Looking at the current Eastern Conference standings, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds belong to the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, and the bottom two spots seem to be reserved for the best of the sub-.500 bunch.
The East’s third- through sixth-place squads round out the assembly of clubs with winning records and are so close that the order could look radically different once all 82 games have been logged.
Though the sequence within that grouping may change, the Bulls are most likely to face one of three foes at the commencement of the postseason: the Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards or Toronto Raptors.
Let’s assess each potential challenger from weakest to strongest using the regular-season head-to-head records, playing styles and positional matchup analysis as the anchor points.
3. Toronto Raptors
Season Series: 2-2
Just because Toronto is ranked last out of the three possible playoff matchups does not mean it should be taken lightly.
Back in October, this writer said that if the Raptors could improve on last season’s 34-48 record by six wins, then they could claw their way into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed.
Well, our basketball neighbors to the north have already surpassed the previous year’s victory total, lead the Atlantic Division and are in third place in the conference standings.
For all intents and purposes, Canada will see professional basketball played on its soil in late April.
Those guys, plus a couple more, will give Chicago trouble with its shooting.
For Chicago to best this team, it will have to take advantage of its superiorly sized and skilled frontcourt, and turn up its defensive pressure on the perimeter.
The Bulls may not be able to stop both of Toronto’s standout guards, but limiting the scoring impact of just one of them may be enough.
This series could be more competitive than one might expect, but the Bulls have enough to win it.
Chicago’s defensive prowess and size advantage will wear down its opponent until Toronto finally gives in.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Season Series: 2-1 (advantage Bulls)
At the beginning of 2014, the Brooklyn Nets were 11-21; they are now 32-30 and trail the division-leading Raptors by three games.
This team has been on a tear since January and is starting to play its best basketball.
It’s scary to think that Brooklyn could be even better if it had its primary big man Brook Lopez in the fold.
The Bulls won the first two meetings of the season, but the third game was a convincing win for the Nets and exposed what could be Chicago’s undoing if these teams were to face each other in the playoffs.
Despite all of the overachieving Tom Thibodeau has been able to extract from his team, turnovers still plague its performance.
The teams' early-March contest saw the Bulls commit 28 turnovers, which led to a 16-point loss.
Brooklyn is the third-best team in the league when it comes to forcing turnovers.
When that defensive penchant is combined with athletic guys like Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston, things could get ugly.
Coaching is the only reason why this potential adversary does not occupy the top spot.
Yes, this team is really starting to gel, but head coach Jason Kidd and his staff have a difficult task ahead of them in maintaining their high level of productivity.
The first-round rematch factor would make this series doubly intriguing.
1. Washington Wizards
Season Series: 0-2 (advantage Wizards; one game left)
The Washington Wizards would be the team Chicago were to face if the regular season ended immediately, and they stand the best chance of giving Thibodeau the second first-round elimination of his young head-coaching career.
Positional matchups are the biggest advantage this opponent has over the other two franchises.
Against the Raptors and Nets, the Bulls could still use their frontcourt preeminence to make up for their lack of outstanding guards.
Washington has the same backcourt advantage as the other squads, and its big men are very serviceable as well.
Without Derrick Rose to nullify the other team’s All-Star, the talent advantage tips away from the Bulls and towards Washington.
Wall is everything the Bulls have lacked this season: a legitimate offensive threat, for whom Thibodeau has no answer, with the ability to influence the game with scoring and passing.
Throw his supporting cast into the mix and you have a team that stands a good chance to push Chicago to the brink of elimination and maybe even out of the playoffs.
All hope is not lost, for the Bulls have one ace left up their sleeve—postseason experience.
Despite the slight edge in pure talent, there is still something to be said for knowing how to persevere over the course of what could be a protracted series.
Wall and company may not have the mental chops to overcome the pressure of delivering a series win.
The Cause and Cure
Which of the aforementioned teams would give the Chicago Bulls the most difficult time in the playoffs?
Derrick Rose’s absence is the obvious reason why these clubs have the edge at the guard position.
The former MVP beats Lowry and neutralizes Williams and Wall.
That does not mean that Chicago can’t get meaningful production from its backcourt.
D.J. Augustin, Kirk Hinrich and Tony Snell are collectively capable of making significant contributions on both sides of the ball; it would just have to be conceded that this group is still outmatched when compared to the rest of the field.
Getting a first-round win is still plausible, however.
Starting center Joakim Noah has done a phenomenal job anchoring his team’s offense and defense while still being the energy catalyst that helps his teammates find that extra fight.
Thibodeau has certainly been appreciative of the effort, heaping praise on Noah in a recent write-up by K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
He's been on a roll now for a long time. We need it. He's a leader. The thing about Jo is he can beat you a lot of different ways. Sometimes it's the defense and rebounding. Sometimes it's the passing. Sometimes it's his scoring.
His screening has gotten significantly better. His rolling has gotten significantly better. He's significantly better at making quicker decisions. And that's how we want him to play.
Following the two-time All-Star’s example has paid big dividends for the Bulls this season, and the returns could keep on coming.
Note: All statistics accurate as of March 11, 2014