For months now, there's been talk in league circles of how the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference—the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers—should not want to see the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs, and for good reason.
Kurt Helin of NBC's Pro Basketball Talk may have put it best almost exactly a month ago after the Bulls beat the Heat, 95-88 in overtime:
One day doesn’t change that the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are destined to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals.
What Sunday showed is why on the path to that show do neither of those teams wants to see the Chicago Bulls.
Sunday at home against the Miami [Heat] Chicago was relentless, physical, they defended well, they take away the easy buckets so you have to work for every point. They take a lot out of whomever they face.
The Bulls are strong, physical and absolutely brutal to play against on any one night, let alone four to seven in a two-week span.
They have Joakim Noah, who just might be the most versatile non-LeBron James or Kevin Durant frontcourt player in basketball; they have Tom Thibodeau, who just keeps finding ways to win even while his roster gets more and more depleted; and they have the league's second-best defense on a per-possession basis, according to NBA.com, a unit that's actually been the best in the league since the calendar flipped to 2014.
But what the Bulls don't have is any semblance of a competent offense, even despite Noah's all-around brilliance. Chicago is just 27th in offensive efficiency this season, checking in with a per-possession scoring rate below even the Cavaliers, Bucks and Jazz.
And that's why the true threat, as it does on HBO's Game of Thrones, may lie to the north.
The Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors are one of just five NBA teams–along with the Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers–with a top-10 offense as well as a top-10 defense, one of a few historical benchmarks that denote a true contender.
An examination of the Raptors' Four Factors stats reveals a team that is not elite at any one thing, but is just pretty good at almost everything. Their only real weakness is that they put opponents on the free-throw line a lot.
Compare those numbers with Chicago's and you see the stark differences between the two teams.
The Bulls are the worst shooting team in the league, and they compound that weakness by turning the ball over more than all but two teams (Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets). The only things keeping them out of the basement in per-possession scoring are offensive rebounding and the lack of interest from the East's cellar dwellers in building an actual NBA roster.
Chicago's defense is elite, but so is Indiana's, and we've seen in previous playoff runs that Miami can turn up the Heat—pun very much intended—pretty much whenever it wants on that end. Beating one or both of those teams by counting solely on your defense is going to be very difficult.
The Raptors' balance provides an additional threat.
Indiana can't score. It sits just 22nd in offensive efficiency for the season and would be dead last since the start of February if it weren't for the historically awful 76ers. But even though their defense has slipped in the last couple months, it was just over a month ago that they were on pace to be the best defense of all time. Counting on your defense to be better than theirs over a seven-game series is a dicey proposition. You have to be able to outscore them.
Miami, meanwhile, has an elite offense. The best in the league, in fact. No matter how good your defense is, you're not just going to shut down LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the army of shooters surrounding them. You have to be able to make the Heat pay on the other end of the court.
There's a reason teams rarely advance to the conference finals or beyond with a bottom-10 ranking on one end of the floor or the other. You need balance to advance. Only two of the last 10 NBA champions had a ranking outside the top 10 on either side of the ball, and one of those teams was the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, who shook up the roster with a midseason trade for Rasheed Wallace that turned them into an entirely different team.
Defense wins championships, the old adage says, but as SB Nation's Tom Ziller showed last week, being able to overcome the stingier defenses that arrive in the playoffs is just as, if not more important.
To be able to maintain their offense-defense balance, though, the Raptors have to get whole and get healthy. Point guard Kyle Lowry has missed the last three games (all wins) with a knee injury, and forward Amir Johnson exited the first of those three games after three minutes with an injured ankle.
Head coach Dwane Casey recently touched on the balance between needing Lowry out there every night as they fight for playoff positioning, and getting him healthy for those playoffs. "You’ve got to have healthy players. It’s a catch-22. You play DeMar [DeRozan] and Kyle for 38, 40, 42 minutes, and sooner or later it’s going to tell on them," Casey said, according to Eric Koreen of The National Post.
Lowry is probably Toronto's most important two-way cog (even if DeMar DeRozan is the leading scorer and the one who got the All-Star nod) as the conductor of the offense and the first line of ball pressure on defense, while Johnson's rebounding, hustle, positioning, versatile pick-and-roll play on both ends and general demeanor make him the team-first leader the Raptors need every night.
Lose either of them for the playoffs and any chance of an upset probably falls apart.
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