The Chicago Bulls played the entire regular season without the services of superstar point guard Derrick Rose. Although his absence limited the team's overall upside, the Bulls were still able to secure the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and a playoff matchup with the Brooklyn Nets.
Chicago went 3-1 against Brooklyn during the regular season. The series was highlighted by close games, with three of the four contests being decided by four points or less. It should make for a drama-filled postseason battle starting on Saturday.
On the injury front, the Nets will enter the series at full strength. Questions still remain about the availability of Rose. His return, which Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reported wasn't completely ruled out by head coach Tom Thibodeau, could change the complexion of the series.
That said, CBS Sports lists him as doubtful for the opener. Beyond that, the Bulls have no other major injury concerns. So all eyes will be on Rose's progress and whether or not he gets the green light at some point during the series.
Here's a look at the schedule for the first-round matchup, followed by a complete breakdown of what to expect as the Bulls and Nets fight to keep their NBA title hopes alive.
|1||Saturday, April 20 at 8 p.m.||Barclays Center||ESPN|
|2||Monday, April 22 at 8 p.m.||Barclays Center||TNT|
|3||Thursday, April 25 at 8:30 p.m.||United Center||NBA TV|
|4||Saturday, April 27 at 2 p.m.||United Center||TNT|
|5*||Monday, April 29 at TBD||Barclays Center||TBD|
|6*||Thursday, May 2 at TBD||United Center||TBD|
|7*||Saturday, May 4 at TBD||Barclays Center||TNT|
*Denotes if necessary.
Regular-Season Record and Stats Leaders
Points Leader: Luol Deng (16.5)
Rebounds Leader: Joakim Noah (11.1)
Assists Leader: Kirk Hinrich (5.2)
First-Round Series vs. Brooklyn Nets
Biggest Strength: Depth
The reason Chicago was able to avoid a massive drop-off without Rose is its depth. The Bulls feature nine different players averaging at least seven points per game. All of them also average over 20 minutes, which goes a long way in keeping guys fresh over what should be an extended series.
It's a group led by Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer, who are both averaging over 16 points per game. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the emergence of Nate Robinson. After bouncing around the league in recent years, he found an opportunity to get consistent minutes in Chicago and stepped up to the challenge.
In order for the Bulls to pull off the minor upset, they'll need production from every member of the rotation. If Deng and Boozer can lead the way each night and a couple different role players step up from game to game, the Bulls have enough talent to survive the series.
Biggest Weakness: Lack of Star Power
If Rose returns to the lineup and is anywhere near full strength, which would be a surprise given his extended layoff, this weakness would disappear. As it stands now, though, the Bulls must prepare like he won't be available. There are simply too many question marks about his status to count on him.
Without him, Chicago lacks the go-to player every team needs to make a deep playoff run—somebody who can step up in the clutch and knock down a key shot. It's not a role somebody can adapt to on the fly, and the pressure in the playoffs is far greater than a regular season game.
It takes natural confidence to fill the void, and it's unclear if anybody on the Bulls roster is ready for it if Rose can't go. Deng and Boozer are both used to playing the secondary role. Robinson certainly doesn't lack in confidence, but he is sporadic at times and could do more harm than good if he pushed too hard.
The Bulls navigated the season without Rose, but his potential absence from the series is where his true value would really shine through.
Best Matchup: Luol Deng vs. Gerald Wallace
In the past, this matchup would have been much closer to neutral. But Wallace is coming off his worst season in a decade. He averaged less than eight points per game, shot worse than 40 percent from the field and his rebound rate also dropped. In other words, his impact was minimal.
He'll go up against Deng, who's coming off another productive regular season and must find a way to dominate this head-to-head battle on both ends of the floor. The Bulls need him to do his best impression of the superstar small forwards around the league like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Although Deng hasn't played at that type of elite level in his career, the Bulls definitely need him to elevate his game in this series. The more he's able to contribute, the less they will have to rely on other players stepping up. And it's a matchup he should be able to control.
Worst Matchup: Bulls PGs vs. Deron Williams
Williams went on a tear over the final stretch of the regular season. In April, the Illinois product averaged 25 points and eight assists while shooting 52 percent from the floor, including a terrific 41 percent mark from beyond the arc. The Bulls must find a way to slow him down.
It won't be an easy task for Kirk Hinrich and the aforementioned Robinson. While the tandem did combine for more than 20 points per game, they'll struggle mightily to slow Williams down on the defensive end. That's especially true if he keeps shooting the lights out from deep.
In reality, the best they can probably hope for is to limit the damage. Williams is going to get his fair share of points, but if the Bulls point guards can produce offensively and stop him from completely dominating the series at the other end, it will be an acceptable result from a bad matchup.
Key Player: Joakim Noah
Even when Rose is healthy, Noah is very important to the Bulls' success. He's the player who provides the energy by chasing down loose balls, blocking shots and fighting for every rebound. He sets a good example of the effort that will be needed to win the series.
By now, everybody knows pretty much what to expect from him. He's going to average around a double-double with a couple blocks per night and a couple of those key hustle plays. One area he has improved in is passing out of the post to open shooters, as evidenced by his career-high four assist mark.
Noah understands the Bulls need somebody to step up as a leader in this series, assuming Rose doesn't play. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him attempt to fill that role. If he's able to produce at both ends of the floor and motivates his teammates to do the same, the Bulls have a good chance to move on.
This should be one of the best series in the opening round. They are two teams that were evenly matched, both in the standings and in their regular season series. It should lead to a lot of games up for grabs in the fourth quarter.
Ultimately, the major advantage Williams holds at the point, combined with the fact Chicago doesn't have that go-to scorer in crunch time, is going to make the difference in the long run. The Nets will advance in a series that goes the distance.
Brooklyn Nets in 7 games