With the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs well underway, two of the league's better seeds—the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers—are in trouble.
The Bulls have lost star guard Derrick Rose for the rest of the playoffs due to a torn ACL, and have now lost Joakim Noah for at least the fourth game of the series—but all indications are that he will miss more time.
With Rose out, Noah was the anchor of of the Chicago team, and the images of him hobbling off the court will haunt Chicago fans just as much as images of Rose grabbing his knee.
Chicago still had life after losing Rose. After all, they did play 27 games in the shortened regular season without him and prevailed. Losing Noah, though, has left this Chicago squad offensively inept as well as lost without a leader.
In the third quarter of Game 3 versus the Philadelphia 76ers, Noah badly sprained his ankle and it was very clear that this Chicago team lacked a go-to option scoring. With Noah in the lineup, Chicago was the best-ranked team on the offensive glass. Without Noah, second-chance shots were not a luxury they had.
The lack of offense would not be so glaring for Chicago if they were not facing one of the best defensive teams in the league. The Sixers rank second in points allowed with 89.2, third in field goal percentage defense at 42.5 percent and sixth in three-point field goal percentage defense at 33.0 percent.
Although Philadelphia had been only decent offensively throughout the season, the loss of Noah and Rose will help the Sixers improve their scoring against the Bulls—who led all NBA defenses in points allowed.
The 76ers are a young team that loves to score in transition, proven by their top ranking in transition points. With more of a presence on the boards, they will look to use their transition offense even more.
The turning point of the series was during the fourth quarter in Game 3. With Noah now out, Chicago shot only 6-of-25 from the field and squandered a 14-point lead for their second meltdown in the first round. The Bulls could not find a player to make the clutch shot and take this team down the final stretches of the game for a win.
With two consecutive collapses in the second halves of Games 2 and 3, it is evident that the Bulls have not and will not overcome the injuries of their leaders, Rose and Noah.
Prediction: Philadelphia 4, Chicago 2
Los Angeles Lakers
In Los Angeles, the Lakers dominated the Denver Nuggets both in the paint and behind Kobe Bryant's consecutive 30-plus point nights. In Denver, however, the paint was owned by the Nuggets.
Despite Kobe's stellar play, Andrew Bynum has been the heart and soul of the Los Angeles Lakers thus far in the playoffs. What makes Bynum's value to this team so clear is what happens when he does not produce.
During Game 3, Bynum was held scoreless on only three shots from the field in the first half. The result was a 16-point halftime defecit, proving to be too much for the Lakers to overcome.
After two outstanding games both defensively and offensively for Bynum, his scoreless first half in Game 3 showed the Denver Nuggets that he is the key to success in Los Angeles. Even with the incredible Bryant, the Lakers looked lost until Bynum turned his game around in the second half, scoring 18 points and collecting 12 boards for the game.
Although Denver does not have a player that can match Bynum down low, they may not need one. Bynum is his own worst enemy when he fails to produce.
As reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, Bynum had this to say about his Game 3 woes:
"I took myself out [of it]," Bynum said. "I was just not, I guess I don't know, maybe just not ready to play."
On a national stage, in the NBA Playoffs, this is the type of statement that causes management and fans to cringe. The key to winning in the postseason was not ready to play. The statement comes off even worse when being said by Bynum, considering he has had such a long track record of underperforming and falling short of his potential.
Bynum was once a luxury in Los Angeles. If he played well, it was a bonus. Now, however, Bynum is depended upon and is the most important piece to the Lakers' chances at another championship run.
Another issue for the Lakers will be their depth on the bench. With Metta World Peace suspended, coach Mike Brown has very few options and will be forced to play his starters for heavy minutes—hoping that injuries or foul troubles do not occur. Denver's speed and great depth at bench will cause quite an issue.
With a 2-1 series lead, the time to panic in Los Angeles has not yet come. The time to worry, though, has. The images of Bynum screaming at Bryant and having to be held back from the referee during a timeout are cause for concern. The fact that Denever outscored the Lakers in the paint in Game 3, without having anyone resembling a dominant presence down low, leaves the Lakers in trouble.
Prediction: Denver 4, Los Angeles 3