If the Cavaliers are going to capture their first ever NBA title and bring a long-awaited championship to the city of Cleveland, they'll have opportunities to vanquish past demons and failures that still haunt their die-hard fans.
Sure, there's a chance to erase last year's debacle against Orlando, and 2008's excruciatingly painful Game Seven loss to Boston.
But in the first round, they'll get a chance to exact some revenge on the Bulls (for the fans' sake, of course), a team that eliminated Cleveland five times in seven years in the late '80s/early '90s.
Chicago won 10 of 14 to close the regular season and grab the eighth seed from the Toronto Raptors. One of those wins came against the Cavs, a 109-108 win last Thursday (LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal did not play).
Cleveland lost four in a row to close the regular season, all without the services of the soon-to-be back-to-back MVP. They'll attempt to become the second team in NBA history to lose four in a row to close the regular season and win the Larry O'Brien Trophy (the '70 Knicks were the other).
The Cavs looked antsy and restless in the last two weeks, like a team that was desperate to finally play a meaningful game. They'll finally get their wish on Saturday.
Most pundits and experts will immediately place the Cavs in the second round. Is this series basically a formality?
Or can the young, upstart Bulls pull a repeat performance of last year's playoffs and push Cleveland to the brink?
Let's break it down...
The Cavs and Bulls split their four meeting this year at two games apiece, but it's hard to take anything substantial from these games.
The Bulls won 86-85 on November 5, the Cavs' second home loss of the season at the time. The Cavs were tinkering with incorporating Shaq in the lineup at the beginning of the season, and were just 3-3 after the loss.
The Cavs won the next meeting 101-87 in December.
They went over three months without playing before the Cavs won at Chicago 92-85 on March 19, but the Bulls were without Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and Derrick Rose.
Finally, Chicago closed out the regular season matchup with the aforementioned 109-108 win last week.
But like I said, it's hard to take anything away from these contests. Both teams made moves at the deadline that significantly altered their lineups, and neither side had all players available in the two meetings since.
Cavs fans can take solace that they only lost by one in Chicago with no James or O'Neal, but Chicago can be confident as they are one of only four teams to win the Q this year (I'm not counting the Orlando and Indiana tank jobs).
Derrick Rose enjoyed a bit of success against the Cavs, going for 17 points and 9.3 assists per game; the Bulls were 2-1 with him in the lineup.
Not shockingly, LeBron had strong performances in his three games against Chicago, averaging 25.7 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists; the Cavs were 2-1 with James.
But all in all, I wouldn't read too much into the regular season games. Both teams will have full lineups on Saturday, and the game(s) will be played at a different tempo and style.
Instead, there are a few other factors to take into account...
Kirk Hinrich is a streaky player, but the Bulls will need him to be on if they have any chance in this series.
He's averaging 15.4 points per game in April, and has hit two or more three-pointers in seven of eight games. His performance against Boston on Tuesday might have been the best of the season; he had 30 points, connected on four three's, and hit multiple clutch shots down the stretch to give the Bulls the lead for good.
When Hinrich hits his jumper, it makes the Bulls really difficult to defend. Derrick Rose can drive the lane a bit easier knowing help can't come from Hinrich's man, and it also frees up Luol Deng for baseline and corner jumpers.
Derrick Rose, on the other hand, has been on a tear this month, averaging 25.4 points and seven assists on 54 percent shooting.
He gets into the lane at will and the Cavs have had trouble stopping quick, athletic point guards this year.
If the Bulls are going to make this a series, they'll need strong guard play, from Hinrich and Rose especially.
Mo has been sensational for the Cavs in the last eight games, going for 21.7 points, 7.2 assists, and three three-pointers on 54 percent shooting in just a little over 30 minutes per game.
I've written about this before, so I'll keep it brief. But when Mo is playing confidently on the offensive side of the ball, he gives the Cavs another dimension that makes them almost unstoppable on that side of the ball. When he doesn't, the Cavs go through long droughts.
If Mo is matching Derrick Rose's production, the Cavs shouldn't have too much of a problem in this series.
The Bulls won 10 of 14 to get the last playoff berth, and seem to be playing with the same swagger they had in the 2009 playoffs. They also won five of their last six games on the road.
They won't be lacking confidence heading into the series, which is a definite plus. If they limped into the playoffs like Detroit did last year, they wouldn't have a chance.
But they're playing their best ball of the season at the right time, and they have nothing to lose in this series, which is always dangerous for a No. 1 seed.
Cleveland's Interior Players
Shaq hasn't played in nearly two months. Even though he's starting Saturday, don't expect him to be in game shape.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas has somewhat struggled since his return; the coaching staff hasn't found the right combination with Z on the floor.
In the four games against Chicago, J.J. Hickson was incredibly inefficient, putting up just 4.5 points and 2.8 rebounds. I know I said you can't take much from the regular season, but this is a disturbing trend. The Cavs need J.J. to match Chicago's athleticism in Noah and Warrick.
The Cavs will be trying to get O'Neal back in the rotation and it could hinder some of their dominance in the paint. The Cavs can win this series if they score a high number of points in the paint and make Chicago pay for their lack of a physical presence inside.
They'll need their bigs to improve what they're currently producing.
When the Bulls shipped out John Salmons and Tyrus Thomas, they really shortened their bench.
Flip Murray is really Chicago's only bench player that can score in bunches. Other than that, they won't utilize their bench too much.
On the flip side (get it?), the Cavs have one of the deepest and most productive benches in the league. Whether or not Chicago wears down as the series progresses is something to keep your eye on.
The list could get quite long, so I'll keep it as basic as possible...
The Guards Dominate
I mentioned in the previous slide that Hinrich and Rose have combined for 40-plus points per game in April. Against the Cavs, that number needs to rise to 50.
Rose needs to own whoever the Cavs try to throw at him defensively. If it's Mo Williams, he needs to beat him one-on-one off the dribble. If it's Delonte West, he needs to use his size to get easy scoring opportunities inside. If it's LeBron James, he needs to use the pick-and-roll to get isolated with a Cleveland interior player.
Hinrich needs to knock down every single open shot he encounters. He also needs to be aggressive off the bounce and look to get some easy hoops inside. This will open up the perimeter game even more.
Joakim Noah "Out-Varejao's" Anderson Varejao
I'm looking forward to this matchup the most. The two best energy guys in the league will have their motors turned up to 11 for this series.
Noah had double-digit rebounding performances in each game against the Cavs. Quite frankly, other than Varejao, the Cavs don't have anyone who is quick enough to constantly have a body on Noah (maybe Hickson, but we'll get to that in the next slide).
But Noah's biggest asset is that he gets in opponent's heads. Varejao is an emotional player, and if Noah has success, he can mess with Anderson's psyche. In turn, Varejao might be thrown off his game a bit.
If Noah can produce and be the most energetic player on the floor, the Bulls get a huge lift in the paint.
Make Someone Besides LeBron James Beat Them
Sounds simple enough, right?
Last year, this would have been a lot easier. But the Bulls have quite a challenge in trying to slow down James, who is sure to be focused, energetic, and intense.
I'm not going to try and break down how the Bulls can keep James under control, because I don't know if it can be done. But for their sake, they better find a way.
Win One for Vinny
It seems evident that Vinny Del Negro probably won't be back next year; management and Del Negro have been taking pot shots at each other all year and have yet to be on the same page.
But it looks like the Bulls players have somewhat rallied around their coach. It appears they don't dislike playing for him and have given great effort down the stretch.
If they can pull off one of the playoff's biggest upsets ever, it'll be hard for Chicago to fire Del Negro.
They Shake Off the Rust
The Cavs haven't played a meaningful game in nearly two weeks. LeBron James sat the last four games, Shaq missed the last two months, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison were used sparingly, and the team played with zero intensity or interest down the stretch (not that any was needed, of course).
If there's one chink in the Cleveland's armor though, it's that they haven't responded to change very well this year; it's taken them time to adapt to new players, injuries, rotations, etc.
If Chicago comes in and steals Game One, it puts Cleveland in a big hole. But if the Cavs can defend home court without playing their best basketball (I'm going out on a limb and saying their best games won't be the first two of this series), it should be a good sign that they can close this series out quickly.
J.J. Hickson Is a Factor
This isn't a necessity for the Cavs to win, but if J.J. gives strong, productive minutes, it'll be icing on the cake.
Hickson will move back to the bench when O'Neal returns to the starting five. He hasn't played his best off the pine this year; in fact, he gives his biggest contributions when he plays with LeBron and Shaq.
Mike Brown has to find a way to get J.J. minutes, and to not yank him whenever he has a defensive lapse or two. His athleticism and energy will be difficult for someone like Taj Gibson to defend.
Get him in during the end of the first quarter so he can get some minutes with LeBron. At the beginning of the second, he can play off Shaq and attack the glass.
J.J.'s had performances in three of the biggest regular season games of the season (vs. Orlando, vs. L.A.L., vs. Atlanta). He can be a playoff X-factor if properly utilized.
Antawn Jamison Takes Over
That's right, Antawn Jamison.
If the Bulls throw Luol Deng at LeBron, it means Taj Gibson, James Johnson, or Hakim Warrick will have to guard Jamison. None of them have the athletic ability to keep up with him when he stretches out on the perimeter.
Potentially going against two rookies, Jamison should find success using his array of low post moves, whether it's the up-and-under, flip shot, scoop shot, whatever.
The Cavs should go to Antawn early and often and let him set the tone.
They Make Free Throws
They're the worst the FT shooting team in the league. But there are capable shooters on the team, and most players believe it's more of a mental problem than mechanical.
Now's the time to focus and, you know, actually make a few of them.
This is going to be a hard-fought series between a young, scrappy team and a talented squad with one goal in mind.
Cleveland's rust is what worries me the most. How do they get back in game shape, and how do they play with the return of Shaq?
In the end, the Cavs' depth and balance will be too much for the Bulls to overcome. But Chicago won't go quietly.
I'm going with Cleveland in the first two games, but the Bulls fight back and win No. 3 and No. 4 in Chicago. After that, ESPN runs 500 "what's wrong with the Cavs" stories per hour and Cleveland fans (including me) start looking for the nearest bridge.
But after a wake-up call, the Cavs roll in a do-or-die Game Five and close out Chicago in Game Six. It turns out to be the best-case first-round scenario for the Cavs, and they'll be more than ready for Miami or Boston.
Final Prediction: Cavs in Six