NBA Playoffs 2012: 5 Keys to the Chicago Bulls-Philadelphia 76ers Series

Bryan ToporekFeatured ColumnistApril 28, 2012

NBA Playoffs 2012: 5 Keys to the Chicago Bulls-Philadelphia 76ers Series

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    Evan Turner just had to go open his mouth, didn't he? 

    The Philadelphia 76ers shooting guard recently told The Delaware County Daily Times that the team was glad to draw the Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs because "we're dodging the tougher team [the Miami Heat]." Naturally, that comment got blown entirely out of proportion over the next few days.

    Given the Sixers' 1-11 record against the Heat since LeBron James and Chris Bosh teamed up with Dwyane Wade, the sentiment's not all that hard to understand. As Turner tweeted on Wednesday, all he meant was that "the Heat are a tougher team to match for us to match up with."

    That didn't stop Bulls fans like Michael Wilbon from warning Turner and the Sixers to be careful what they wish for

    This 1-8 matchup in the East will feature two of the league's most defensively efficient teams with two of the leagues deepest benches. You may not see a lot of scoring, but you will, at some point, see it from an unexpected source. 

    Here are the five keys to the Sixers-Bulls series, including a prediction on the last slide.

1. Derrick Rose's Health

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    Derrick Rose, the reigning MVP, only played in 39 of 66 games this season due to a slew of injuries, ranging from his toe and his ankle to his groin and his back. 

    In those 39 games, he averaged nearly 22 points, eight assists and three rebounds per game, good for a PER just above 23, according to ESPN's John Hollinger. Not so coincidentally, the Bulls went 32-7 in those games, looking like the favorite to win this year's NBA championship in the process. 

    Without Rose, the Bulls still managed a more-than-respectable 18-9 record, but they understandably looked more mortal while doing so. The team depends on Rose's ability to create so much (for himself and teammates) that, in his absence, the team often goes through long scoring droughts, bogging down in the halfcourt offense. 

    If Rose is 100 percent healthy—which is how Sixers coach Doug Collins views it going into the matchup—the Sixers realistically don't stand a chance of winning this series. Yes, they beat a full-strength Bulls team back on Feb. 1, but over a seven-game series, a healthy Derrick Rose will wear them down on both ends of the court. 

    If Rose isn't healthy, however, the Sixers' upset chances suddenly don't seem so preposterous. This, without question, will be the largest determining factor of how quickly this series ends and which team will be moving on.

2. The "Bench Mob" vs. the "Night Shift"

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    Typically, most NBA coaches shorten their rotation in the playoffs, cutting the minutes of a few fringe bench players to maximize their stars' playing time. 

    In this series, on the other hand, we'll have two teams that rely too heavily on their benches to go to a six- or seven-man rotation. 

    In one corner, there's the Bulls' "Bench Mob," staring C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. The "Bench Mob" routinely bailed out the Bulls' starters from rough situations this year, and coach Tom Thibodeau won't shy away from using any of them in the playoffs. 

    In the other corner, you've got the Sixers' "Night Shift," featuring Lou Williams, Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner and once-starter Spencer Hawes. Williams and Turner have developed a synergy as of late, as Hollinger noted Friday, averaging plus-6.9 points per 48 minutes on the court together, and Young presents matchup nightmares for any forward in the league not named LeBron James. 

    Expect the battle of the benches to be a critical deciding factor in this series.

3. Who Wins the Rebounding Advantage?

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    With Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah on the starting frontline, and Gibson and Asik coming in as reserves, the Bulls unsurprisingly finished as the best rebounding team in the regular season, averaging 46.7 boards per game and 6.7 rebounds more than their opponents. 

    The Sixers ranked seventh in the league with 43.2 rebounds per game, but they allowed opponents to average 43.7 per game, good for a -0.5 differential. 

    If the Sixers even plan on prolonging this series a little while, one of their top priorities should be fortifying the painted area. 

    To that end, Collins announced Friday that rookie second-round pick Lavoy Allen would start at center for Game 1 against the Bulls, so Brand can match up with Boozer. Collins likes the chemistry between Young and Hawes on the reserve unit (to counteract Gibson and Asik), according to Bob Cooney of the Philadelphia Daily News. 

    With rookie first-round pick Nikola Vucevic waiting in the wings, Collins does have some big man options to play around with in trying to negate the Bulls' advantage (though they're not nearly as talented). Watch Allen carefully in Game 1 to see if Collins' gamble pays off.

4. A Defensive Slugfest

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    In no uncertain terms, this series will be an absolute war on the defensive end. Every. Single. Game. 

    The Bulls topped the league in holding opponents to only 88.2 points a game, and Philly wasn't far behind in third place with an 89.4-point per game average for opponents. Both teams also sported some of the toughest defenses against three-pointers; the Bulls allowed opponents to shoot 32.5 percent from downtown (tied for third), while Sixers' opponents shot 33.4 percent from deep (sixth overall). 

    Granted, much of the Sixers' defensive success came in the first half of the season, as they stampeded out to a 20-9 record. In April, they've lost by 21 to Toronto, 24 to Boston and 13 to a Orlando team without Dwight Howard

    The Sixers reeled off four nice wins at the end of the season (before resting just about everyone in the finale against Detroit) to generate some confidence on both ends of the court, but they'll need to bring their defensive "A" game each time if they have a prayer of upsetting Chicago. 

    In their three matchups this year, both teams held each other below their season averages, according to NBA StatsCube.

5. Philly's Crunch-Time Struggles

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    John Hollinger devoted a whole PER Diem back in March to the Sixers' inability to score in crunch time and close out close games this year. Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated did earlier in March, too.   

    Long story short: The Sixers finished 5-18 in games decided by seven points or fewer this season. On the bright side for Sixers' fans, three of those five wins came since March 31. 

    What's caused the crunch-time breakdowns? While the Sixers have turned their lack of a true superstar into an offense-for-everyone frenzy, that missing superstar often comes back to  haunt them toward the end of games. 

    In the final few minutes, someone (often Williams) will jack up an ill-advised shot after being unable to generate a solid look in a halfcourt set, and the team will rinse, wash and repeat. 

    Fastbreaks tend to decline in the playoffs and halfcourt sets take on even more importance, which doesn't bode well for the Sixers, given their struggles in crunch time this season.

Prediction: Bulls in 5

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    The Sixers looked like one of the NBA's true surprises in the first half of the season, but fell back to earth starting right before the All-Star break and barely held off Milwaukee for the last playoff spot. 

    If the Sixers of the first half of the year show up, they've got a chance to steal a few games. Still, the Bulls have too much talent to fall to the Sixers in a seven-game series. 

    If Rose ends up tweaking something and re-injuring himself, this prediction would be subject to change. (I'd still take the Bulls, but likely in six or seven.) 

    But hey, fellow Sixers fans, it's not all bad. In fact, I'd argue winning this series would be the worst thing this team could do. Management might get the crazy idea that this team as currently constructed could win an NBA championship (which is just blatantly untrue), and they might not be compelled to make major changes this summer. 

    Getting swept by Chicago or losing in 5 games represents no progress, ultimately, over where the Sixers finished last summer. That stagnancy would likely spur change in Philadelphia, and that may not be such a bad thing for the franchise's future.