NBA Playoffs 2011: 10 Players Standing Between Chicago Bulls and a Championship
Chicago Bulls fans are brimming with optimism right now, and for good reason. Their team just reached the 60-win mark, their star point guard is the favorite to win the MVP, and coach Tom Thibodeau and executive Gar Forman could easily take home hardware for what they've contributed to the Bulls' success.
In the playoffs, every team has a clean slate, and everything that has happened since November means nothing (with the exception of home court advantage).
The Bulls are undoubtedly in a great position. By snatching the top seed from the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, Chicago guaranteed it would not see either of the two juggernauts until the Eastern Conference Finals. A road through Boston and Miami would have been tough for this young squad.
Yet, it's far too early to give the Bulls a free pass to the Finals. Every team that has made it to the postseason has a player or two that could give the Bulls major headaches.
Following is a list of 10 players from the teams I deemed the Bulls most likely to encounter on their path to winning the NBA Championship. Those teams are the Indiana Pacers in the first round (obviously), the Orlando Magic or Atlanta Hawks in the second round (since I think that series could go either way), the Celtics or Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals (again, that second round matchup could go either way), and the Los Angeles Lakers or San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.
First Round: Tyler Hansbrough
Last time these two teams met, the Bulls lost in overtime, despite a staggering 42 points from Derrick Rose. How did that happen?
Tyler Hansbrough came to play.
With Carlos Boozer out of the lineup, Hansbrough torched the Bulls with 29 points on 12-of-19 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds. He also served as an emotional spark for the Pacers, and in the end handed the Bulls their only divisional loss of the season.
Consider Hansbrough and the rest of the Pacers on Rose's list.
If Hansbrough plays as well in the first-round series as he did on March 18, Chicago will still probably sweep the series or take it in five. With Boozer healthy and the rotation solidified, the Bulls' top-ranked defense will find a way to limit Hansbrough's effectiveness.
The way he could make life difficult is if he can get in Boozer's head mentally. Hansbrough's demeanor and personality can frustrate opponents, both at the college level and in the NBA. Boozer is the type of player who lets blown calls get to him, so Hansbrough could use that to his advantage.
Still, the Pacers won't be much of a threat to the Bulls.
Eastern Conference Semifinals: Al Horford
Yet, the Hawks have fared very well against the Magic this season. So if the Bulls do take on the Hawks, expect shutting down Al Horford to be priority number one.
When Chicago lost to Atlanta back on March 2, Horford tied a career-high with 31 points, while also grabbing 16 rebounds and looking like a man among boys. Personally, having never really watched a Hawks game this season, I finally understood why this guy was a lock for the All-Star team.
Since that three-point loss, the Bulls have stomped the Hawks by a combined 51 points in two games. Sure Atlanta has Kirk Hinrich, who at least seems moderately capable of staying with Derrick Rose, and also have great scoring guards Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford. Yet they just don't seem like a threat.
Horford and his teammates will play well enough to steal a game from the Bulls, but that's about it. Expect Taj Gibson to log significant minutes against Horford if this matchup happens.
Eastern Conference Semifinals: Dwight Howard
I was at the Bulls-Magic game in Chicago this year when Dwight Howard put up 40 points. With or without Joakim Noah, it's pretty clear the Bulls don't have a player who can match up with Howard one-on-one.
The more pressing concern is how Howard's defensive presence is going to impact Derrick Rose and the rest of the Bulls' offense. Rose relies heavily on slashing to the hoop and laying the ball in, which is exactly what Howard eliminates. He's the best shot blocker in the league, and also one of the most physical players.
The latter point naturally makes Bulls fans nervous, because one hard foul could knock Rose out for the rest of the playoffs, no matter how tough Chicago's son may be.
Injury worries aside, the Bulls have taken care of business in the regular season against the Magic, and Thibodeau undoubtedly realizes that Orlando's strategy is to surround Howard with three-point shooters and punish opponents who double team Howard in the post.
Unfortunately for Stan Van Gundy and the rest of the Magic, the Bulls are one of the best team defenses in the league and know how to rotate on help defense. Howard may talk a big game, but when all is said and done, he'll be the one out in round two.
Eastern Conference Finals: Ray Allen
Sometimes, I still see flashes of Ray Allen from the first round of the 2008 NBA Playoffs.
Pictured here with Kyle Korver, the two epitomize just how dangerous three-point snipers can be. Teams can play fantastic defense, and it really doesn't matter when Allen or Korver have a hot hand. They both release the ball so quickly that opponents can't give them an inch of space.
As good as Allen is, and even though the Celtics are the defending Eastern Conference champs, I know I'm among the majority of Bulls fans who would rather see Boston in the conference finals than Miami.
For example, Allen is still a great shooter, but his defense has always been suspect, and he has trouble creating his own shot. With Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer hounding Allen off the ball like few other players would, you can bet the seasoned veteran will get winded.
If the Bulls ultimately play the Celtics, Allen will likely have one of his classic 25-point halves. But even though I see flashes of his brilliance from three years ago, I don't foresee him doing that again this time.
Eastern Conference Finals: Kevin Garnett
I know all the sports media have been saying Kevin Garnett is no longer vocal and doesn't have that same toughness without Kendrick Perkins. I've heard that he's getting older and no longer able to put up large point totals.
Still, I'm not willing to write Garnett off just yet, especially since he seems to have another gear for the playoffs. After all, anything is possible!
His defense should still pose problems for Carlos Boozer, who seems to struggle with longer defenders. Not that you could really tell from his recent performance against Boston (14 points, 12 rebounds). Boozer's defense will also be a recurring theme in the playoffs, as players like Horford, Garnett and Chris Bosh step in and try to take advantage of the Bulls' weakest link.
Though no team is going to come out and say this, it's pretty clear that the elite squads like Miami and Chicago no longer really view Boston as a threat to win the East. Celtics fans will point to the poor performance of last year's team headed into the playoffs, but they are just in denial.
So, onto the real Eastern Conference Finals opponent.
Eastern Conference Finals: Dwyane Wade
Having also been at the first Bulls-Heat game at the United Center this season, I can testify that watching Dwyane Wade in person is unlike anything I can remember.
In case you don't remember the exact game, LeBron James was out with an injury, and Chris Bosh also got hurt in a skirmish with Omer Asik. This left Wade and a bunch of scrubs to try to pull out a win against the Bulls.
Wade took it upon himself to win the game in his hometown, and very nearly did. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, including three straight contested three-pointers. And when I say contested, I mean there was no way anyone but Wade (or maybe Kobe) could have made that shot.
The point being, if the Bulls encounter a 2006 Finals Dwyane Wade in even one or two of their playoff games, a trip to the Finals will be in serious jeopardy. Wade, as one of the top three players in the game, can single-handedly win games on both sides of the court.
Or need I remind you of the following stat line: 39 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, five blocks and three steals. Yeah, that's pretty dominant.
The Bulls will likely throw Rose and Ronnie Brewer at Wade to try and stop him, but really, no one in the league can. Thus why the Heat are the team I don't want to face the Bulls.
Eastern Conference Finals: LeBron James
Oh, and then there's another player that can single-handedly win games on the Miami Heat. He's also the best basketball player on the planet.
Luol Deng does a better job than most guarding King James, but in the end James can still basically do whatever he wants on the offensive end. For the Bulls, it's just a matter of minimizing the damage he does.
Where LeBron is still somewhat underrated, and where he can hurt the Bulls the most, is on the defensive end.
LeBron has guarded Derrick Rose in the past, and he'd likely do it again should these two teams meet in the playoffs. James is just as fast as Rose, and is clearly longer and stronger than Chicago's star. Point being: Chicago's offense could be halted if James commits to shutting down Rose. After all, Rose is essentially the only Bulls player who can create his own shot.
Can you tell I really, really don't want the Heat to make the Eastern Conference Finals?
NBA Finals: Manu Ginobili
This one is a courtesy to the San Antonio Spurs, the number one seed in the West. But really, I have a hard time believing the Bulls, if they make it to the Finals, will see any team besides the Los Angeles Lakers.
Manu Ginobili would be a tricky matchup for the Bulls just because he's a shooting guard, which is Chicago's weakest position. Yet as the Bulls proved just before the All-Star Break, they can handle the Spurs. In a seven-game series, the younger, hungrier Bulls would likely prevail. I'm significantly more intimidated by the Heat than the Spurs.
Now, onto the other major threat to the Bulls' championship aspirations.
NBA Finals: Andrew Bynum
This could have easily been Pau Gasol instead, but I chose Andrew Bynum for many of the same reasons I talked about with Dwight Howard. Bynum is a beast down low and will force Derrick Rose into difficult shots. Gasol is tall but is softer and more finesse.
If the Bulls and Lakers square off in the Finals, I'm not sure how Tom Thibodeau will handle the twin towers in the paint. I'd like to say by using Joakim Noah and Omer Asik, but I doubt Asik will get much playing time in the postseason, as Thibs will opt for the veteran savvy of Kurt Thomas. Carlos Boozer's lack of size and defensive prowess would be a major problem.
The other reason Bynum could cause issues for the Bulls is because they haven't encountered him yet this season. With both contests against the Lakers coming before the New Year, Bynum was still injured. As Stan Van Gundy said with Dwight Howard suspended against the Bulls, his team didn't learn anything. The same could be said about the Bulls in regards to Bynum.
Of course, there's one other player on the Lakers that wants a ring more than anyone else.
NBA Finals: Kobe Bryant
Kobe, you're going for your sixth ring, not tenth!
Now? I have the utmost respect for Bryant. He went through several tough years with Los Angeles to get back to prominence. Now that he's got a great team around him, he seems determined to win as much as possible while he's still among the NBA's true elite.
Onto the practical matter for the Bulls: Who is going to guard Kobe? Bogans? Deng? Brewer? Rose? None are an ideal matchup, though Brewer could do a better job than just about anyone else in the league.
Kobe also has the playoff experience, while still having the hunger that this Bulls squad has demonstrated throughout the season. And as good of a closer as Rose has become, Kobe is still better.
Essentially, the Bulls are going to really struggle to topple the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers in the Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals, respectively. Should either or both be eliminated beforehand, Chicago could win its seventh NBA Championship.