Chicago Bulls vs. Brooklyn Nets: Eastern Conference Round 1 Preview
The Nets are the embodiment of their new, billion-dollar home.
Brooklyn general manager Billy King has delved into the deep pockets of owner Mikhail Prokhorov to transform this franchise from a 12-win team in 2009-10 into an top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. Save for starting center Brook Lopez, costly transplants flood P.J. Carlesimo's rotation.
Chicago, on the other hand, is far more of a self-made powerhouse. The Bulls haven't exactly balked at the always expensive price tags on the free-agent market, but Tom Thibodeau's group is built largely from its homegrown talent.
The differences between the two clubs extend to their on-court performances.
The Nets prefer to overwhelm opponents with offense, as Brooklyn's games often become a race to 100 points. The Bulls would rather play a slower, more methodical brand of basketball relying on the hard-nosed approach set forth by the man in charge.
Seeds: Chicago Bulls No. 5; Brooklyn Nets No. 4
Records: Chicago Bulls 45-37; Brooklyn Nets 49-33
Season series: Chicago Bulls won 3-1
Playoff schedule: Saturday, April 20, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 2 Monday, April 22, 8 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 3 Thursday, April 25, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBA TV); Game 4 Saturday, April 27, 2 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 5 Monday, April 29, TBD; Game 6 Thursday, May 2, TBD; Game 7 Saturday, May 4, TBD (TNT)
What Everybody's Talking About
It's a tale of the missing point guards for these franchises, although it holds a dramatically different ending for either team.
The Nets looked poised for a prolonged playoff run when they added six-time All-Star Joe Johnson over the summer to an already talent-laden starting five. But the hopes of even sniffing out a postseason berth seemed at risk when Deron Williams spent the first half of the season looking like a shell of his former self, carrying a concerning 16.7 average and a 41.3 field-goal percentage into the All-Star break.
But a juice cleanse and series of ankle injections (via Stefan Bondy of the Daily News) saw a slimmer, more agile Williams return to the floor. His post-All-Star averages are much more in line with what hoops heads usually see from the three-time All-Star, maybe even better (22.9 points on 48.1 percent shooting from the field, 8.0 assists against 2.7 turnovers per game).
The Bulls, meanwhile, have seen their season shrouded behind stories of what could have been.
Their own floor general, Derrick Rose, began the season missing in action recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in the opening game of the 2012 postseason. Chicago knew it faced an uncertain opening to the season without Rose at the reins but figured to bolster its postseason roster with the point guard's anticipated return.
Only here the Bulls stand 82 games later, with still no Rose to be seen.
The mystery surrounding his will-he-or-won't-he return hasn't cleared up a bit. Thibodeau and the organization opened the door to a possible playoff appearance for the former MVP (via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times).
But like his previous conversations on the topic, Thibodeau refused to commit to any concrete debut date for his hobbled star.
What Nobody's Talking About
Brook Lopez's rebounding woes have improved, but his 6.9 boards per game is hardly befitting of his 7'0", 265-pound frame.
Yet even with their center struggling on the glass, the Nets have compiled the second-best rebounding percentage in the league (52.2 percent, via NBA.com).
How is that even possible?
Frankly, there's a great chance that Lopez's frontcourt mates don't leave any rebounds for the big man to grab.
Reggie Evans, Kris Humphries and Andray Blatche aren't the type of players that typically crop up as keys to a series, but their combined 21.8 boards in 61.9 minutes per game give Brooklyn a formidable rebounding force on the interior.
Thibodeau's team is no slouch on the boards (51.2 rebounding percentage, ninth in the league) but will have to identify Brooklyn's unsung glass hounds on box-outs.
The Nets know a thing or two about clutch performances. Brooklyn went a perfect 5-0 in overtime games this season and tallied the NBA's second-best winning percentage in games decided by three points or less (.692, via NBA.com).
A lot of that crunch-time success has come courtesy of a first-year Net, Joe Johnson. He connected on all four of his field-goal attempts in the final 10 seconds of a three-point game and shot 8-of-9 in the last 30 seconds of three-point games on the year (via NBA.com).
However, back on April 4 the Nets got a first-hand glimpse of Chicago's late-game fortitude. With Brooklyn nursing a one-point lead in the final minute of its game with the Bulls, Nate Robinson intercepted Lopez's cross-court pass, and he floated in what proved to be the game-winning shot in Chicago's 92-90 win in the Barclays Center.
Key Matchup: Deron Williams vs. Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson
There's no shortage of intriguing matchups in this series.
First-year All-Stars Brook Lopez and Joakim Noah will wage war in the paint. Sophomore Jimmy Butler will pit his next-level athleticism against Joe Johnson's veteran craftiness. Gerald Wallace and Luol Deng will be lucky to drum up any offensive production, with both players among the elite wing defenders in the league.
But no pairing will hold greater importance than Williams vs. the Bulls point guards. Assuming Rose finishes the season the same way he started it, Hinrich and Robinson must put forth a collective effort capable of keeping pace with the new-and-improved D-Will.
Hinrich is the better defender of the two and a more consistent presence on the offensive end. But if Williams gets hot, or stays hot rather, Thibodeau may have to plug in the potentially explosive Robinson.
Williams is the lone certainty here, but Robinson could be a dangerous X-factor in guiding the Bulls out of the first round.
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