Despite injuries to their best player Derrick Rose, their second best player Luol Deng and their key free agent acquisition Richard “R.I.P.” Hamilton, the Chicago Bulls have emerged from a marathon 66-game lockout shortened season to wind up with the league’s best record. Much of the credit goes to coach Tom Thibodeau, the presumed repeat Coach of the Year, who has managed to maintain the same level of defensive effort from his team regardless of who is suited up for the games. The Bulls are hoping to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1998 and feel that they have the best collection of depth, defense and teamwork to get it done. Their first hurdle will be the Philadelphia 76ers, a young, energetic team who started the season off in strong fashion before faltering after All-Star Break. Many analysts have largely written the 76ers off, but the team is plucky and will play hard in this series, win or lose. Here is a breakdown of the teams.
The Case for the 76ers
They will be facing a Bulls team that will not be at full strength. Derrick Rose is still playing through an injured ankle and Luol Deng’s wrist may require surgery in the off-season. If those two players struggle defensively or offensively in the series, the 76ers could give the Bulls problems. The 76ers are No. 2 in the league in points allowed (89.2 PPG) and No. 3 in field goal percentage defense (43 percent) so their defense is on par with Chicago’s. While their rebounding does not rival that of the Bulls’, they do get after it on the boards and are 8th in the NBA in that category. In fact, the 76ers actually out-rebounded the Bulls in two of the three games in the season series even though the Bulls won two of three. The 76ers have a lot of athleticism which can give the Bulls problems. Point guard Jrue Holiday and forward Thaddeus Young has given the Bulls occasional trouble with their quickness and need to play well to extend this series. The 76ers also have one of the deepest rosters in the league with Evan Turner, Lou Williams and Young averaging more off the bench that their starters.
The Case against the 76ers
They don’t have that guy that can carry them in a series like this. Remember when I said that their bench sometimes scores more than their starters? The team’s leading scorer is Williams with 14.9 PPG off the bench. They don’t have a single player that, in a tight game going down to the wire, they can get a big shot from. That will be devastating against the Bulls who have Rose or even Hamilton to carry them in a tight game. Offense is not really their strong suit. They are 22nd in the league in offense at 93.8 PPG and 14th in the league in field goal percentage at 45 percent. They are also 22nd in the league in free throw percentage. So all around, this team has its problems scoring. If the 76ers can’t find a way to hit from the perimeter at a consistent clip, they really don’t have much of a chance because the Bulls defend the paint so well. The 76ers don’t have a lot of size. Other than Spencer Hawes, much of their team is undersized compared to the Bulls. This is especially true when the Bulls bring in Taj Gibson and Omer Asik off the bench. In a series that figures to be pretty low scoring between two teams who are not offensive juggernauts and pride themselves on defense, rebounding and scoring near the paint will be paramount in each team’s success. Unfortunately for the 76ers, the Bulls may have the advantage on both fronts.
The Case for the Bulls
The Bulls have more talent, defense, depth, a go-to guy, home-court advantage and a coach of the year candidate…but otherwise, they don’t have much. The Bulls secured the league’s best record and have played very well of late now that the band is back together. Their defense is as tough as ever, and with Rip Hamilton healthy again, the team has a bit more consistent perimeter scoring than it had last year. They went 2-1 against the 76ers in the regular season and have the size advantage to keep the 76ers bigs from dominating in the paint. The Bulls are more experienced overall than the 76ers and that experience will come into play down the stretch when the games are on the line and the Bulls must execute their offense to win. The Bulls are one of the few teams in the league that can claim to have a deeper bench than the 76ers, but they can. Guys like Kyle Korver and Asik each contribute valuable minutes to help the team win and each player is unafraid of the big moment. Additionally, if Rose is able to find the form he had when he returned from All-Star Weekend, the Bulls have the ability to make this a short series.
The Case against the Bulls
Well, the health questions surrounding the team continue to swirl. How banged up is Deng? How sore is Rose’s ankle? Can the Bulls win if Rose can’t play his game of jumpers and attacks to the rim? The games against Indiana and Dallas saw Rose look solid, though not spectacular. He will not have much time to prepare with the playoffs beginning this weekend, so he will have to play through the discomfort. More troublesome though is Luol Deng. He seems to be tolerating the wrist injury, which is admirable, but there’s no question that his game has suffered in recent weeks as a result of its lingering effects. In April, he is averaging just 15.7 PPG on 40 percent shooting and his perimeter shot seems to be failing him. Although Derrick Rose is the team’s leader and MVP, Deng is really the player that makes the Bulls go. When he plays well offensively and defensively, they are very hard to beat.
These teams are very similar in a lot of ways. Both teams use a collective dynamic of contributions from everyone on the team to win. Both teams pride themselves on defense and rebounding. Both teams have excellent coaching and stellar bench play. But while the Bulls have a guy that can settle things down the stretch for them in Derrick Rose, the 76ers just don’t have that exceptional talent that can tip the scales in their favor in order to win the series.
Look for this series to play out a lot like the Bulls-Pacers series last year: The Pacers played tough, got contributions from the entire supporting cast and pushed the Bulls to the brink. But in the end, Derrick Rose and his team found a way to pull the games out when it mattered. Bulls take it in five.