In case you haven't heard, the Chicago Bulls are officially back in the elite class of the NBA. In the game before the All-Star break, the Bulls beat the San Antonio Spurs, the team with the best record in the NBA. Two games into the second half, Chicago beat the Miami Heat for the second time this season.
Sure both of those wins were at home, and in between them the Bulls fell to the Toronto Raptors on the road, but a 41-17 record speaks for itself.
At this point in the season, it has become pretty clear which teams are going to represent the Eastern Conference in the playoffs, though the seeding is still up in the air. The Bulls seem to be jockeying with the Celtics and Heat for the top spot, the Magic and Hawks appear destined to face each other as the fourth and fifth seeds, and the new-look Knicks are the team none of the top three want to draw in the first round.
So, how do the Bulls match up with these seven probable playoff teams? If this team does what it's capable of, it could see any of these teams in the first round, second round and Conference Finals en route to the NBA Finals.
The Chicago Bulls are the only team in the NBA that is undefeated within their own conference at 12-0. That's not particularly surprising when the next-best team in the Central Division, the Indiana Pacers, will likely be the seventh or eighth seed.
Chicago has had no problem with Indiana so far this season, winning at home 92-73 and 110-89, and taking it to the Pacers in Indianapolis, 99-86. This alone makes it pretty clear that this playoff matchup would not last more than five games.
Why though? Simply put, the Pacers are not as talented as the Bulls. Danny Granger is probably Indiana's best player, and yet Luol Deng is arguably better, despite being the fourth-best player on the Bulls squad.
Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison are quality young players at the center and point guard positions respectively, which could be one reason why the Miami Heat have struggled against them so far. Unfortunately for the Pacers should they draw the Bulls in Round 1, Chicago has Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
Bulls in 4
The Bulls have split their contests so far with the Philadelphia 76ers. They won a lopsided December game 121-76 at home, but then fell in Philly 105-99 in January. Should the Bulls be concerned with a first-round matchup with Doug Collins' squad?
All that loss shows is the Bulls' bad habit of playing down to their opposition, and not being a particularly strong road team. That sounds bad on the surface, but time and time again Derrick Rose and Co. have proven that they will rise to the occasion when the lights are brightest and the stakes are the highest.
The thing about the 76ers, like the Pacers, is that they are just not as talented from top to bottom as the Bulls are. Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand and Jrue Holiday are all good players, don't get me wrong, but are they superstars on the level of Rose and Carlos Boozer? Not a chance.
The Bulls should have no problem against the 76ers in the first round, though they might drop a game on the road.
Bulls in 5
Here's the team Boston, Miami and Chicago are trying to avoid in the first round.
It's not because adding Carmelo Anthony made the New York Knicks an objectively better squad. As experts and analysts have explained in thorough detail, the Knicks gave up a significant amount to get Melo.
Yet when it comes down to it, no top team wants to face-off against two All-Star starters in the first round. Just ask Miami after New York beat them in South Florida.
Interestingly enough, the Bulls lost both games to the old Knicks, both in Chicago and New York. It's misleading to use those past two contests to determine how the Bulls will fare against these Knicks.
Still, the style New York wants to play has not changed, and it clashes with the Bulls establishing their defense. In both games the Knicks have surpassed the century mark, which generally does not bode well for Chicago's chances of winning. Of the Bulls' 17 losses, 12 have come when the opposition scored at least 100 points.
With all that said, it's hard to make a prediction, but the Bulls should eventually win since they have the best player (Rose), will have home court advantage and have had more time to develop chemistry.
Bulls in 7
Amazingly, the Bulls have yet to face the Atlanta Hawks this season. And now when they do, the Hawks will have insider information on several Bulls players thanks to newly acquired Kirk Hinrich.
At this point, it seems like the Bulls would encounter the Hawks in the second round of the playoffs, provided Chicago steals the top seed from Miami and Boston. This would likely mean that the Bulls easily defeated the Pacers/76ers, while the Hawks struggled with the Orlando Magic.
Those are all hypotheticals though. All things equal, the Bulls should take down the Hawks, even though Atlanta is one of the more balanced teams in the East.
Here are the matchups between starters. The bolded players have the advantage.
Derrick Rose vs. Kirk Hinrich
Keith Bogans vs. Joe Johnson
Luol Deng vs. Marvin Williams
Carlos Boozer vs. Josh Smith
Joakim Noah vs. Al Horford (tie)
Atlanta's multifaceted attack and playoff experience could give the young Bulls a run for their money, but the Bulls are so good on their homecourt and have proven themselves time and time again during the regular season, despite often lacking Noah or Boozer.
Bulls in 6
Without Joakim Noah in late January and with Derrick Rose battling stomach ulcers, Dwight Howard marched into the United Center and put up 40 against the Bulls' top-notch defense.
Yet the Bulls still won. Imagine what will happen once their star center is back to full strength?
The jury is still out on whether the in-season massive trade helped or hurt the Magic, but it did not seem to bother the Bulls. The "Big Three" of Rose, Boozer and Deng led the Bulls to a victory, with Rose shooting miserably but dishing out 12 assists.
Earlier in the season the Bulls were blown out at home by the Magic, but again, that was a different Orlando team, and it was also the Bulls' first game with Boozer in uniform.
I don't need to waste my time or yours with a matchup breakdown like with the Hawks. Jason Richardson and Dwight Howard are clearly better than Keith Bogans and Joakim Noah. But you can bet Ronnie Brewer can negate Richardson and Tom Thibodeau has a defensive game-plan for stopping Howard and Orlando's outside shooting.
It'll be interesting to see how this Magic team is playing at season's end, but right now they are not gelling as well as the Bulls are, and with home-court advantage, Chicago will prevail.
Bulls in 7
All of a sudden, I'm much less intimidated by the Boston Celtics.
That's not to say that the Celtics are not a good team without Kendrick Perkins—they're first place in the Eastern Conference despite missing him for nearly the entire season.
Yet now they've lost their big enforcer down low. Forget Joakim Noah's new size advantage, who is going to prevent Derrick Rose from getting to the rim? Glen Davis and Jeff Green? Yeah right.
It's still not going to be easy. Boston has four All-Stars on its roster while the Bulls have just one (and four fringe All-Stars). This squad has more playoff experience together than any other in the conference, and it's hard to bet against the Eastern Conference champs.
Still, I've maintained that the Celtics would rather see any team but the Bulls in the playoffs, because they are equally as talented, younger, and have a head coach who knows the Celtics' personnel better than any other coach.
This series will likely come down to which team has the home-court advantage. Since I believe the Celtics will fade a bit down the stretch, I think that team will be the Bulls, and therefore I think they take the series.
Bulls in 7
The Chicago Bulls are 2-0 against the Miami Heat this season. Clearly, they've got the South Beach Trio figured out, right?
Three flaws with that argument:
1. Both of those games were in Chicago.
2. In the first game, the Heat were without LeBron James and without Chris Bosh for the fourth quarter.
3. In the second game Chris Bosh, had one of the worst shooting performances in NBA history.
You could argue that the Bulls were without Joakim Noah in game one, but he's nowhere near as significant as James. You could argue that Bosh is just a soft, wimpy player. And I'd agree, but he's not 1-for-18 bad. We all know that.
Simply put, this is the Bulls' worst matchup. Sure the Heat are not a deep team, but with the Three Egos, they don't have to be. Additionally, the Heat have yet to play with their best five healthy: James, Wade, Bosh, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem. Getting the latter two healthy is going to make more of a difference than people realize.
I'm hoping the Bulls don't have to face the Heat until the Eastern Conference Finals, because even if Chicago has home-court advantage, I'm not sure it has enough firepower to extinguish the Heat.
Heat in 7