank to avoid opponents. It's a lottery at this point. Which is why so often coaches ignore such strategies at an organizational level. 

We'll update you after Tuesday's games. 
Posted on: April 12, 2011 1:29 am

How a random drawing could decide the Finals

Chicago and San Antonio could wind up needing a random drawing to determine home court advantage should they meet in the Finals. 
Posted by Matt Moore

Going into Tuesday night's games, the San Antonio Spurs have a one-game lead on the Chicago Bulls for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. They split the season series between the two 1-1. The Spurs have two games remaining, both versus Western Conference opponents.  The Bulls have two games remaining, both versus Eastern opponents. The Spurs are 23-7 against Eastern opponents, while the Bulls are 23-7 against Western opponents. 

Why is this information relevant? 

Because the NBA Finals could be determined by a random drawing. 

Should the Spurs and Bulls finish tied in overall record (Bulls go 1-1, Spurs 0-2; Bulls 2-0, Spurs 1-1) and meet in the Finals, the two will pass the first two tiebreakers. There are only three tiebreakers for homecourt advantage in the Finals. The third is a random drawing. 

The official NBA tiebreakers have a complex and thorough system which would actually lead to a Bulls advantage were they put into play. However, as ESPN pointed out, and a league release confirmed, the Finals operate on a different structure. First tiebreaker is, of course, head-to-head record, the second record against opposing conference, and the third a random drawing. So should Popovich's Spurs elect not to rest starters Tuesday, but do so Wednesday against the Suns, and the Bulls to stretch their 7-game winning streak to nine, and the Spurs and Bulls win their respective conference finals, we'll be seeing a random drawing to determine where the majority of games are played. 

Another sign of how close this season is between the greats in both conferences, and how much a role luck could conceivably play in determining the 2011 NBA Champion. 
Posted on: April 11, 2011 10:16 pm
Edited on: April 11, 2011 10:20 pm

Boston concedes second seed to Miami

The Celtics pulled their starters against Washington Monday night, then lost in overtime to clinch the second seed for the Heat, while they wind up in 3rd. They'll be on the road from the second round on. 
Posted by Matt Moore

The Celtics pulled their starters Monday night against Washington. Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen all sat out versus the Wizards. Not surprising with only two games before the start of the playoffs. But the Celtics were just a game back of the Heat, who played the Hawks Monday night (and won). 

Why would the Celtics have pulled starters when they still had a shot at getting homecourt advantage in the second round against Miami? The move represents a concession of homecourt to the Heat by not doing what is necessary to secure it. And in fact, the Celtics' second and third units lost to the Wizards in overtime, locking in the Heat as the second seed, and the Celtics into the third. 

It's curious that the Celtics would just surrender it, and it does represent a failure on their part this season. The Celtics made homecourt a priority for much of the season after losing Game 7 in Los Angeles in last year's Finals. Now they'll be on the road from the second round, on. The Celtics know they can win without homecourt advantage. They're a veteran team that's done it in series past. But it makes it that much harder, makes the hill that much steeper, makes it that much more difficult for a team that's still looking for its identity. 

There's no reason for Boston to panic.

There's just also very little reason for them not to panic. 
Posted on: April 11, 2011 6:11 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 2:43 pm

Road to the Finals: Pretenders or Upstarts?

What does the unlikely road to the Finals look like for those teams who aren't considered contenders?
Posted by Matt Moore

If you're in love with Cinderella, this isn't the league for you. The NBA is not a fantasy landscape where the ugly duckling becomes a prince. It's a post-apocalyptic wasteland where only the strong, and well-armed (or well-financed) survive. Sure, there are first-round upsets. Denver knocking off Seattle, with Mutumbo laying on the floor clutching the ball in a paroxysm of joy. The "We Believe" Warriors of 2007 forcing the Maverick hordes back into the sea. But most often, if you're not elite, you're trampled underfoot in the first round and if you do manage to escape in a glorious moment of surprise, the curtain quickly slams shut, throwing you back into the cellar with nothing but the "we had a season to build on" mantra to keep you through the offseason. 

And so we bring you the Road to the Finals for the pretenders. Here is the last, longing hope for those who are about to be swept from the playoff board. 

Eastern Conference Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are the lowest form of life in the NBA at the moment: The 8th seed in the East. Lottery teams are at least hidden from view once the playoff start. But being matched up in a seven game series against the team many feel is the best in the league leads to you becoming a joke. That's what the Pacers face. The Pacers have been one of the most up and down teams in the league this season. But there is something that should be noted here. They have strong point guard play from Darren Collison. They have a well-sized center with actual offense in Roy Hibbert. They have a combo-forward capable of stretching the defense. There are some things to like about the Pacers versus the Bulls. But then, you factor in the Bulls' defense and things don't feel so good.  Indiana has the worst offense in the playoffs , going up against the best defense. Even if they were to end Derrick Rode's Magical Mystery Tour, they'd then face the Magic in the second round, who boast a superior center, and more size and versatility at every position. Get past that, and yeah, you know the rest. It's been a good season for the Pacers. A win against the Bulls would be great. Two is gravy. Pushing them to seven games would create some real excitement for the team. But a sweep is what you should count on.

Road To The Finals
Philadelphia 76ers: Philadelphia's not a bad team. They're really not. They've got some versatility at the forward spot, a nice speedy young point guard, a veteran big in Elton Brand producing, and some solid coaching. Philadelphia's problems mostly revolve around the inexperience of its players in advancing past the first-round and that they lack a star player they can turn to in times of trouble. There's no go-to guy for Philly, though there are candidates. Andre Iguodala fills this hole. It makes sense since he's such a great all-around player. But creating on his own is not his best gig, and Iguodala won't take over the game offensively. Still, the Sixers might have enough to push around a Boston team still finding its legs and who historically has some trouble with the first-round. If they run up against the Heat, that's a bit more of a problem. Iguodala's neutralized by James, and the Sixers' help defense isn't quite good enough to contain the pick and roll. Philadelphia winning two games would be a good start going forward, but you still don't feel like this team would be necessarily building towards something in that instance. 

New York Knicks: Knicks fans are going to talk themselves into a playoff run. You can already hear it. Once they lose, they'll revert back to how the Melo trade was about the future and it wasn't about this year (which is true). But of all the teams on this list, the Knicks are the ones that probably have the most optimistic fanbase. After all, they just beat the Heat a few weeks ago after the Melo trade. And they came "this" close to beating the Celtics on that Stoudemire buzzer-beater early in the season. The first round matchup will undeniably be exciting. The issue for their opponents will be that they do have two of those players you want in the playoffs. Elite-level guys. Unfortunately, they're going to be playing either the Celtics who have four of those guys, or the Heat who have 2.5 of those guys. Knicks fans shouldn't get their hopes up too much. But they're also more than capable of pushing a team to seven games, setting themselves up with momentum for next season. This is a no-lose playoffs for the Knicks. They're going places. Just probably not very far in the next month.

Atlanta Hawks: Oh, how the... well, not mighty, but moderately adequate have fallen. The Hawks are a playoff afterthought in the afterthought first-round matchup. People want to see how the Heat perform in their first playoff series together, to see the Bulls react as favorites, to see if the Celtics can put the pieces back together. But the Magic-Hawks series is the "lost potential" series. The Hawks were putting themselves on the map with a gutsy first-round performance against Boston three years ago. Then they probably "peaked" by making the second-round by winning an unwatchable series against the Heat in 2009. Last year, they limped in, and were nearly knocked off by a Bucks team without Andrew Bogut. Now they've lost homecourt advantage and are pretty much just going through the motions. They can't blow it up, they have too much money invested. Their matchup with the Magic is actually really interesting. Horford is an elite center, and actually plays Howard marginally well. Smith has all sorts of advantages against Bass or Anderson. But the Magic as a whole have too much strength. It wouldn't surprise anyone to see the Hawks topple the Magic, it just wouldn't change anyone's opinion of them. The Bulls have too many advantages and while the Hawks always have that promise of being able to hit another level, it's impossible for anyone to think they have a chance of taking more than six games in the playoffs. 

Western Conference: 

Memphis Grizzlies: The Grizzlies are a scary team. Versatile, talented defensively, tough, with shooters, a great low-post player, and youth. The Spurs are not an ideal matchup for them, but if the Grizzlies are ever going to win a playoff game in Memphis, this is a pretty good year for it. They can challenge any of the top three teams they might face. But they're still an incomplete team, an inconsistent team. And those are teams that can get overrun when things don't go their way against contenders. Tony Parker can attack Mike Conley, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom can overwhelm the Grizzlies inside, and the Grizzlies would have trouble matching the Dallas offensive sets. If the Grizzlies were to pull off one of the more unlikely playoff wins in history, they would likely face the 4-5 winner, who would not be a bad matchup. It sounds bizarre to say, but the Grizzlies may have the easiest track to the Western Conference of any upset-minded lower seed. But experience matters, and Memphis simply doesn't have it. The goal needs to be to win a game. Just one. You've got to start somewhere if you're Memphis. 

New Orleans Hornets: This team is sunk. They've been sunk since David West went down. Carl Landry is a good player. But he doesn't have the range West does, nor the rebounding prowess. The Hornets are poorly matched for the playoffs, even with Chris Paul at the helm. Their shooters haven't been in the playoffs before, they're undersized and inconsistent. Winning a game to avoid a sweep would be solid. New Orleans has had a surprising, rollercoaster year. Making any run at all would be a fitting end. It would also make me fearful that the end was near. 

Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers won't die. They just simply refuse to. And if they can hold on to the third seed and face Dallas, they feel like they have a shot at taking the series. To say Portland shouldn't expect to get out of the first round is to try and put rational expectations on them. If they're supposed to contend, things fall apart due to injury. If they're supposed to be also-rans, they go on rampages through opponents. The truth is, we dont' know what to expect from Portland, outside of this. Andre Miller is a good player, but not the answer. Same with Wesley Matthews. This team has a collective ceiling. But the best way to find them break it is to say it out loud. And just when you think they're down, they come roaring back. Zombies. 

Denver Nuggets: Want to know how weird the Western Conference is? The Thunder have a great shot at challenging the Lakers, but don't want to run into Denver in the first round. Oklahoma City will probably win, they're a great team. But the Nuggets just play like they don't care right now. They have no expectations, and nothing to lose. That creates an environment of reckless bravery, which is how the Nuggets play. The Nuggets are the team everyone will be roooting for, to overcome the lack of a superstar. The problems are the same they've been for years. Defense, consistency, and now a new element of relative inexperience. Neither Ty Lawson or Raymond Felton know how to play well in the playoffs. Galinari has never seen the postseason. But there are enough veterans to keep the road. It'll be interesting to see who steps up for the Nuggets as a leader. A first-round surprise wouldn't shock anyone, but the thought is that they only have so many bullets in the gun, and in the second round they'll wear down. But they remain the team you don't want to run into in a dark first-round alley. 
Category: NBA
Posted on: April 8, 2011 10:24 pm

Bulls came, Bulls saw, Bulls clinched

Bulls clinch top seed in East with win over Cavaliers
Posted by Matt Moore

If it has seemed like Chicago fans count their chickens before they hatch, it's likely due in part to their belief in the sports equivalent of manifest destiny. After all, their franchise's championship years were forged by the fire of Jordan, which relied most heavily on self-assurance. "I win because I am." Derrick Rose has helped push that mindset back into function. He has been a force of nature, and has led the Bulls as a team and as a fanbase that they can and will win the championship simply because they will it to be so.

And now they've willed themselves to the No. 1 seed in the East. 

The Bulls clinched the top spot in the East with a 93-82 win against the Cavaliers, a fitting illustration of where we've gone to in a year, as the team that won the top spot in last year's playoffs lost to clinch this year's beast in the East. The Bulls are now assured homecourt advantage, in a rocking United Center, throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. They are just a game back of San Antonio for homecourt advantage throughout the Finals. They hold a 3.5 game lead on the Lakers.

What does homecourt mean for Chicago? The Bulls lead the league in attendance per game this season. They have a big-market, high energy crowd in a building with history (and statues). Homecourt advantage means something entirely different for them than it does L.A., which suffers with traffic, distractions, and its fans being priced out. The United Center won't get as loud as Oklahoma City in the playoffs, but it'll be close. It's a hostile environment against a team that feeds on emotion and drive. For the Eastern powers to allow this was a severe mistake. 

Still, the Bulls now have the target on their back. They now have to be considered favorites against the other East powers. They reached this mark by playing the underdog, but now they're the favorite. How they react to that will be of vital importance. This team as constructed has never seen a postseason together. How will they react as the favorites? And with a first-round series against the Pacers which likely won't really test them in any meaningful way, how will they respond in the second round when the intensity increases? Say what you want about the Magic (assuming they topple the Hawks), but they do know how to play high-octane playoff basketball. 

But as always, it returns to Rose. As high energy as the United Center will be, Rose's calm, cool demeanor will set the tone and provide a rock for the team to rely on. They have experienced players like Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, and Kyle Korver who have seen the playoffs. 

They have the star. They have the personnel. They have the coach. 

And now they have homecourt advantage. 
Beware the Bulls. 
Posted on: April 8, 2011 11:30 am

Dwyane Wade probable against Bobcats

Dwyane Wade expected to return to lineup against Bobcats from bruised thigh.

Posted by Matt Moore

Dwyane Wade has missed a few games with a bruised thigh, which probably had something to do with the Heat's loss to the Bucks.  Wade participated in shootaround Friday morning, and is listed as "probable" for Friday night's game against the Bobcats. 

The Heat are tied with Boston for the No. 2 seed in the East. They face the Bobcats Friday, then a game on Sunday, then the Hawks monday on a back-to-back, then finish with the Raptors on Wednesday to close out the season. The Celtics face the Wizards Friday, then they also have a game on Sunday, then a back-to-back in Washington, and finish at home against the Knicks

That game on Sunday is of course Celtics vs. Heat, and it will go a long way towards sorting this whole thing out. Both teams winning out outside of that game is very possible. So that game on Sunday will likely determine not only who gets that 2 seed, but how much rest each team will get. If the Celtics win, with a tie breaker, they can rest players and still walk away with the seed thanks to tie-breaker. If the Heat win, the Celtics may have to keep pushing, when they're pretty burned out at this point. 

All of this could be rendered moot if the Bobcats join the legion of underwhelming teams who have dropped the Heat. 
Posted on: April 8, 2011 10:10 am

Around the Web: Bulls-Celtics reaction

Posted by Matt Moore

A look at the reactions to the Bulls' win over the Celtics Thursday night...
But there is a reason the Celtics shot terribly. For one, Kurt Thomas, Joakim Noah, and even Omer "The Turkish Delight" Asik were beasts inside, and Luol Deng had a Pippen-esque defensive performance tonight. More than anything though it was just an unrelenting energy from Chicago. They played like we've come to expect the Celtics to play. They were active defensively, and unrelenting. They didn't take possessions off, and even when they screwed up a rotation or allowed penetration, they hustled like a man possessed to get back to rights. Even Kyle Korver..I'm not kidding.

That meant that the Celtics had no time for hand wringing on offense. That meant that if the Celtics had an open shot, they either took it without thinking, or it was taken away. That meant more often than not the Celtics put up a shot they didn't want to. It meant the Celtics got a taste of what its like to play a team that has gelled cohesively around the idea that they will win games with their defense and just bought into being the best they can on that end. Basically it meant the Celtics got a taste of what it has been like to play the Celtics for most of the past 4 seasons.
via CelticsBlog - For Boston Celtics Fans.

Energy is the most discussed element in regular season games between playoff contenders. The losing team will always cite a lack of energy, leading towards a "we play for the playoffs" angle in a "we just didn't have it tonight" manner, while the winning team will cite "being locked in." The start of this game very much looked like both teams were locked in. The Bulls were as relentless as described above, and that's their strongest defensive feature. They don't overreact to problems and they rarely let issues compound one another. Consistency has the value of gold in the NBA. And the Bulls have mountains of it. 
Listing other contributors starts with Luol Deng, overcoming early foul trouble to outscore his long-time rival Paul Pierce (seriously!) 23-15, Keith Bogans had two 3-pointers in his initial stint to help the hot start, Carlos Boozer had a brief spurt of dominance in the 2nd half against the C's backup bigs...but this offense was nearly all Derrick Rose tonight. He finished with 30 points on 16 shots, insanely efficient, and he still could (scarily) have been even better considering some of the 3-pointers he attempted. 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and the halftime highlight package from Mike Fratello focused on him setting a screen.

And yet, even considering all his brilliance (and placed alongside Rondo's opposite-of-brilliance, made to look even that much better), Rose still saw the Celtics hanging in close for much of the 3rd quarter. It was a game that felt better watching that the score indicated. But the Bulls have more than one star, and it was the defense that put the game out of reach. The Celtics couldn't run at all, matched their best playmakers (Pierce and the KG fadeaway) well, and looked completely stifled at points while they stared at a Davis 20 footer.
via Bulls take down Celtics with usual formula: Rose lights up, Defense shuts down - Blog a Bull.

Deng's contributions, not only Thursday night, but overall, lead you to understand how pivotal he is to the Bulls' success. The Bulls set the tone of this game early, going to Deng twice against Pierce while Rose remained off-ball. When the Celtics adjusted and started sending help, the Bulls switched gears and moved Rose into the focal point of the offense. But the start was enough to keep Deng involved which helped get his jumper wet later on. Deng's mid-range game is the equivalent of Lamar Odom's cuts to the basket. When he's making those types of plays, you throw up your hands and wonder what you can do against them. 

The reason the game felt better watching than the score indicated? Snail's pace. The game was plugged at an 85-possession pace. That's compared to the league-average 94-possessions pace.  Games at that pace make every make that much more effective and every miss that much more painful. And Glen Davis gave Celtics fans a lot of pain Thursday night. 
Can you imagine Rose behaving like Kobe or making statements like LeBron? Of course you can’t, because he hasn’t, and he wouldn’t (as far as we can tell three seasons into his career). Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to single out those two guys to bash them. Superstars have little patience for failure and tend to blast their coaches and teammates from time to time. Michael Jordan did it. He used to complain bitterly about Phil Jackson’s use of the triangle offense. He punched out both Will Perdue and Steve Kerr at practice. He called guys out to the press.

No, my point isn’t to punish LeBron, Kobe or MJ for how they express their competitive urges. I’m just trying to point out that Rose isn’t like anything we’ve ever seen. People have likened him to Allen Iverson, of all people, a man who refused to play on anybody’s terms but his own. Which is why that comparison is flawed to the point of senseless irresponsibility. While people are constructing statistical arguments that show Rose is a sort of Iverson 2.0, they should probably spend a little time watching him play, and following how he conducts himself.
via Statement Made: Bulls 97, Celtics 81 » By The Horns

You'll want to remember this later. Every star NBA player has this day. When everything is going right, and everyone loves him, and why can't others try and be a little more like him? Then eventually, things change, the media machine evolves, circumstances change, and the narrative shifts. Rose will have his own time of criticism not just from the media but from the fans. Or he'll become Michael Jordan. One or the other. Bulls fans will all say "No, you don't understand, Rose is different."  Because that's what everyone says at this special moment in time. That doesn't mean we shouldn't enjoy it. We should. Just keep it in your back pocket to look back on later. 
So Rondo requested a rare post-game meeting with Rivers likely to discuss matters. Rondo asked for the meeting and talked for a few minutes with Rivers in his office, perhaps to clear the air about play calling and Rondo's up-and-down performances.

After compiling 46 assists in the past four games, Rondo collected just six last night on 3-for-10 shooting. His counterpart, Derrick Rose, scorched the Celtics for 30 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds and 2 steals.

Rondo was visibly disappointed after the game.

"Think we need to play with a better sense of urgency," he said before his meeting with Rivers. “It better be a wakeup call, if not, we won’t make it far. We’re a completely different team (than last year). It’s not the same team. We’re not going to be able to turn it on like we did year. I don’t know what we’re waiting on but these types of games we have to find a way to win. It’s a roller-caster and right now we went back down today."
via Rondo, Rivers meet after Celtics loss -Celtics blog - Boston Globe basketball news.

It was bizarre to see Rondo steering through the lanes, then unable to find anyone for the kickout or dump-off and missing layups. In the continuing "taste of their own medicine" theme, Rondo was probably the one who found out what it's like on the other sideline the most. Watching a brilliant young point guard school him time and time again. And there's no real way to spin it. Rondo just got beat. It was a team effort, the help defense should have been better, and Ray Allen and Paul Pierce could have kicked it up a notch trying to get free. But this one falls on Rondo, not for lack of effort, but because them's the breaks of the game. We haven't seen the Rondo of early season for months. We're assuming we'll see him in the playoffs. Assuming.
"This meant a lot because you're going against a team you could see in the playoffs," Rose said. "You don't want those teams to have confidence. We were aggressive. There were some plays guys were about to fight. That's the way it's going to be. We're a tough team. We grind wins out."

About the only downer came when Joakim Noah grabbed just six rebounds in just 23 minutes and iced his swollen right ankle afterward. He didn't play the final 15:19. That meant extended minutes for Thomas, who got yanked down by Glen Davis early in the fourth and hovered over the fallen Celtic in a WWE moment.
via Chicago Bulls: Chicago Bulls romp over Boston Celtics 97-81 in playoff atmosphere - chicagotribune.com.

Deng also got into KG's ear after a box-out. He was chirping in Garnett's face, and Garnett just walked away. Thomas stood over Davis and the Celtics didn't retaliate. They helped Davis up and separated the two, but didn't shove or become aggressive. 

Whoever these Celtics are, they're nothing like what we've seen. 

Posted on: April 7, 2011 5:38 pm
Edited on: April 12, 2011 4:21 pm

Road to the Finals: Chicago Bulls

We continue our Road to the Finals series with the Chicago Bulls as they get set to face the Boston Celtics Thursday night.
Posted by Matt Moore

No one likes to admit they were wrong. In the long list of people who are willing to admit they're wrong, sports writers are just above politicians and below artists. It's a product of the kind of currency that operates among sports editors and a result of the kind of comments you'll see litter most posts about sports across the internet. So this isn't exactly easy. 

I was wrong

Way wrong. 

Monumentally stupid would be another way to put it, but we're going to roll with just wrong. Back in July, before we'd seen a lick of basketball, we ran our offseason grades. In appraising the Bulls, I looked at Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans and didn't see it. I initially gave them a C+, then considering their total positioning of their current roster, upgraded them to a B-. Sure, they'd be better than the 8th seed they were in 2010. But were they really going to be that much better? Were they really going to compete for a title? Were they really going to be great?

Yes. Yes they were. 

The Bulls are a great team. And they enter the playoffs at their absolute zenith. They are led by the all-but-elected MVP Derrick Rose, who we'll get to. Their coach is the near-lock Coach of the Year. We'll get to him, too. They defend, can run, can play in the half-court, they rebound, and they have that rare ability to find the way to win. Their being at the top of the Eastern Conference should not be a surprise if you've been watching this season. They've been great. The playoffs will give them the chance to prove it. 

For Chicago, everything starts with the defense. Everything. Tom Thibodeau has crafted the Bulls in his own image, the same image that the Celtics have taken on over the course of his tenure there. The principles are simple. Communicate, demonstrate, suffocate. You watch the Bulls defend the pick and roll, and it's no wonder that they're the second best pick and roll defense team in the league according to Synergy Sports. They lead the league in field goal percentage allowed in the pick and roll, thanks to their system. When the ball handler initiates the set, there will be three players geared towards it for the Bulls. The ball-handler's defender, who fights through the screen, the roll-man's defender, who peels back, playing between the roll man and the ball-handler, and a third help-defender, either from the corner or wing.  The roll-defender will call out which way the ball handler is coming off, while the other players indicate if they need further help from the off-ball defenders. Communicate. If the ball-handler goes wide around the pick, the roll-man or weak-side help shows hard, cutting off the lane to discourage the drive. Demonstrate. And if the ball-handler stops his dribble to consider a shot, pass, or if he passes the roll-man, whose man inevitably is recovering fast on him, help defense immediately closes, chokes off passing lanes, attacks the ball, and aims for the turnover. Suffocate. 

More impressive for the Bulls than their defense when they know what the opponent is going to do is how they react when they don't. Get loose on the baseline off an excellent pass, past your man, and you'll find Joakim Noah stepping into the take the charge from the weak-side, his hands straight up to close off the passing lane for the dump-off to his man he just left. Stutter-step inside, and you'll find wave after wave of swiping hands, disrupting the dribble just enough to either force the turnover, a back-out, or rush the shot. No matter what you do, the Bulls have an answer. And if you somehow manage to create a driving lane, fill it, and then kick out to the open shooter whose man has come in and that pass does find its mark? They run off the three ball as well as any team in the league. You can beat them. You just have to be consistently on-target in every phase of execution. 

Road To The Finals
And that kind of coherency is the result of the biggest acquisition I overlooked. Tom Thibodeau. It's one thing to design a near-perfect system, another to translate it into terms your players recognize and respond to, and another entirely to motivate them to execute that plan night after night after night. The Bulls have consistently come out with the same effort and intensity, and if they don't, they hear about it. Thibodeau's a screamer, the hoarse sound of his voice like Tom Waits through a megaphone, but his team has responded. Professionals usually don't this way. Especially not with veterans like Carlos Boozer on the team. But they have. They want to play for Thibodeau, to execute what he preaches, and they've found the success therein.

A lot has been made of the Bulls' success despite the massive injuries they've suffered through, but in reality, you have to wonder if those games without Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah actually helped the Bulls. Down a man, it meant there could be no deflection of responsibility by the Bulls' front line, no question of where the buck stopped. Each player had to step up. Noah had to step up for Boozer's absence, Boozer for Noah's, the bench for both. Having to answer to your team is a lost element in most NBA environments, but the Bulls have bred one. It's that attitude that may be the biggest advantage they have in the playoffs. 

So how do the Bulls get to the Finals? If they think it will be like the regular season, they're mistaken. But there are playoff veterans on these teams. Luol Deng was around when the Bulls were Eastern Conference contenders in the mid-00's. Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver have seen the Western Conference Finals. Thibodeau has seen the best and worst the Finals can provide. They're not lacking in experience. How they adjust to matchups will be a considerable challenge for Thibodeau, who for the most part has abandoned control of the offense to Rose, and who has seen what can happen if a team has the perimeter abilities to best his help defense. 

That's right, the Magic. 

The Magic are overlooked as contenders on the whole. Their biggest strength, three-point shooting, isn't what it used to be. Dwight Howard is a beast, but one you can live with most nights. Their defense is exceptionally strong, but suffers when it faces a superior point guard. Their ability to get hot, however, is going to be a concern if things play out as expected and the Bulls run into them in the second round. Thibodeau is 1-1 against the Magic. His loss came against them when he was without Kevin Garnett. He will be without Garnett this time. Carlos Boozer is a fine post player, but far from a defensive stalwart, and nothing like KG. The challenge will be managing to challenge the Magic on the pick and roll if the kickout to the Magic's shooter start working. Start dropping 3-pointers like their hot, and the brilliant Thibodeau defense is held largely neutralized. It can't keep defenders on the perimeter without sacrificing help on the driving lanes, and it can't focus on the driving lanes without surrendering long, uncontested 3-pointers. The Magic will likely unravel due to their subpar talent. But if there's a matchup issue in the playoff, that's the one. 

Which is not to see the rest would be easy. Sure, the Pacers are too young, too inexperienced and too composite to form a stiff challenge, even if Roy Hibbert can do some damage. But in general, there's little chance of the Pacers making a significant push, barring an unforeseen light-year distance jump by Darren Collison or Danny Granger

So already, we've got the Bulls penciled in for the Conference Finals. That's how far they've come. Once there, that's the colossal games, the big ones, the legendary ones, a preview of which will be played Thursday night against the Celtics. If you'd asked anyone who the Bulls would rather see in the Conference Finals, the Heat or the Celtics, the answer would have been the Celtics back in preseason. That's not a knock on the defending East champs, that's because on the surface, the Heat should have the versatility at position by the Big 3 and the kind of size and muscle combined with ability to overwhelm the Bulls defensively, and the defense to hold them in check. Hasn't been the case. The big difference in a series against the Heat is Luol Deng. Deng's defensive abilities have long been underrated, but under Thibodeau, they've reached a new level. His versatility helps him hang with both James' size and speed, and if need be, he can switch to Wade and use his length to force long contested jumpers. It sounds strange to say, but the Heat are largely overmatched by the Bulls. 

The Celtics are a different ballgame altogether. The two teams have met three times this season, with each team missing a key starter at one point or another in all three. Thursday marks the first time we've seen them at full strength, and the last until a possible Eastern Conference Finals matchup. The Celtics know about Thibs' defense, and Thibs knows about the Celtics. He has their scouting report, knows their tendencies, knows what the weaknesses are. But the Celtics are stronger offensively with the same defensive prowess and better personnel. This is, quite simply, the biggest clash of powerhouses until the Finals, and while neither team will pull out all the stops, it will be a bloodbath.

The swing vote in all this for the Bulls is one man: Rose. 

The Bulls' offense is largely a product of innovation. Thibodeau has a playbook, a set of elements to run, and works with the Bulls to accent their strengths. But the Bulls are not a top offensive team. They're still finding their way, don't hit a lot of shots, despite adding shooters in Keith Bogans and Kyle Korver. Carlos Boozer is doing his Carlos Boozer thing, but he won't be mistaken for Amar'e Stoudemire (though his defense is clearly better than STAT's, which says a lot about Stoudemire's). Joakim Noah has an okay jumper and a few moves. Deng's 3-point shooting has been a boon as has his mid-range game this season, but overall, the Bulls are just not an offensive powerhouse. 

Until Rose kicks it into gear. Rose really is a one-man dervish. The knock on him at the beginning of the season was he couldn't create contact, didn't get to the line enough. If he fixed that, and now regularly finishes after contact. His first-step on the drive is all speed. His second is all explosion. The rest is a highlight reel. He gets from perimeter to bucket faster and with more power than any player in the league, and that's including LeBron James. He can single-handedly change games for the Bulls. And he's going to need to. The team will probably struggle at times in the playoffs, maybe in surprising ways. They will go only as far as Rose can take them. It's an awfully lot on his shoulders at such a young age, but then, this is how sports legends are made. 

The Bulls look every bit ready to challenge the Eastern Conference at every turn. They are committed, they are well-practiced, and they are effective. They have written the perfect story of a regular season for such a new team. Now we'll have to see what they do for an ending. 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com