The Chicago Bulls had everything fall into place on the last day of the season to give them their best postseason chance. They lost a “must-lose” game to “hold on” to the No. 4 seed.
Final Regular-Season Record: 48-36
Playoff Seed: No. 4 in Eastern Conference
First-Round Opponent: Washington Wizards (44-38), No. 5 Seed in Eastern Conference
Top Three Storylines Going into NBA Playoffs
First, the Bulls are healthy with the obvious exception of Derrick Rose. In fact, compared to their recent history, they're remarkably injury free.
They've had the same starting five—consisting of Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah—for the last 26 games. That's the longest stretch of consistency since Tom Thibodeau became head coach in 2010.
That’s crucial with Chicago, which relies on team defense so much. Familiarity and teamwork matter. When they've had their sans-Rose starters, the Bulls are 29-12 on the season. That they’re healthy and in rhythm is critical. It’s also the first time since the 2011 playoffs they've entered the postseason that way.
Second, the Bulls got a major spark from Nate Robinson, whose heroics carried the Bulls to some exciting comeback wins last season. D.J. Augustin, after being picked up off the waiver wire in December, has performed that role for the Bulls this year. Will the Bulls be able to get that production from Augustin in the playoffs?
Third, will Noah continue to establish himself as a superstar on the postseason stage? The better Noah plays, the more appealing Chicago becomes to free agents eyeing a switch the Windy City.
Noah is the extremely rare elite player who doesn’t command the ball, which should make him appealing to play with for a superstar scorer like Carmelo Anthony.
For Chicago, this postseason is also an audition, and Noah is its rep.
- Derrick Rose- torn meniscus – season
Key First-Round Matchup to Watch
Usually, when you think of a matchup in a series like this, you think of a player against a player. However, in this case, the key matchup is John Wall, the Wizards' All-Star point guard, versus Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls head coach.
Over the years, Thibodeau has shown an ability to make defensive adjustments that stifle the efficiency of elite players in the postseason.
Based on data from Basketball-Reference’s Game Finder, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers has a field-goal percentage of .401 against Thibodeau’s defenses in the postseason. LeBron James has a career playoff field-goal percentage of just .413.
If Thibodeau can slow those guys down, he should be able to slow Wall down.
When the Wizards win, Wall shoots .454. When they lose, he shoots .411. If the Bulls can force Wall to be an inefficient scorer, they win the series. If Wall is going off, though, that means things are breaking down in the Bulls defense, and the Bulls don't have the offense to keep up.
The Chicago Bulls' X-factor for the postseason is D.J. Augustin. When he’s producing, the Bulls are close to unbeatable. When his game score is 10 or higher, the Bulls are 25-8. When it’s below 10, they are 20-19.
Noah will bring his daily triple-double threat. Butler will bring his elite perimeter defense. Taj Gibson will bring his tenacity and sixth-man energy. Those things are going to be constants.
The Bulls struggle with scoring, and Augustin is their best shot creator, but scoring can be sporadic. When the Bulls don’t get that lift from Augustin, they are prone to long dry spells. When that happens, they tend to lose.
Chicago will go as Augustin goes all postseason.
Keys to a First-Round Team X Victory
There are three keys to a Bulls win in the first round.
First, they absolutely must stop John Wall. When he scores 15 or more points, the Wizards are 35-22. When he’s held under that, they are 9-16. The key to stopping Wall is to turn him into a jump shooter, where he was just .348 this season.
Doing that won’t be a one-man effort, but Hinrich will draw the bulk of the chore. Per the SportVU Preview from NBA.com/STATS, Hinrich guarded Wall more than any Bulls defender. Against Hinrich, Wall was just six of 17 from the field. Though he also earned six free throws and made them all.
Noah and Gibson will have to be on point in their rotations, which they almost always are. But that also means they’ll need to remain on the court. The Bulls defense absolutely collapses when neither is there, yielding 168.1 points per 100 possessions when both players are on the bench, per NBAWowy!
Both players are highly competitive and can get carried away with their emotions at times, drawing technical fouls. They will need to keep their tempers in check. If one of them gets tossed, there will be a problem.
Second, the Bulls need to close out hard on threes. When the Bulls lose, their opponents shoot .427 from deep. When the Bovines win, they yield a .299 three-point rate. When the Wizards win, they shoot .416 from three. When they lose, they shoot .340.
The eyeball test says that when the Bulls are giving up a lot of threes, it’s because they’re not putting the same maniacal effort closing on shots that they normally do.
No human being can always be 100 percent (except for Noah). The Bulls will go through lulls, but they have to keep those to a minimum. If the Wizards start raining threes, there will be trouble.
Third, Chicago needs to win the battle of the boards. For both teams, that fight has been a barometer for winning and losing. The Wizards are 28-14 when they win or tie that war and 16-24 when they lose it.
When the Bulls get at least as many rebounds as their opponent, they’re 37-19. When they don’t, they’re 11-15. The Bulls' frontcourt and Butler, one of the league's best rebounding guards, are going to have to crash the glass hard, especially on the defensive end.
The Bulls have a far better postseason outlook than they did in that horrific span between Rose’s injury on Nov. 22 and Luol Deng’s trade on Jan 6. Over that stretch, the Bulls were 8-13, and it looked like having a playoff outlook at all was doubtful.
What they did afterward is as heroic as you can get in sports. If you’d said, in the aftermath of the Deng trade, that the Bulls would have the best record in the Eastern Conference over the remainder of the season, you’d have been mocked.
If you said that would include wins over the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Pacers and Houston Rockets, you might have been punched in the head for the express purpose of having sense knocked into it.
If you said that the Bulls would have a legitimate shot at the conference finals, you would have been institutionalized.
All of that happened, though. Somehow, the Bulls are hosting their first-round series, and they have the easiest path they could have hoped for to the conference finals.
They avoided the Brooklyn Nets, who also played exceptionally well down the stretch, when the Nets dropped their final game and the Wizards won theirs, vaulting Washington into the No. 5 seed and a series against the Bulls.
The second round is also as favorable as the Bulls could have hoped for.
While they were obliterating expectations during the 2014 portion of the year, the Pacers’ trajectory was the polar opposite, particularly down the stretch.
Starting on March 4, they went on a four-game skid. That caused a downward spiral that lasted through most of the duration of the season. Their record over those 21 games was 8-13, identical to the Bulls' record in their worst stretch.
Indiana won its last two, miraculously clinging to the top seed. Questions remain, however, over whether it has pulled out of its tailspin.
Because the Bulls lost their last game to “hold on” to the No. 4 seed, they end up on Indiana’s side of the bracket. Their late-season struggles make the Pacers the preferred second-round opponent. There’s no guarantee that the Bulls will win that series, should it occur, but there is certainly optimism they can win it.
Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago quotes Butler on the Bulls’ expectations for the postseason.
"I think we did well. We did what we were supposed to do—make it to the playoffs. Now it's time to win 16 games and bring the chip home."
Butler, typical of the Bulls, both understates what the Bulls have done and overstates what the Bulls can do. They're not going to win 16 games in the postseason. But, to a man, the Bulls believe they can win the game in front of them 16 times.
With Chicago, that’s not sharing talking points. That’s their belief in themselves. Some of what they say may seem trite, but it's genuine. Is it still a cliche if you really mean it?
Chicago doesn't know they’re not supposed to be as good as they are, and that’s why they’re as good as they are.
And, if the Bulls make it the conference finals, who knows what can happen? Maybe LeBron James springs a leak in a cyborg part? Maybe Dwyane Wade struggles through the playoffs. Maybe the Heat are exhausted from too many deep playoff runs. Maybe the Nets even upset them.
It might be a “Dumb and Dumber” chance, but I'm saying there's a chance the Bulls end up in the NBA Finals.
The more realistic scenario is a hard-fought loss to the Pacers in the second round. Even if that happens, though, just the reality of what feels like a relevant postseason has made this a feel-good season for the Chicago Bulls.