Eastern Conference 1st Round: Chicago Bulls vs. Brooklyn Nets

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These are two of the top 10 defensive teams in the entire league in terms of opponents points allowed, so you can expect a grind it out, classic playoffs series between these two teams. It may not be for the light hearted, nor the thrill seeking NBA fan but for the naturalists, this series could be one of the best to watch. It involves one team who has over-performed this season in the Bulls, and one who has under-performed in the Nets. They’re really coming from different ends of the spectrum. The Bulls weren’t supposed to still be the 5th seed without Derrick Rose and the loss of one of the best benches in the NBA this offseason. The Nets on the other hand weren’t supposed to only be the 4th seed in the East, they should’ve been top 3 at least. The season series is actually 3-1 in favor of the Bulls. So let’s break it down.

How the Bulls Win:

The Bulls are custom-made for a playoff type of game. They love to play in the half-court and they love to grind it out. They make it hard for you to score, and they don’t mind taking the full 24 seconds to score themselves. They are third best in the league in opponents points per game by allowing just under 93 points a game. Playing against the Bulls is never a picnic, and they could win this series based solely on their defensive prowess. Brooklyn is 29th in fast-break points scored per game, so it’s almost as if the Nets will be playing into the Bulls’ hands offensively. A key match-up for them defensively will be really anybody who guards Brook Lopez. Lopez has had a very impressive season this year even garnering an all-star selection after Rajon Rondo tore his ACL. He’s a deadly low-post force who averages 19 points a game.  Unfortunately, according to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, Joakim Noah may miss the entire 1st round series due to plantar fasciitis in his right foot. If he’s out, the Bulls’ gritty defense may suffer and that means other interior guys like Taj Gibson, Carlos Boozer and Nazr Mohammed are going to have to play tough against the 7 foot center. If they let him get into a rhythm  and get his confidence up than they may be out of the series before it begins. It’s not only Lopez though, their interior defense is going to have to step up in his absence or in the absence of his A game. They only give up around 39 points in the paint a game, good for 5th best in the league, and that forces teams to shoot from the outside. If the Bulls don’t step up in his absence than the Nets will win this series inside out.

They are going to need Jimmy Butler to step up as well this series. He’s been electrifying recently – giving the Bulls a lockdown perimeter defender, and a viable 1st scoring option for the Bulls when they needed it. In the month of April he averaged 14.6 points per game, 6.6 rebounds, 1.7 steals, on 56% from the three point line in 42 minutes a game. He’s done everything for them, and is going to keep that up for the Bulls to score against the Nets who aren’t a shabby defensive team in their own right. He’s going to have to lock down Joe Johnson who is a guy that can light it up in a hurry.

The Bulls have to be ready to help as well, Gerald Wallace has become a liability offensively so Luol Deng can afford to help off of him and be there if Butler needs it. Deng can afford to be a roamer offensively, because Wallace is shooting a dismal 28% from three and 39% from the field.

I think the X factor for the Bulls will be Nate Robinson and Carlos Boozer. Nate is fearless, and at 5’9 this guy has more confidence than anybody else in the league. If he is scoring, and hitting threes and getting the crowd involved and his teammates involved than the Bulls will win the series. He comes off the bench as a 6th man and if he gets going that could fuel the rest of the Bulls team. Carlos Boozer has been underwhelming since his big contract in the summer of 2010, and needs to finally claim responsibility and take the Bulls and be a primary scoring option for them. They are going to need easy points down the stretch and he needs to be a guy they can go to. He’s averaged 21 and 10 against the Bulls this season and is going to need to be consistent this series for the Bulls. The Bulls have lots of streaky offensive weapons. Lots of guys who can light it up but are usually average scorers. They’re going to need to match the firepower of the Nets offensively. The Nets are going to come at them from the outside, and from the inside with Lopez and as good as they are defensively, they won’t win if they can’t score the ball. That’s essentially the point of the game isn’t it? Put the ball in the hole. That’ll be big for the Bulls who only average 93 points a game. Every part of their offense needs to be in sync, they’re outside shooting, their points in the paint, etc.

How the Nets Win:

The Nets have had by their standards an underwhelming season. They came in with a big three of their own in Johnson, D-Will and Brook Lopez with goals of a division title at the least. Instead they fell to the 4th seed and face a tough underdog type of team in the Bulls. For the Nets to win, it’s pretty simple. It involves two things.

The first is the Nets need to keep up their top 10 defense. They allow only 95 points a game, but they have to realize they are going up against an offensively challenged team in the Bulls. That doesn’t mean they can relax, and sag off a little and let the Bulls be offensively challenged. It means they have to amp up their defense and make it even harder for the Bulls to score. If they can take the Bulls out of the series offensively in the first two games at home they could easily win the series. They don’t have a Derrick Rose anymore to score at the end of a shot clock or in the clutch. The Nets need to make it hard for everybody and apply pressure from the start. The Bulls are 29th in points per game, 21st in 3point% and 21st in points in the paint per game. There is no room for the Nets to try win solely on their offense, which they’ve done many times this season.

Second, the Nets need to play like they have a big three. They have three very viable options to score the ball, and all of them are very versatile and score the ball in their own different ways. D-Will has had an awful season by his standards but the playoffs are a new season. It’s a fresh start and he needs to come out and play like a superstar, and play like a top point guard. You have to remember, that 1 or 2 years ago the argument was who is the best point guard in the NBA: Chris Paul or D-Will? Now he’s an afterthought among the top point guards in the league. I think the playoffs can be a new start for D-Will for him to score like he used to and distribute like he used to. I don’t really think Hinrich can guard him to be honest, so he’ll have to take advantage of the match-ups against him and use the crowd to his advantage. It’s Brooklyn’s first season with a team, and now they’re their own city rooting for their own team in the playoffs. Brook Lopez has to take advantage of his match-ups as well. Joakim Noah may not play and if he does he probably won’t be 100% so he’ll be guarded by inferior defenders and guys who are a few inches shorter. He’s got to give the Nets a reliable low post offense so that the Nets don’t have to rely solely on Joe and D-Will especially because the Bulls have premier defenders in Butler and Deng. Joe Johnson has to come out like an all-star as well. He like D-Will hasn’t played great this season and this could be a fresh start for him. He has to attack Butler who is an inexperienced defender who has never been to the playoffs and experienced that intensity.

Who Will Win?

I am going to go with the Chicago Bulls on this one. I think the Mad House on Madison has been one of the toughest places to play this year, and it’s been that crowd that has given the Bulls energy on nights where they’ve had to go up against the Heat aiming for their 28th straight and the Knicks going for their 14th straight. The Bulls are very well coached by Thibodeau and defensively I think they can stop anybody whenever they want – especially against an inconsistent offensive team in the Nets. The Bulls have that trait like the Celtics where they play very much under the radar and can surprise you on any given night. They play hard on every possession and they take care of the ball, they know what it takes to win a playoff series and I think they’ll beat the Nets.

Final Prediction: Bulls in 7.

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