The Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards entered the last game of the regular season unsure of who they'd meet in the playoffs. After a Bulls defeat and a Wizards victory (as well as a loss from the Brooklyn Nets), Chicago and Washington will embark on what's certain to be an intriguing series.
The two ballclubs are opposites on numerous levels. Chicago is playoff-experienced and succeeds through feisty play, while Washington lacks postseason experience but is very flashy.
The Wizards won two of their three regular-season meetings. However, the Bulls most recently thumped them in Washington. All indications point toward this being an exciting series that could potentially go seven games.
Seeds: Washington Wizards No. 5, Chicago Bulls No. 4
Records: Washington Wizards 44-38, Chicago Bulls 48-34
Season series: Washington Wizards won 2-1
Schedule for series: Game 1 Sunday, April 20, 7 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 2 Tuesday, April 22, 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 3 Friday, April 25, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 4 Sunday, April 27, 1 p.m. ET (ABC); Game 5 Tuesday, April 29, TBD; Game 6 Thursday, May 1, TBD; Game 7 Saturday, May 3, TBD
Key Storyline for Washington
The focal point for Washington's playoff potential is the output of its two youthful guards, John Wall and Bradley Beal.
Wall (23 years old) averaged 19.4 points and 8.8 assists per game while making his first All-Star appearance. He has solidified himself as one of the game's premier point guards.
Beal (20 years old) poured in 17.0 points per game in just his second NBA season. In a few years, he could be one of the most dynamic scoring 2-guards in the league.
These two rising studs provide the Wizards with quite a talented backcourt, but will their youth and playoff inexperience come back to bite them?
This is a cause for concern, especially against a Chicago team that thrives on tenacity and grit. The Bulls specifically have two quality perimeter defenders in Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler who should be hounding Wall and Beal throughout the series.
If Wall and Beal can rise above Chicago's pressure and prove their worth in the heightened intensity of the playoffs, then we'll know that they're not just promising pieces for the future but are already elite-level guards.
This is quite a challenge, though, and Chicago will make them earn everything. Don't be surprised if Wall and Beal find themselves frequently frustrated during this bout, culminating in them learning many lessons on how they'll need to step their game up a notch if they crave playoff success.
Key Storyline for Chicago
Chicago's key storyline throughout this year's playoffs will always be the same: Can it score enough?
The Bulls limited opponents to the least amount of points per game (91.8) during the regular season, so we know their defense is more than sufficient. This is especially true with coach Tom Thibodeau constantly demanding defensive effort. It's a given that this will be there.
The issue is if the Bulls can muster up enough offense, as they ranked last in points per game (93.8). Without Derrick Rose, Chicago must find ways to manufacture points, and some evenings it just struggles to put the ball in the basket.
This presents some worry against a squad that is young and can compile points in a hurry like Washington. There could be stretches where it looks like the Bulls lack the firepower to keep pace.
Bulls forward Carlos Boozer highlighted this when reflecting upon playing Washington, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com): "They are a great transition team with a lot of shooters and size."
If the Bulls are inefficient offensively, they'll be finding themselves in a track meet against a team they don't want to speed up. However, if the Bulls offense has some fluidity to it, with Joakim Noah continuing to create for his teammates, then Chicago should control the tempo on both ends.
Chicago does enter the playoffs with some rhythm offensively, having eclipsed the 100-point mark in six of its final 10 games. If it can keep up this effectiveness, it should find itself advancing to the second round.
Two veterans, Trevor Ariza and Andre Miller, are the primary X-factors for Washington. While most of Washington's hype goes toward Wall and Beal, Ariza and Miller could be the ones who spark an upset.
The 28-year-old Ariza was a key component to the Los Angeles Lakers' title team in 2009, and the 38-year-old Miller supplies the youthful Wizards with needed leadership and stability.
If these two individuals can contribute on the floor as well as display veteran intangibles in the locker room, then Washington could pose major problems for Chicago.
For Chicago, their X-factors are their two weapons off the bench, D.J. Augustin and Taj Gibson.
Augustin averaged 14.9 points per game during the season, which was enough to lead the Bulls in scoring. He was a bright spot for Chicago after it picked him up in December, filling a void offensively.
He'll now have to do so on a much bigger stage. Last year, Nate Robinson showcased some beastly performances as the Bulls knocked off Brooklyn in the first round. Augustin will need to show up similarly.
Gibson displayed significant strides in his offensive repertoire during 2013-14, and he can now put an exclamation point on a stellar season with a monster postseason.
The Bulls particularly need him to be assertive offensively, knocking down mid-range jumpers and exhibiting his improved post moves.
Augustin and Gibson can both bring life for Chicago off the bench, and their exploits are imperative to Chicago's playoff upside.
Key Matchup: John Wall vs. Kirk Hinrich
The point guard battle is compelling because Wall and Hinrich are polar opposites who embody their respective teams' identities.
Wall is super-athletic and full of highlight-reel moves and finishes, while Hinrich isn't anything special in terms of athleticism, but he's as tough as nails.
If Hinrich can contain Wall throughout the series, Chicago's chances of advancing are extremely high. Wall makes Washington go, and he enhances the performance of everyone around him when he's on his game. If Hinrich disrupts this, he'll inhibit Washington's all-around attack.
Hinrich has even shown some improvements offensively since the All-Star break, shooting 42.9 percent from long range (compared to 28.8 percent before the break). He's more than capable of cashing a handful of triples while also handing out an array of assists.
If Wall's quickness is simply too much for Hinrich and the Bulls, Chicago should find itself in trouble. However, if Hinrich limits Wall (he doesn't have to outplay him completely), the Bulls should witness outcomes falling in their favor.
Prediction: Bulls in Six
Both teams have reasons to believe they can not only win this series, but also potentially make noise in the second round, where the winner would presumably meet the Indiana Pacers.
Yet, while the Wizards boast a promising future, the Bulls defense should prove to be too overwhelming in a seven-game series. Washington should snag a couple of games, but the Bulls should impose their will on them consistently en route to a series win in six games.
Haddon Anderson is a Featured Columnist covering the NBA. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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