Friday, April 27, 2012

Chicago Bulls 2012 Playoff Preview: Only One Goal in MInd

The Bulls ended the regular season in top form last night with a decisive victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The victory sealed their second straight season as the number 1 overall seed not only in the Eastern Conference, but the entire NBA. More importantly for the Bulls, however, is the way they finished the season. For a team that struggled with injuries all year, the Bulls had a healthy team together for the final two games and it showed, with a big win over the Indiana Pacers as well as last night's win. I don't think we can understate the importance of two good team wins, by a fully healthy Bulls team, going forward into the playoffs.

Still, while the two victories by a Bulls team that we thought we would have all year help assuage concerns over health and chemistry, there are still some lingering doubts. Derrick Rose and Luol Deng didn't play last night, and D Rose only played in 39 out of 66 games this season anyways. D Rose has had a seemingly endless line of injuries this year, each coming right after the previous one has ended. So not only do I wonder if he's 100% ready to go, but whether he'll be able to stay healthy throughout a (hopefully) long, arduous, and physical playoff run. The same goes for Deng, who has played well through his wrist injury all season.

It's good to have D Rose back in the center of things
The main issue is chemistry. Between the injuries to Rose and Deng, and the long absence of a player like Rip Hamilton, the projected starting five from the start of the year just hasn't played much together. Rip returned to the lineup a while back and has since worked himself back into game shape. Over the past couple of weeks, he's looked like the Rip we've known throughout his career. D Rose, on the other hand, has not had as good a year as he did last year in his MVP season. His points per game is down, his field goal and three point percentages are down, and his free throw percentage is down from last year. Now, I'm going to chalk a bunch of that up to him playing through injury for nearly the entire season, but it concerns me that he's only now playing himself back into shape. While that should be good from a production standpoint, how many D Rose "rehab" games can we have in the playoffs?

That's where depth, leadership, and coaching come into play. In the first round, the Bulls should be able to play to their regular season strengths. That means using depth, but more than that, it means using the leadership on the team and Tom Thibodeau to get through any chemistry growing pains. For other good teams in the NBA, they might not be as disciplined or deep to withstand entering the playoffs with a starting lineup still getting to know each other. But with the Bulls, you have a coach who prepares more than any other, will adjust on the fly, and not be afraid to put the players on the court who are the most productive, regardless of reputation or contract status. It also helps that all the Bulls players have bought into this system, because it means the transition from injury-ridden season to a healthy playoff team should be much smoother than it would be on other teams.

Noah & Boozer's rebounding is key to success
Just as important though, is the fact that the Bulls, and most of the players on the team, are playing well heading into the playoffs. Joakim Noah has been back to his usual self, bringing energy and rebounding to the front court. Even Carlos Boozer has been playing great as of late, much as he has for most of the season. There must also be some kind of mention as to the durability we've seen from Boozer, with him not missing a game the entire season. Personally, I think that's going to be a difference maker heading into the playoffs. Last year, Boozer and Noah hadn't played together for most of the season, and just as Noah was getting healthy at the end of the year, Boozer had an injury that limited his effectiveness throughout the playoffs. I like how the two are coming together at the right time, because their tandem rebounding skills are one of the most valuable assets the team has.

I'm going to stop comparisons to last season's playoffs there, though. This is a different Bulls team, as much as we don't want to acknowledge it. For one, you have the fact that Boozer and Noah are much more comfortable on the floor together at this juncture than they were last year. The Bulls' rebounding ability is far superior to many of the teams they usually play. The X factor for the Bulls, though, could be Rip Hamilton. He brings a different edge to this team, when the whole team is healthy, that the Bulls just didn't have last year with Keith Bogans at the same position. His specialties, whether it be moving without the basketball or his excellent mid range game, allow more freedom for Derrick Rose. It could make a potential rematch with the Heat (who have their own difficult road with a first round matchup with New York) much closer than it was last year.

Iguodla, Philly's best player & leader
But first, let's focus on the Philadelphia 76ers. Philly started the season strong, at one point holding the 3 seed in the standings. But they sputtered down the stretch and scraped into the playoffs as the 8 seed. That doesn't mean they're a bad team. The Bulls played them 3 times this year, taking 2 of the games. One of the wins, the most dominating of the games, was even without Rose. Philly uses a quick lineup of Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, and Lou Williams off the bench. They're also a good rebounding team, and they play solid defense under coach Doug Collins. This is especially true for Iguodala, one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA. They share the scoring load, with Iguodala, Holiday, Williams, and Thaddeus Young all averaging near each other in double figures. They have some athleticism that can be tough to keep up with if they get rolling.

They're also cocky. Chicago native Evan Turner, who has moved into the starting lineup, said he wanted the Bulls to avoid the "tougher team." Presumably, he means the Heat, who stomped Philly out of the playoffs last year. I question this type of decision making for a few reasons. First, the Bulls are not a team like Miami, who seem to approach the game in a businesslike manner and wouldn't cater much to statements like that. But the Bulls are a different animal. They're a tough, highly competitive bunch. Sure, they're businesslike as well, and are probably more prepared than any team in the league. But they won't take this lying down. It'll be bulletin board type material, and you can guess that it's only going to spur a competitive Alpha-Male type like Derrick Rose. Rose is renowned for taking perceived slights against himself or his team and using it to take his vengeance out the opposing team. We all remember his performance and dunk against New York this year, after the media's obsession with Jeremy Lin:

Philly isn't really even in a position to be cocky. They threw the season away at the end, and they're bad against teams with winning records (13-23), and they're not a very good team on the road either (16-17). They are only 22nd in the NBA in points per game, so they could struggle against the Bulls' defense.

But at the same time, Philly has their own excellent defense. This is the exact kind of series that on paper, you think you can march in and sweep Philly away. But I don't think it's going to be that easy. They have played the Bulls tough for the most part this season (granted that was earlier in the year when the team was playing much better), and they play great defense. That could equate to a slow, grind it out type of series, which hopefully plays into the Bulls' strengths of depth and rebounding. Because Philly is an athletic team that succeeds well in transition, the Bulls are going to need to be careful with the basketball. Turnovers could be huge, especially if the games are close and low scoring.

As for matchups, the Bulls have the biggest offensive advantages at PF and SG, where Boozer should be able to take charge of a matchup with Elton Brand, and Rip Hamilton should be successful as well, especially when he's matchup up against Jodie Meeks and not Evan Turner. I am really anxious to see how Rose responds in this series, both to his season-long injury struggles, and also to the slight from the 76ers. If he comes out in this series with that competitive edge we see in him all the time, watch out. I wouldn't want to be Jrue Holiday at that point.

We'll find out soon enough. I will be looking to see if the Bulls can come out strong in Game 1 of the series, unlike they did against Indiana in the first round last year. If the Bulls can come out, seize control of the series, and perhaps take both games at home, they'll have Philly on the ropes before they even play a game at home. I don't think the Bulls will sweep this series, but I have to think that their leadership, coaching, defense, rebounding, and mental and physical toughness will carry the day. I guess it doesn't hurt to have a (supposedly and hopefully) healthy defending MVP ready to play and with something to prove. Above all, though, I'm just excited for the playoffs to start. Let's just hope the Bulls give us a nice, long playoff run that ends with a little party in Grant Park in June.