Joakim Noah will be limited early in the postseason, so Deng and Boozer will have to step up.
It's the Bulls' first time as a bottom-four seed under head coach Tom Thibodeau, but it's mostly been due to injuries and the absence of former MVP Derrick Rose that Chicago has fallen in the standings.
The Bulls promise to be a tough opponent. Their tough-as-nails defense can keep them in just about any game, and they are very dangerous offensively when they keep the ball in constant movement.
Chicago won its season series against Brooklyn 3-1; three of those games were decided by four points or less.
After a disappointing loss to the Philadelphia 76ers last postseason, the Bulls will look to prove that despite being down their best player, they are still a threat to beat any team they come across.
Noah's All-Star season helped the Bulls stay in the playoff race.
After getting off to a big start this season—despite not having D-Rose in the lineup—Chicago was still among the top teams in the Eastern Conference in the early going.
A strong defense, top-notch ball movement and team chemistry were helping the Bulls get past some of their tougher opponents and putting them in the picture for a deep playoff run.
Joakim Noah's All-Star-type season was much needed as the Bulls continued forward without Rose.
After posting a 12-4 record in January behind the outstanding play of Carlos Boozer—which earned him an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award—the Bulls were looking like a legitimate title contender.
February marked the start of inconsistent play, however, and coincidentally is also when injury problems started to arise.
The Bulls went 15-15 after the All-Star break and will enter the postseason as the No. 5 seed.
Butler will have to smother Johnson defensively to avoid letting him get into a rhythm.
Joakim Noah vs. Brook Lopez
Against Chicago this season, Lopez has averaged 22 points on 53-percent shooting. Even though Noah missed two of those games, in the games he did play, Lopez still had some great scoring nights.
Noah's defense on Lopez will pretty much determine how this series unfolds. The pick-and-roll with him and Williams has been very successful against Chicago's defense.
The Bulls have to keep a man—preferably Noah—on Lopez at all times. He can stretch the floor, which is what makes him so dangerous. If the Bulls make him drive or pass it, it's one threat they'll have to worry less about.
On the other side of the court, Noah should be able to get a lot. Lopez has played off Noah several times, giving him room to either take a jumper or make a pass to a cutter.
This will be the most important matchup of the series.
Jimmy Butler vs. Joe Johnson
This might not be the most exciting matchup, but it will be important.
Johnson didn't have a huge impact during the regular season, averaging just 13 points against the Bulls and shooting 43 percent from the floor.
However, Johnson is still a player capable of creating his own shot and getting hot at any given moment. He's also been a great closer for the Nets this year.
Chances are a lot of the games this series will be close, so Butler will have to lock down on Johnson during crunch time. JJ is a great shooter and is having one of his better seasons shooting the three.
If Butler can close out and seal up driving lanes, Johnson will remain a non-factor against Chicago.
Butler, Robinson and Belinelli will all play a vital role throughout the entire postseason.
Injuries have impacted the Bulls' rotation a lot over the last two months. Thibodeau has stated that both Noah and Taj Gibson would see the court during the postseason, but most likely on a limited basis (via Chicago Tribune).
Thibodeau has done a great job of plugging guys in when others went down with injuries. Now that they're all back—sans Rose—Thibs has a lot to choose from.
Second-year swingman Jimmy Butler is slated to get a lot of minutes due to his defensive prowess and improving offense. With Belinelli also expected to get a big role, minutes for Hamilton may be minimal.
With both Noah and Gibson seeing limited action, veteran center Nazr Mohammed could get a few spot minutes. Those same limitations will probably lead to Thibodeau using a lot of small lineups.
Expect to see Boozer at center, Hinrich and Robinson in the backcourt, while Deng and Butler round out the frontcourt.
Here is what the Bulls' rotation could look like if they utilize a 10-man rotation. All values are approximations.
Joakim Noah: 20-25 minutes; Carlos Boozer: 30 minutes; Luol Deng: 40 minutes; Jimmy Butler: 35 minutes; Kirk Hinrich: 30 minutes
Nate Robinson: 25 minutes; Marco Belinelli: 20 minutes; Taj Gibson: 20 minutes; Rip Hamilton: 10-15 minutes; Nazr Mohammed: 5-10 minutes
Kirk Hinrich and Deron Williams.
Stats don't tell the whole story, but it is a good way of measuring efficiency and knowing who needs that extra bit of defensive attention.
Here's a side-by-side stat comparison of each player's season averages:
Joakim Noah: 48.2% FG, 12.1 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 2.2 BPG
Brook Lopez: 52.2% FG, 19.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.1 BPG
Carlos Boozer: 47.4% FG, 16.2 PPG, 9.7 RPG
Reggie Evans: 51.1% FG, 4.5 PPG, 11.1 RPG
Luol Deng: 42.7% FG, 16.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG
Gerald Wallace: 39.7% FG, 7.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG
Jimmy Butler: 46.6% FG, 8.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG
Joe Johnson: 37.4% 3PT, 16.3 PPG, 3.0 RPG
Kirk Hinrich: 38.5% 3PT, 7.5 PPG, 5.2 APG
Deron Williams: 44.1% FG, 19.1 PPG, 7.1 APG
Nate Robinson: 40.5% 3PT, 13.1 PPG, 4.4 APG
Andray Blatche: 51% FG, 10.2 PPG, 5.1 RPG
Bulls: 30.1 PPG, 11.9 RPG, 5.8 APG
Nets: 22.1 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 4.5 APG
Remaining benches include the rest of the clubs' rotation players.
Bulls: Taj Gibson, Rip Hamilton, Marco Belinelli and Nazr Mohammed
Nets: C.J. Watson, Kris Humprhies, MarShon Brooks and Keith Bogans
All stats taken from ESPN.
Nate Robinson and Jimmy Buter will be the Bulls' players to watch this postseason.
Star players are usually at the forefront of all postseason discussions, and rightfully so. More often than not they have the highest level of production and are the ones that lift their teams in crucial moments.
However, sometimes the ones that get overlooked or are under-appreciated make the biggest splash or are able to swing momentum in their favor.
The Bulls have two key players that could change the outcome of a game, but it's not one of the usual suspects.
His athleticism and defense make him very tough to score on. According to Basketball-Reference, Butler has a defensive rating of 104, which would be the third-highest among the Bulls' projected starters for the playoffs.
Butler has the speed to help on a double-team and close out on his original assignment, and he has the length, strength and quickness to stay in front of just about any player he's defending.
His defense on Joe Johnson will be extremely important. Williams and Lopez are the Nets' primary scorers, but Johnson is more than capable of taking over for stretches. Eliminating—or at least containing—one scoring threat will make the Bulls' chances of winning the series that much greater.
Butler has also drastically improved offensively.
His jump shot looks better than it did earlier this season, and he's a lot more aggressive when he drives into the paint.
Over the last two months, Butler has gotten to the line about 4-5 times. If he can continue being aggressive, he could be useful if the Bulls need to slow down the tempo or stop the clock.
Little Nate could be hit or miss depending on his decision-making.
If he can stay under control and remain as efficient as he has been recently, he could be the spark that takes the Bulls past the first round and further.
He's the Bulls' best three-point shooter and if they can run some plays to get him open, it will open up everything else offensively.
He's one of the only Bulls who can create for himself, making him a huge part of the second unit and late in games when Chicago needs a basket.
Nate has the talent and willingness to put the team on his back. He might have to for the Bulls to advance deep in the playoffs.
Stopping this duo will have to be the Bulls' No. 1 priority for the first round.
Pick-and-roll defense will have to be one of the Bulls' biggest focuses defensively. If they fail to stop the Nets' pick-and-roll, they could get bounced early from the postseason.
Deron Williams and Brook Lopez have had huge success against the Bulls with their screen game. Noah has to play Lopez one-on-one to limit his jump shot opportunities in the pick-and-pop.
If the Bulls want to double Williams when he comes off the screen, they'll have to do it with another guard or just let Hinrich play him one-on-one.
If Noah were to double Williams, Lopez could spot up or have a lane to roll to the basket. Boozer would have to slide over, but he isn't the best help defender and hasn't shown that he can close out on shooters.
The Bulls must attack inside. In three games against the Nets, Boozer is averaging 21.3 points and 10.7 rebounds while shooting just under 54 percent.
Getting Boozer going early will help the Bulls immensely. He's had a history of disappearing during the playoffs the last two years, so Chicago has to make an effort to get him involved early and often.
Then there's Noah, who averaged 16.5 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in two games against Brooklyn; the latter is perhaps the most important, as ball movement will be key for the Bulls. They have to keep the ball moving from side to side.
Their interior passing game with Noah, Boozer and Deng proved to be very effective earlier in the season.
Getting good looks inside will only facilitate the rest of the game for Chicago, as it will open things around the perimeter for Butler, Belinelli or Hinrich to hit a couple of threes.
The Bulls have to avoid stalling for long stretches like they often did during the regular season.
Carlos Boozer will have to be the Bulls' go-to guy during the playoffs.
After winning the season series 3-1, the Bulls have to feel confident going into Brooklyn. They'll have to steal at least one road game to steal the series (assuming they defend home court).
The 4-5 matchup is usually between two evenly-matched teams. The star power of the Nets against the overbearing Bulls defense will make this one of the more exciting first-round matchups in the East.
This series will be full of close games. The Bulls defense can keep teams from scoring long enough for them to catch up. On the other hand, their offense can be a bit anemic at times, allowing opposing teams to close the gap.
Game 1: Saturday, Apr. 20 at Brooklyn (8 p.m. ET)
If you have to steal one game on the road, why not make it the first one? Chicago goes in having won its last two games against Brooklyn, the latter of which was on the road.
It's the Nets' first playoff series at Barclays, and the Bulls are showing up to rain on the parade.
Boozer continues his 20 and 10 performances against the Nets and carries the Bulls to their first playoff win of 2013.
Game 2: Monday, Apr. 22 at Brooklyn (8 p.m. ET)
The Nets won't give up that easily, though. They know they can attack the Bulls with the pick-and-roll and will do a better job of executing it this time around.
Joe Johnson was ineffective against Chicago during the regular season, but expect him to break that in this game with a 20-point performance.
Too much Lopez early on, followed by JJ closing it out.
Game 3: Thursday, Apr. 25 in Chicago (8:30 p.m. ET)
The first game in the United Center will surely be a wild one. The sea of red in the stands will give the Bulls the boost they need to re-take the series lead.
Luol Deng struggled to shoot the three against Brooklyn during the regular season, but in this game, the Bulls will make it rain threes.
Robinson, Belinelli, Hinrich, Deng and Butler will all get in on the action as the Bulls shoot lights out from downtown.
Perhaps the most lob-sided win of the series.
Game 4: Saturday, Apr. 27 in Chicago (2 p.m. ET)
The Bulls had their struggles at home this season, losing 17 games at the UC. Brooklyn was even better than the Bulls were on the road, winning 23 games as a visitor.
The Nets will take it back to basics this afternoon with some good, old-fashioned pick-and-roll basketball. Deron Williams will be the beneficiary this time, though. He's bigger and stronger than Hinrich, which will allow him opportunities to get in the paint.
With Lopez stretching the floor, Noah and Gibson will have a hard time clogging the paint.
A big game from D-Will ties the series at 2-2.
Game 5: Monday, Apr. 29 at Brooklyn (Time TBD)
Back to Brooklyn go the Bulls as they look to take a 3-2 lead and be one step closer to facing the Miami Heat in the second round.
The Bulls will find an answer to the Nets' pick-and-roll execution, not allowing Lopez to get open looks and making every one of Williams' drives to the hoop a contested one.
Expect a big game from Noah on both the defensive and offensive side. This one will be low-scoring, but that's the way the Bulls like it.
Bulls take a 3-2 lead.
Game 6: Thursday, May 2 in Chicago (Time TBD)
If the Bulls want to win this series, they'll want to close it out at home. They may have won twice already in Brooklyn, but it's not a chance they'll want to take.
It will be another defensive struggle, but Robinson's 20-plus points off the bench will be the difference.
This one could come down to the last few seconds, but the Bulls defense will settle in and avoid a Game 7 back east.
Bulls win in six.
The Bulls will run into Miami in the second round.
If the Bulls are able to get past the Nets, the second round is where they'll run into some trouble.
With the fourth-best road record in the East at 21-20, the Bulls are certainly capable of stealing one or two road games in any series.
The Bulls will definitely make it tough on the Heat. They tied the season series at 2-2, and in both wins, Chicago executed their defense and offense perfectly.
But can they do it for an entire playoff series?
Having Noah in the lineup would make it easier on the Bulls, though. He's done a great job defensively on Bosh, holding him to 10-for-21 shooting and just 26 points in two games.
Along with Gibson, Noah also adds an inside presence the Bulls were missing in their last meeting against Miami where they scored 44 points in the paint.
Boozer would have to continue his top-notch performances against Miami; he's averaged 19 points and 15 rebounds in four games.
Defensively, the Bulls could match LeBron and Wade with Deng and Butler. They may not hold them to under 20 points, but they would make every basket a hard one.
Closing out on three-point shooters would also be essential.
The Heat drive it in nearly every possession, sucking in the defense, allowing them to kick it out to open shooters. Shooters that are able to knock down the long ball with great efficiency.
After all, they are among the top in three-point shooting percentage in the NBA.
For the Bulls to beat Miami, too many things would have to go right. There's no doubt they'd be able to push it to six games, maybe even seven with some luck.
The Heat are more talented and have too strong an offense to lose in a seven-game series against a struggling offensive team like the Bulls. Both teams have great defenses that almost cancel each other out when they play.
Chicago will get out of the first round, but ultimately fall in the second round to Miami in six games.