|Rose won't repeat as MVP, but it hardly matters since his team is having a finals-worthy season. (Getty Images)|
Before this season that almost didn't happen, I took a few minutes to stop looking at BRI and the repeater tax and decided which teams would survive the rigors of a hectic, compressed schedule and make it to the NBA Finals.
Back in December, the Bulls and Thunder seemed as good a pair as any. We all knew that in a 66-game, four-month sprint to the playoffs, depth and continuity would reign supreme. The Bulls and Thunder had both. They also had youth, and presumably would make it through the race to the postseason with their health intact.
The Thunder lost backup point guard Eric Maynor, a key role player, for the season with a torn ACL, but nothing on the order of the health travails the Bulls have experienced. Reigning MVP Derrick Rose missed 27 games with a variety of ailments -- that's 41 percent of the season -- and yet Chicago (50-16) still secured the best record in the East and was tied with San Antonio for best in the league without its superstar. And it wasn't just Rose. Bulls players missed a total of 98 games because of injury or illness, turning Tom Thibodeau's team into a walking (or should I say, limping) workers compensation case.
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But for all the problems the Bulls experienced, they didn't just survive. They developed and relied on the kind of depth they lacked in losing 4-1 to Miami in the Eastern Conference finals last spring. They got important contributions from John Lucas, Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Watson, and Richard Hamilton finally has begun to move and play like an approximation of his old self. Hamilton will be a difference-maker when the Bulls face (presumably) Boston in the second round and Miami in the conference finals. But for all the additional, reliable help Rose now has, there's no question the Bulls are only going as far as Rose carries them.
It's going to take some time for Rose to get back in rhythm, and Chicago has the luxury of facing the struggling Sixers in the first round as opposed to the Knicks, who are riding Carmelo Anthony's ruthless scoring and sudden defensive awakening into what will be a rough-and-tumble first-round series with the Heat. The Knicks, I believe, don't have enough to beat Miami or Chicago, but by settling in the No. 7 seed, New York could wind up affecting which of those teams gets to the NBA Finals. Rather than getting challenged and beaten up by Anthony in the first round, the Bulls can watch the Heat expend a lot of energy -- and some body blows -- dealing with him.
The Heat will have two series to regain their confidence on the road, where they've struggled for two months against playoff opponents. If they do, and if Dwyane Wade isn't as worn down as he has looked the past few weeks, a conference finals matchup of Miami vs. Chicago will be epic -- far more so than the Heat's five-game evisceration of Rose and the Bulls last spring. But given the Bulls' dominance without Rose this season, and assuming he'll be himself over the next two months, I see no compelling reason to deviate from my preseason pick that Chicago will be the last team standing in the East.
Out West, I've changed my mind. The last time there was a lockout-shortened season -- the often-ridiculed and asterisk-laden 50-game sprint in 1998-99 -- weird things happened in the playoffs. The eighth-seeded Knicks upset top-seeded Miami in the first round and ended up in the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Spurs. This time, I see the unexpected conference champion coming from the West.
This time, I see real reason to fear the Lakers.
I love the Thunder and how they play, and I love their electrifying point guard, Russell Westbrook, and their humble, brilliant superstar and now three-time scoring champion, Kevin Durant. With Kendrick Perkins patrolling the paint and Serge Ibaka blocking anything that moves, Oklahoma City has all the necessary ingredients to get to the Finals and win a championship. But something's missing, and I fear the combination will be their downfall.
The Thunder are a mediocre rebounding team, ranking a dismal 23rd in the league in defensive rebounding rate; they grab 72.09 percent of available defensive rebounds, according to HoopData.com. The Spurs are first (75.91), and the Lakers are fifth (74.91). The Thunder aren't much for offensive rebounding either; they're 13th (27.76), while the Lakers are sixth (29.19). Granted, the Spurs are even worse than the Thunder in this area, logging a 24.88 offensive rebounding rate, 24th in the league.
You can get away with some rebounding deficiencies in the playoffs, but you can't be a poor rebounding team that also has a penchant for turnovers. You're giving the opponent too many extra possessions. This is the Thunder's Achilles' heel; they have the highest percentage of possessions ending in a turnover in the NBA (15.25). The Spurs are fourth-best in the league in taking care of the ball (12.84). The Lakers (14.22) are 11th, but whatever possessions they give away with turnovers they make up for with stellar defensive rebounding.
The Lakers are not the same team that hovered a few games above .500 for the first two months of the season. Since Feb. 19, they're 23-12 (.657). Kobe Bryant is rested and as healthy as can be expected. Andrew Bynum finally is playing like an All-Star consistently, and Pau Gasol does things on a basketball court that no other human his size can do. Also, while the Lakers miss Derek Fisher's leadership, they don't miss his deficiencies as an on-ball defender and much prefer Ramon Sessions' ability to get into the paint and create.
First, the Lakers have to get past a pesky, athletic Denver team without their best defender, Metta World Peace, who will be suspended for the first six games of the playoffs. Odd as it seems, it might benefit the Lakers if that series lasts six games, so they won't be without World Peace for any of their second-round games against the Thunder.
Can the Lakers beat the Thunder and the Spurs, the teams with the two best records and most complete rosters in the West? Logic would say no. But this has been an illogical season, and it would be illogical to count Bryant out in what could be his last best chance to equal Michael Jordan's mark of six championships.
Given all that, I'm going to revise my preseason prediction and expect the unexpected: Lakers vs. Bulls in the NBA Finals. Who wins? The NBA and the TV networks, who have kept pace (ESPN and TNT) or exceeded (ABC) last season's record ratings -- evidence that the sport did not miss a beat after the lockout. A Chicago-L.A. matchup in the finals would likely be the highest rated since Jordan's last championship in 1998.
As for who wins on the court: Bulls in seven. It'll be so good, so compelling that it might actually make up for those miserable 149 days of the lockout. Although on that prediction -- as with my preseason pick of Chicago over Oklahoma City -- I reserve the right to change my mind.