Thursday, April 21, 2005

Eastern Conference playoffs - round one: Chicago Bulls(47-35) v. Washington Wizards(45-37)

Game 1: Sunday at Chicago, 4:30 TV: CSN/TNT
Game 2: Wednesday at Chicago, 7:30 TV: CSN/NBATV
Game 3: April 30 at Washington, 2:00 TV: CSN/TNT
Game 4: May 2 at Washington, TBD
Game 5: May 4 at Chicago, TBD*
Game 6: May 6 at Washington, TBD*
Game 7: May 8 at Chicago, TBD*
*if necessary

No need going over what a great season this has been, what it means, who deserves the credit, etc. Because the season aint over. Especially in this series, which will be difficult but winnable.

If Curry and Deng were in the lineup, I'd say it's a no-contest Bulls series win. Obviously losing two of a team's best players will hurt, and as I'm sure most of you have heard: no team that lost it's leading scorer going into the playoffs have won a series. has a pretty nice preview up, and provides their experts' (and Bill Walton) predictions as well as some key stats:

PPG 100.5 94.5
RPG 42.8 43.8
APG 19.1 21.3
FG% .437 .432
FT% .725 .750
3P% .343 .357

As we all know, that doesn't tell the whole story, so here are some advanced stats from Knickerblogger's site:



Poss 96.6 96
Off Eff 103.9 98.5
Def Eff 103.9 97.4

That's right, as good of an offense as Washington is, they are just as poor on defense. And it's nearly opposite for the Bulls, so needless to say this series will be an interesting clash of styles. The Bulls need to have their defense lock down and keep the game close. What that will essentially come down to is the team defense of the Bulls against Washington's big 3: Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes, and Antawn Jamison.

How can the defense accomplish keep this? We all know the Bulls have trouble with whomever in the backcourt isn't guarded by Kirk Hinrich. In this series I'm going to guess Hinrich takes Larry Hughes while Chris Duhon matches up with Gilbert Areanas. This could lead to a huge game or two by Arenas, and with him being one of the league leaders in getting to the foul line, you know that he is not one to be afraid of penetrating to the basket. This goes the same for Hughes, but the Bulls have to hope that Hinrich can put the brakes on at least one of the Wizards' terrific guards.

The Wizards start a small frontcourt of Jamison and Jared (don't call me Chris) Jefferies, which provides a matchup problem. I do think that Nocioni can hassle Jamison enough to keep him off his game, but the loss of Luol Deng really hurts when Noc needs to rest (or gets in foul trouble) or when guarding the other forward spot. The AARP squad of Antonio Davis and Othella Harrington will provide an inside scoring that the Wizards will have to contend with, but I think that it'll be the Wizards' athleticism that will provide even more problems. Defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler will have his hands full watching the basket for the Wiz' big 3, and hopefully will be altering shots left and right. He may need to more than normal.

Will the Bulls score enough points to stay close?  Fortunately for the Bulls those same Wizards also give up a lot of points. Larry Hughes is the NBA leader in steals, but that at the same time illustrates the flaws of their defense. Unlike the Bulls who never give up a cheap basket, keep a hand in the face of every jumpshooter, and contend for every rebound, the Wizards are a chance-taking defense that thrive on the steals of Hughes and others. The Bulls are dead-last in the NBA in terms of taking care of the ball, so this could be a huge issue if the Bulls' (especially Gordon, Nocioni, and Chandler) do not play smart. A few costly turnovers and the Bulls won't even have time to set up their defense before they're taking the ball out of their own basket. The Bulls frontcourt, even without Curry, have the ability to score in the post against the Wiz' big men. I know I have already taken a pot-shot at the age of Antonio Davis and Othella Harrington, but it has been their quality play that has soften the blow of losing Eddy's offense. The Wiz' Brendan Haywood averages 2.4blk/40 (almost as good as Chandler [2.6]), so it won't be completely easy.  But where they could also get points is through offensive rebounds, where the Wizards are 26th in the league in opponents' OReb%. And we all know that's how Tyson can do damage.

So the game is close, now what? This is where the Bulls have an advantage. While it's true that the Bulls are young and have little playoff experience, the Wizards can say the same. Kirk Hinrich and especially Ben Gordon have shown a closing ability that has won the Bulls many games that they many times had no business winning. But when the games were close, this team found a way. Will that change in the playoffs? perhaps, maybe the young guys will frighten under pressure. But I doubt it. And don't underestimate how much the clutch factor for this team rests on Tyson Chandler. He needs to be in at the end of games, period. It is him who is getting Ben Gordon the ball off of rebounds, and him who is responsible for anchoring a defense that leads the league in defensive fg%. I was thinking of suggesting that Skiles should start Chandler over Antonio Davis, minding that the Bulls could not afford slow starts in playoff games. But if it keeps him out of foul trouble, keep him coming off the bench. Besides, why mess with success??

What about the (gulp) intangibles? Coaching is a draw, as both Skiles and Eddie Jordan are at the top of their profession, although it seems that the Wizards aren't as consistently motivated as this Bulls team is. As I pondered before though, how much of an edge would this give the Bulls in the playoffs, where you can assume all opponents will be as focused as them? This is especially true due to the bad blood these two teams have accumulated over the season. It'll be interesting to see if either playoff-inexperienced team comes unglued due to the animosity (and this will really have me eyeing Nocioni).

 Home court advantage will be a bigger deal, as the Wizards were 8th in the conference with a 16-25 road record (the Bulls were 3rd at 20-21). If the Bulls can take the first 2 at the United Center it could be a short series. I think it will go 7 though, with the Bulls putting enough good defensive efforts to make it to the second round. Chandler, Hinrich and Gordon(who will likely become a star after this series) will close these games out, and show the NBA what we've been enjoying all season.

Bulls over Wizards, 4-3.

I welcome your predictions and comments below, I'll have a game 1 report after coming home from the United Center on Sunday!