Ed. note: Welcome our newest contributor at WARR, Michael Walton II, who will follow the Chicago Bulls and the NBA throughout this playoff season.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and burgeoning high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
The Chicago Bulls have had an amazing season, it has been a season not unlike our notorious Chicago winter weather. Both can amount to an unthinkable string of ups-and-downs, especially this year. Just when you think it can’t get any colder outside, you turn on the news and see a -30° forecast.
Same thing once you get to the sports part of the broadcast: as quickly as Derrick Rose hits a game-winning floater over the Knicks on Halloween night, he’s felled with another injury and out for another year. Could that be a nice subtle transition into winter coming? Nope — just the calm before the snow. Luol Deng was having a great year, right? How about we ship him off to that JUCO team over in Cleveland.
At about this time, both Chicago weather and the Bulls were both written off as disasters — the polar vortex gripped the city and the Bulls were in salary dumps-ville, letting go of one of its most well-traveled veterans, looking forward to letting the deep freeze of a draft lottery-bound campaign take over them.
But well before the city received any relief in the air, the Bulls managed to heat up the United Center, with one of the NBA’s best records in the 2014 calendar year (36-16), bringing itself up from outside the playoff bubble to a possible dark horse position as the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed.
Its clear that with the team’s solid, restructured rotation and its continued dedication to team defense, ranking as the Association’s best scoring defense.
Now heading into the playoffs, the Bulls have drawn the golden ticket. They have been presented with, what I believe, is their best path to a seventh NBA Finals appearance.
The Bulls will play the Washington Wizards in the first round, a team that has had some success against them in the regular season. But I believe that if the Bulls beat the Wizards, they match-up very well with the Indiana Pacers (actually anyone matches up well with the Pacers nowadays).
I would also would like the Bulls’ chances against the Miami Heat in a seven game slugfest, in which Miami could likely be weary from two series against teams with size (Charlotte and Brooklyn/Toronto series winner) and four straight seasons of playing basketball deep into May, at least. But before we start making plans for another Grant Park gathering, lets make sure to not overlook the dangerous Wizards. The Bulls can handle this team but they will have to make sure to play fundamentally sound basketball in a match with an athletic, likely fearless group of up-and-comers.
Chicago Bulls vs. Washington Wizards (Head to Head)
Record: Bulls (1-2); Wizards (2-1)
Points per game: Bulls (92.3); Wizards (92)
Field goal percentage: Bulls (44%); Wizards (47%)
3-point field goal percentage: Bulls (39.7%); Wizards (35.6%)
Rebounds: Bulls (40.3 — 10.6 offensive); Wizards (38.6 — 10 off.)
Bulls: The past two seasons, this category has been the glaring weakness on the Bulls. A system-driven team, the Bulls expect to play excellent defense, limit turnovers and rebound the ball every night, that much is a given. But without the services of Derrick Rose, the Bulls have struggled mightily to produce enough points on a consistent basis. After the trade of Luol Deng, the Bulls rallied around Joakim Noah and his triple-double capabilities. Thibs has the offense running through him, and this move has enabled Noah to show off his passing skills like never before. Noah has been so effective as a point-center that he became the first center to lead his team in assists since the 1993-94 season.
The Bulls run a very balanced offense, a system predicated on timing and lots of motion. They share the ball, as their top-ten ranking in assists indicates. Many have predicted the lack of an offensive-minded star player puts an absolute ceiling over the Bulls’, however I see it as a possible benefit. The Bulls have six players who score in double figures on a nightly basis. Noah is the facilitator from the high post, often freeing up opponents’ top rim protectors away from the paint. This frees up the Bulls to attack the basket and establish penetration, which can open up perimeter shots. Chicago has managed to hit these shots against the Wiz (39.7 3-pt % vs. Washington).
Most Interesting Statistic: In 23 minutes and 41 seconds guarded by Trevor Ariza this season, Jimmy Butler has shot 20% from the field.
Wizards: The Wizards are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, achieving success with a plan similar to the one used by the Bulls. The Wizards feature tough on-ball defense, they sharing the ball and they are most explosive with a number one overall draft pick point guard formerly coached by John Calipari on the floor (sound familiar?).
Luckily for the Wizards, they’ll have the services of John Wall available to make the offense hum. Wall gets to the rim with ease and finds open spot-up shooters. He has been completely healthy for the first time in awhile, and coach Randy Wittman has benefited from that tremendously.
The key to the Wizards offense is pace. When they speed up and get out in transition they are lethal. The Wizards score approximately 101 points a game, and if they hit that mark in any game against the Bulls, it would be safe to assume that they were victorious.
Most Interesting Statistic: John Wall has had his best year passing the ball. He ranked second in the NBA with 8.8 assists per game.
Bulls: I’m not going to bore you to death with the obvious here: the Chicago Bulls are the best defensive team in the NBA. They have three players who are possible all-defensive team selections. They have the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah. This is perhaps the best Bulls defense since coach Thibs came to Chicago. Their success comes from their dedication to the Thibodeau system.
Packing the paint and daring teams to shoot the outside jumper, the Bulls will have to deepen their typical plan for defense against a young Wizards team that may not be prepared for the grind of the playoffs.
Taj Gibson and Noah boosts the defense by using their versatile ability to switch out on guards and deny drives to the rim. In this match-up it is obvious that the Bulls will need to limit Wall, but it is important that Chicago doesn’t forget to keep Bradley Beal in check. This doesn’t appear to be too major an issue because Jimmy Butler has done a great job on Beal this year. However Beal is a legitimate 40% 3-point shooter, and you never know when a shooter is going to get hot in the playoffs.
Most Interesting Statistic: Jimmy Butler is in the top five in steals in the NBA this season, ranking No. 4 with 1.9 steals per game.
Wizards: The Wizards are no slouches on the defensive end either, ranking in the top ten in points allowed. They have great individual defenders in Trevor Ariza and John Wall and as a team they get around eight steals a game, which helps fuel their transition offense. The Wizards defense isn’t as dominant as the Bulls, but they are very effective at muddling up opponents offenses.
Most Interesting Statistic: Nene averages five fouls per 48 minutes.
Bulls: This is where the Bulls hold the biggest advantage. Tom Thibodeau entered Chicago in 2010 and almost single-handedly changed the Chicago Bulls culture. The team has taken on a never-back-down mentality, just like their coach. Thibs is very good at making in-game adjustments, which is as important as anything in the playoffs. The only time that I can remember Thibs being out-coached is when LeBron was assigned to guard Derrick Rose back in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals. I look for the Bulls to have an effective plan to slow down the Wizards backcourt duo if not shut them down. Never underestimate coach Thibs.
Most Interesting Statistic: Since taking over the Bulls in 2010, Thibs has never posted a regular season win percentage below .500.
Wizards: Randy Wittman has done an excellent job changing the Wizards’ losing culture. With a lot of help from management, including several trades to bring in the likes of Nene and Marcin Gortat, the Wiz have managed to put together an unexpectedly great season. It is a nice story to see Wittman leading this overall inexperienced team into battle against the seasoned Bulls. Wittman will need to make some astute coaching moves, (perhaps more minutes for veteran Andre Miller?), but he will need to keep this team calm and poised under pressure to stay out of trouble.
Most Interesting Statistic: In ten seasons as a player Wittman averaged 0.8 turnovers per game. Doesn’t really say anything about his coaching, that’s just REALLY good.
This series will come down to two factors: coaching and offense. Both teams are excellent on the defensive end — the Wizards have a much better offense, but the Bulls defense is so locked-in right now that it is hard to imagine the Wizards being able to reach 100 points consistently.
At some point in the playoffs the Bulls will need someone to break out and be a supreme shot-maker (à la Nate Robinson last season)…but in this series they can chill. Behind tough defense, great rebounding and ball-control, I expect the Bulls to win this series 4-1.
Other Playoff Predictions
San Antonio Spurs vs. Dallas Mavericks — Spurs in five
Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trail Blazers– Trail Blazers in seven *UPSET ALERT*
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Memphis Grizzlies— Thunder in five
Los Angeles Clippers vs. Golden State Warriors-
Clippers in four (ed. note: one pick down)
Indiana Pacers vs. Atlanta Hawks —
Pacers in four (ed. note: two picks down; give him a break, this is his first time, plus Indiana is just a disappointment to everyone)
Miami Heat vs. Charlotte Bobcats — Heat in five
Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets — Raptors in seven *(Sort of) UPSET ALERT*
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