The Bulls are a mystery when it comes to their playoff upside because their play is inconsistent. You can never know what to anticipate on any given night. This has been evidenced recently, as they defeated one of the NBA's best in the Indiana Pacers and then followed it up with a measly 74 points in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
They've also shown the ability to take down the Miami Heat (twice this season), but have also lost to subpar teams like the Sacramento Kings (in a blowout), Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans.
The bottom line is that Chicago is capable of beating anybody or losing to anybody. This makes them a rather intriguing playoff team. It wouldn't be shocking if they were ousted in the first round, but it also wouldn't be surprising if they presented a serious challenge to Indiana or Miami.
The chief reason why the Bulls are erratic is their inefficient offense. They rank last in the league in points per game (92.8). They remain competitive due to their gritty defense, which gives up the second-fewest PPG (91.9).
Their defense keeps them in just about every contest, but sometimes their offensive output is just atrocious. Other nights, certain individuals such as D.J. Augustin or Mike Dunleavy catch fire, and they look like an elite all-around squad.
The primary concern for the Bulls come the playoffs is the heightened defensive intensity from every ball club. Chicago is already limited offensively, and with more defensive energy come playoff time, they should really struggle to generate points.
Because of this, there's a good chance the Bulls bow out of the playoffs early, losing in the first round to a team like the Washington Wizards or Brooklyn Nets. Their defense could be superb, but they may only produce 80 or so PPG. This is highly problematic.
It would become even more of an issue in the second round, if the Bulls squeak past their first-round opponent. Indiana and Miami are both stellar defensive units, and each also has more offensive weapons than the Bulls, especially the Heat.
While the Bulls could steal a game in such a matchup (like they did in Game 1 against Miami last spring), they would "shock the world" if they won a seven-game series against one of these foes. They just don't have the firepower to keep pace.
But let's dream.
Crazy things happen in basketball, even in seven-game battles in which momentum shifts quickly and injuries could happen at any moment. What would it take for the Bulls to not only win their first-round series, but also make a run to the NBA Finals?
We know that Chicago will showcase suffocating defense and likely limit their opponents to 90 PPG or less. This is the brand of defense they play, and it should be apparent no matter who they're facing.
The question is if the Bulls can simply put the ball in the basket enough. Therefore, the key figures to a playoff run are not who you might think, like Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler.
Such individuals are more defensive-minded. While they can and should produce offensively, the Bulls feature other core veterans who are more offensively gifted and must step up.
These critical members include Carlos Boozer, Augustin and Dunleavy. These players will have to perform exceptionally well, scoring frequently and efficiently. This is really the only hope for the Bulls contending with the "beasts of the East."
Let's consider some of the Bulls' most impressive wins of the year and how these contributors fared.
- In December, the Bulls throttled the Heat by 20 points. Carlos Boozer registered 27 points (10-17 from the field) in the victory.
- In late January, they upset the San Antonio Spurs on their home floor, winning 96-86. Boozer (16), Augustin (15) and Dunleavy (10) each contributed effectively.
- In an overtime win over the Heat in early March, Augustin tallied 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting.
- In a blowout victory over the Houston Rockets, the Bulls poured in 111 points, including 21 from Dunleavy, 18 from Boozer and 13 from Augustin.
These outings serve as evidence of how significant the offensive performances of Boozer, Dunleavy and Augustin are. To tackle the league's best, they need these three to be on their A-games.
Noah, Gibson, Hinrich and Butler will all occasionally have a decent scoring night, but it's not something you can count on. If the Bulls depend on their scoring abilities too much, they're in trouble. This is why Boozer, Dunleavy and Augustin have to carry a heavy load in terms of putting the ball in the bucket.
Currently, Augustin and Boozer are both averaging around 14 PPG, while Dunleavy is at 11 PPG, adding up to a combined total of 39 PPG. If this digit can ascend in the playoffs to the 45-50 PPG range, then Chicago is in prime position to challenge anybody.
Basically, the Bulls need Boozer, Dunleavy and Augustin to play their best possible basketball. It's not like they need to play completely out of their minds, but they do need to be downright assertive and productive.
If they provide this, the Bulls could potentially oust Indiana or Miami. Their defense, team chemistry and sharing of the ball offensively could supply the right ingredients for a stunning series victory.
But it will take everything coming together. And I mean everything.
Chicago knows what it will get out of Noah, Gibson, Butler and even Hinrich. Their defense will be phenomenal, and they'll also exhibit occasional offensive exploits.
Yet the key to their playoff run lies in the hands of Boozer, Dunleavy and Augustin. Perhaps a hot streak from all three could result in the Bulls shaking up the playoff landscape.
Considering this analysis, we're in position to determine the best- and worst-case scenarios for Chicago's upcoming playoff appearance.
Worst-Case: Their offense is completely inept, and they're defeated in the first round by Brooklyn, Washington or Toronto.
Most Likely: They rattle off a first-round series victory in six or seven games, before losing in five or six games to Indiana or Miami.
Best-Case: After grinding out a first-round series win, they find a steady groove offensively while continually displaying sound defense, stunning Miami and Indiana (both in seven games) en route to the NBA Finals.
We've definitely learned to never be surprised with the Derrick Rose-less Bulls. What type of drama will unfold come the playoffs?
The likelihood is that a second-round loss is forthcoming, but maybe Bulls fans are in for a pleasant surprise that contains an upset (or two) for the ages.
Haddon Anderson is a Chicago Bulls Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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