After a Chicago Bulls win and Atlanta Hawks loss, the playoff picture is officially set. The Bulls will play the Brooklyn Nets in the first round in the No. 4 versus No. 5 matchup. The Nets finished the season with a record of 49-33, and Chicago finished with a record of 45-37.
The Bulls and Nets played each other four times during the regular season. Chicago won three of these matchups: 83-82, 96-85 and 92-90. Brooklyn won one of the matchups on its home court, 93-89. Chicago makes the playoffs for the fifth season in a row, while Brooklyn returns the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Brooklyn is a team that the Chicago Bulls match up relatively well against and had a great deal of success against in the regular season. When the playoffs start, however, regular-season matchups and records mean nothing, and every team has a fresh start.
That being said, here are five ways that Chicago can maintain its advantage over the Brooklyn Nets.
For the purposes of forecasting, we are going to assume that Derrick Rose will not return at any point for Chicago.
The Nets are an interesting team when it comes to rebounding. Their center, Brook Lopez, is a notoriously poor rebounder, averaging under seven per game.
The Bulls have had one of the best rebounding teams in the league, especially in the frontcourt. Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah combined for 21 rebounds per game this season. Boozer ranks 10th in the league in rebounds per game, and Noah would be ranked fourth if he played enough games to qualify.
What the Bulls will have to take into account will be the incredible rebounding of Reggie Evans. Evans is an absolutely insane rebounder and leads the league in rebounds per 48 minutes at a ridiculous 21.7. To put things into perspective, Joakim Noah only averages 14.6 rebounds per 48 minutes.
Chicago ranked ahead of Brooklyn in rebounding during the regular season, and it will have to maintain an advantage in order to win this series.
In the four games the Nets and Bulls played, Brooklyn won the rebounding battle 145-142.
With Kobe Bryant out for the playoffs, there is a strong argument that the Brooklyn Nets have the best backcourt in the NBA with Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. The Nets may also have the best offensive center in the league in Brook Lopez, who this year was named to his first-ever All-Star Game.
These three players combine for almost 55 points per game, which constitutes approximately 56.3 percent of their total scoring. In the most recent game, those three Nets combined for 70 points. Against the Bulls, these players were held to 49.7 points per game, which is below their average.
To give themselves the best chance to win, Chicago needs to contain the three best offensive players on the Nets.
The Bulls this season struggled mightily when it came to consistency, and the four-game season series against the Nets was no different. The Bulls managed to go 3-1, part of a 7-1 dominance over the city of New York. The problem is, the Bulls did not find a way to win consistently against the Nets; they did it in different ways.
In the three wins, the Bulls won in three different ways.
On December 15, the Bulls beat the Nets behind stifling defense, holding Brooklyn to 39 percent from the field and forcing 18 turnovers. On March 2, the Bulls beat the Nets with offense behind 25 assists and 40 percent shooting from the three-point line. On April 4, Chicago manhandled Brooklyn on the boards, posting a 16-rebound advantage despite missing Gibson and Noah.
Out of these three strategies, it seems pretty obvious that the Bulls can't rely upon to continue to put up elite offensive stats. It will be up to them to maintain tenacious defense and attack the boards.
The Chicago Bulls without Derrick Rose are a team that relies greatly on ball movement. When the Bulls win, they average 24.2 assists per game, which would put them at fourth in the league. In losses, they're at 21.5 assists per game, which would be tied for 20th.
The Bulls' leading scorer is Luol Deng. According to 82games.com, he was assisted on 70 percent of his field-goal attempts this season. Carlos Boozer was assisted on 69 percent of his. In fact, the Bulls as a team were assisted on 64.4 percent of their field goals.
To put that into perspective, the Oklahoma City Thunder are a team that is very dependent on isolation scoring. The Thunder only were assisted on 56.2 percent of their baskets. The Knicks, who are last in the league in assists, are only assisted on 52.9 percent of their field goals.
There is only one rotation player on the Bulls who was assisted on under 50 percent of his baskets this season, and that was Nate Robinson at 42 percent. To put that into perspective, Derrick Rose in his MVP season was only assisted on 27 percent of his baskets.
Without a significant scorer who creates without help, the Bulls will need to ensure that their ball movement is a priority.
The Chicago Bulls are one of the most injured teams in the NBA this season. Not even mentioning Derrick Rose's ACL, Joakim Noah is suffering from plantar fasciitis, Taj Gibson has a sprained knee, Luol Deng still has a torn ligament in his left wrist, and Kirk Hinrich, Richard Hamilton and Marco Belinelli have all missed games within the month.
When the Bulls are healthy, there are few teams in the league that can beat them. However in that statement lies the problem. The entire starting lineup is made up of players who have a history of injuries.
If the Bulls want to truly have a chance in the playoffs against the Nets, they must have at least a partially healthy roster. Long-term injuries to Noah, Gibson or Deng could easily derail their chances at a playoff run.