By all accounts, the Chicago Bulls have exceeded expectations this year. But now the second season begins, and with it come new challenges and a higher bar.
The parity in the Eastern Conference suggests that a playoff bracket is more open than previously anticipated.
Of course, the profound, prolonged struggles of the Indiana Pacers play a huge role in this. Considered a heavyweight on the level of the reigning champion Miami Heat just months ago, the Pacers now appear to be within the Bulls’ sights.
They’ll have to get there first, though.
As it stands, the Bulls are in a footrace with the Toronto Raptors for the third seed in the East and likely the privilege to play the raw, inexperienced Washington Wizards instead of the surging and wily Brooklyn Nets.
Here are the latest standings.
Regardless, the Bulls can beat either opponent in a seven-game series. They lost two games to the Wizards in January, but recently visited Washington and pounded them for a 96-78 victory. The game was all but over when Chicago took a 52-26 lead into halftime.
The Bulls defense was performing at its highest level in that game, forcing the Wizards into third, fourth and fifth scoring options they’re not yet sophisticated enough to rely on.
In a playoff series, the Bulls would likely have a relatively easy time putting these bolts to the Wizards consistently, inspiring fans in Washington to wonder whether they need better coaching, more experience or a healthy heap of both before they make serious postseason noise.
A matchup with the Nets would be a much different story. A drastically less favorable adversary, the Bulls should do all they can to face Washington instead.
This is not to say that Chicago can’t handle Brooklyn. However, the Nets’ easy March 3 victory over the Bulls—albeit on a back-to-back for Chicago—certainly allows cause for concern.
The Nets have been one of basketball’s best teams since the new year, overcoming a terrible start to go 32-13 in 2014 behind unusually small starting lineups featuring Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston and either Kevin Garnett or Mason Plumlee (depending on Garnett’s health).
The Nets have consistently made hay with these strange arrangements, typically finding and exploiting whichever mismatch they find quickest. In this hypothetical matchup, look for Brooklyn to go after Carlos Boozer, who can’t reliably defend any of these players.
The Nets know this all too well. They saw the Bulls in the first round last season—a classic series the Bulls won in seven games—and Garnett and Pierce have seen more than their fair share of the Bulls over the years.
The Bulls should still stand as favorites against the Nets, however harsh of a battle it may take to trump them.
Barring a serious late-season stumble, the Bulls would have home-court advantage—the Nets are just 15-23 on the road—and Brooklyn lacks the sort of overwhelming athleticism that’s necessary to regularly penetrate the Bulls defense, which has been easily the best in the league in 2014.
Who the Bulls would face next is largely up to the performance of the Raptors. The Raptors hold the tiebreaker for the third seed, as they'll win the Atlantic Division, but the Bulls can still finish with a better record.
In any event, it’ll be the Pacers or Heat.
The Bulls can’t beat the Heat. Although they’re a stronger team than they were last year, when Miami beat them 4-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Chicago still lacks the transcendent offensive abilities a team needs to truly compete with Miami.
Asked why the Bulls can’t overcome the champs, ESPNChicago.com’s Nick Friedell puts it more bluntly: “The Heat have LeBron James. That's why. He's the best player on the planet. The Bulls don't even have a guy who can consistently create his own shot.”
The Bulls can make a dent in the champs, though. Miami is a year older, lacking a crucial member of last year's squad in Mike Miller and the Bulls' physicality has always bothered the Heat.
They're also stronger decision-makers this year, turning the ball over less frequently and passing better. They'd stand more of a chance against Miami's ever-pressing defense and might even be able to exhaust the Heat in a seven-game slog.
With that said, the Bulls’ ceiling in these playoffs is somewhere between the Nets and the Heat, with the Pacers as their primary obstacle to maximum accomplishment.
The Bulls can beat the Pacers. Indiana may be able to overcome its fracturing chemistry and staggering offensive difficulties against the unseasoned Charlotte Bobcats, but you can be sure that Tom Thibodeau will know how to capitalize on Indiana’s growing flaws.
This is a team that has lost its edge and whose cause for confidence is locked within the rapidly expiring cache they bought by pushing the Heat to seven games last year and starting this year with a blazing 35-10 record.
The Pacers have been a mediocre 18-15 since the end of January, though, and have the looked the part of an eminently beatable team.
It’s hard to imagine Indiana pulling its ship back together fully enough to beat a team as tough and together as the Bulls. Its slump is no longer a slump—it’s exceeded two months and seems now to be more a sign of a team with a new, lower ceiling.
Except for the Heat, the Bulls can beat anyone they may face in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
And you should expect them to.
This is the new, proud reality for Bulls fans: They’re among the league’s elite, capable of making big playoff waves even when their most dynamic player, Derrick Rose, is repeatedly out with injury.
Despite their troubles with scoring, the Bulls’ strong, hard-nosed culture has all but solidified them as one of the conference’s heavyweights for years to come. Enjoy the ride.
Stats and standings are accurate as of 4/8/14.