Nobody—other than extremely diehard fans—expects the Chicago Bulls to win a title or reach the NBA Finals this year.
With Derrick Rose out with yet another knee injury, making a deep postseason run will be a rather difficult task for the Bulls. Winning a championship without a superstar rarely happens, as the overachieving 2004 Detroit Pistons were the last team to accomplish such a feat.
This year’s Bulls squad has the pieces needed to make a lot of noise during the playoffs. All-Star Joakim Noah is one of the best centers on the planet, Jimmy Butler’s defense can frustrate any opposing scorer and D.J. Augustin provides a great deal of scoring punch off the bench.
What must Chicago do in order to shock the world and exceed expectations during the 2014 playoffs?
Joakim Noah Needs to Be at His Best
With Rose and Luol Deng out of the picture, Joakim Noah has emerged as “The Man” for Chicago. The former Florida Gator is perhaps the best all-around center in the game today.
He can score, rebound, block shots, hit free throws and his mid-range jumper isn’t too shabby either. But what stands out the most is his ability to play the rare “point center” role.
Noah is currently averaging 5.3 assists per game, which actually leads the team. This season, he has dished out at least eight assists 18 times, including a whopping 14 against the New York Knicks on March 2.
He has recorded four triple-doubles this season, including his 19-point, 16-rebound, 11-assist performance vs. the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 11.
While Kevin Durant will likely be named MVP, Noah’s name is definitely in the conversation for the award.
If the Bulls want to upset the Indianas and Miamis of the playoff world, Noah must perform like an MVP each and every night.
The seventh-year pro was instrumental in Chicago’s last win vs. the Heat, contributing 20 points, 12 boards, seven assists and four blocks.
“I want what they have: a championship. One day, we're going to have to get through those guys,” he told the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com) following the game.
Chances are the Bulls will have to go through Miami, whether it’s during the second round or the Eastern Conference finals. If so, Mr. Noah better bring his A-game.
Continue Playing Championship-Caliber Defense
When you think of the Bulls, you think of suffocating, “Stop, I can’t take it anymore!” type of defense. Coached by the great Tom Thibodeau, the team is allowing only 91.8 points per game this season, which is the best mark in the league.
The Bulls have several elite defenders such as Noah, Taj Gibson, Butler and Kirk Hinrich. While Noah and Gibson do their work in the interior, “Jimmy Buckets” and Captain Kirk lock down the perimeter.
If Chicago reaches the second round, Butler will have to guard either the Pacers’ Paul George or Miami’s LeBron James—two of the league’s top offensive players. Of course, that won’t be an easy job.
During the Bulls’ March 9 win over Miami, Butler played phenomenal defense on James, holding him to 17 points on 8-of-23 shooting. The four-time MVP didn’t even get to the free-throw line the entire contest, which is pretty unusual.
Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan wrote about a potential Bulls-Pacers series:
That means Chicago would find itself facing its division rival in the second round, with a very real chance of pulling off the upset and advancing to the conference finals.
Not surprisingly, the two squads split their season series 2-2, with home court holding sway in each of the four showdowns. The Pacers will hold home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, but given their offensive struggles as of late, facing a defensive titan like Chicago is the last thing the doctor ordered.
Surely, Indy doesn't want to see the Bulls come playoff time. No one wants to face that type of defense for a whole series.
As everyone knows, scoring is Chicago’s biggest weakness. The team averages just 93.8 points per game, which is dead-last in the entire Association.
Playing without Rose and Deng—two players who can put up at least 19 a night—it’s easy to see why the Bulls struggle to score.
They’ve done better lately, though, producing over 100 points six times in the last nine games.
Augustin’s scoring average of 14.9 per contest currently leads the club. The lightning-quick point guard is always a threat to drop 20 points, as he can easily shake his defender and get to the basket. Last year, Nate Robinson was Chicago’s spark plug off the bench, and now Augustin is playing the role.
In order for the Bulls to go far in the playoffs, his quality scoring must continue. He’ll also need help from teammates such as Noah, Gibson, Butler and Carlos Boozer.
Chicago will need Boozer’s jump shots to fall consistently. Plus, it’s important that guys guys like Mike Dunleavy and Hinrich shoot well from beyond the arc.
The Bulls defense should be on-point throughout the playoffs, just like it has been throughout the regular season. But will they manage to score enough points?
All stats are from Basketball-Reference.com and accurate as of April 15, 2014.