The Bulls and Wizards will begin play on Sunday evening at the United Center in what may be the most even matchup in the Eastern Conference. The interesting thing about this matchup is that it seemed very unlikely that these teams would even be faced up against one another. The Bulls fought tooth and nail for the three seed til game 82 only to fall just short, while the Wizards briefly lost control of even the sixth seed before somehow ending up at five (the Nets resting for the final two games had something to do with this). Now, the Bulls and Wiz will fight for the right to upset Indiana or dispose of Atlanta. The Wizards won the first two matchups between the teams, while the Bulls routed the Wiz more recently in the third. Here are some of the series’ key components to keep track of:
Playoff experience can be overrated, but it’s undoubtedly important to some extent. For example, both Michael Jordan and LeBron James played more than half a dozen seasons before winning their first rings. Furthermore, Chris Paul has never made it out of the second round. On the other hand, the Thunder stormed to the Finals in 2012 on the backs of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The Bulls are playoff veterans, having made the postseason each season since Derrick Rose was drafted. Joakim Noah relishes the playoff spotlight; even in his second season, he made the famous block on Paul Pierce and ensuing coast-to-coast and-1 score. Jimmy Butler played 48 minutes three straight games last year, and Taj Gibson has played meaningful playoff minutes for five seasons.
On the other hand, the Wizards have very limited playoff experience. John Wall and Bradley Beal will get their first taste of playoff ball against the Bulls. It may be difficult for the two to adjust to the improved game-planning that comes from seeing the same opponent over and over again, especially with Tom Thibodeau running things. Nene has 44 playoff games under his belt and Trevor Ariza has actually won a ring with Kobe, so the Wizards do have some veteran leadership that’s been there before. Still, it will be interesting to see how the young team fares.
This is the biggest advantage for the Bulls in round one. For starters, Tom Thibodeau has a career winning percentage of .657 while Randy Wittman is sittin’ on a cool .367. Thibs has won more games while coaching more than 200 less than Wittman. More specifically though, Thibodeau is the top defensive coach in the league and adept at adjusting matchups on the fly. He sticks with his favorite players a little too long occasionally (ahem…Kirk Hinrich), but what coach doesn’t? (Besides Pops. Pops is a Terminator.) Wittman is literally one of the worst coaches in history. He’s lost more locker rooms than playoff series he’s won, but he did do a nice job turning this team into a legit squad. Still, if things go south for the Wizards, it’s hard to imagine Wittman making good adjustments over the course of a series.
Stat-savvy hoops fans already know that the corner 3 is the most efficient non-dunk in the game. Three is greater than two, and the corner is the shortest distance from the hoop. John Wall is the best in the league at finding open shooters in the corners, both by the numbers and the eye test. Anyone that’s watched Trevor Ariza drop 40 knows how great Wall’s passing is. On the other hand, the Bulls are excellent at keeping guys out of the corners. Even though Washington took two of three from the Bulls this year, they struggled from their usual hot spots in the corners.
A lot of the outcome of this matchup is tied up in who wins this battle. If Wall can find Beal, Ariza and Martell Webster open in the corners, not even likely DPoY Joakim Noah will be able to slow down Washington’s offense. However, limiting corner 3s is always one of Thibs’ priorities and the former CoY has no doubt been scheming all week. Keep an eye on this one.
The Bulls, as we oft discuss here, have easily the worst offense of teams still playing while the Wizards have a slightly below average offense. However, the Bulls characteristically finished the year #2 in defense and the Wizards were tied for ninth. This is not going to be a pretty series. Both teams excel at slowing the game down and beating you with their defenses, but Wall-led fastbreaks are an x-factor that could really hurt Chicago. Wall is a pickpocket in the backcourt and Trevor Ariza has earned his reputation as a top defensive stopper. Gortat does a solid job guarding the rim and Nene is excellent at altering shots while avoiding fouls.
Of course, you already know about the Bulls defense, but it’s nice to relish it sometimes. Joakim Noah will do his thing patrolling the entire half-court and it should be fun watching Jimmy Butler rack up steals and lock up Bradley Beal around the perimeter. Expect a lot of Taj Gibson, as Carlos Boozer hasn’t played in the fourth quarter in weeks. Don’t be surprised if a lot of these games end in the high 70s or 80s.
The Bulls have basically been using a playoff rotation since DJ Augustin joined the team in December. Hinrich, Butler, Dunleavy, Boozer, Noah, Gibson and Augustin play all of the significant minutes, with an occasional Nazr Mohammed or Tony Snell cameo. Washington doesn’t have the deepest rotation, but Nene’s inconsistent health has forced them to play around with a few more players. Wall, Beal and Ariza all played heavy minutes (Thibs Seal of Approval), but Trevor Booker, Drew Gooden and Al Harrington have had their minutes switched around often. Going further, the Wizards have several players between 9 and 20 minutes per game, while the Bulls rotation drops from 28 (Boozer) to 16 (Snell) to 7 (Mohammed). And Snell racked up most of his minutes when Butler was out.
Because Nene just returned to the rotation, the Wizards will try not to push him into heavy minutes. Opening up the rotation will force the Wizards to play inferior lineups when the Bulls go for the kill with Augustin, Butler, Dunleavy, Gibson and Noah to start the second and fourth quarters. If the Bulls can murder the Wizards bench lineups, the series won’t be close. Randy Wittman will have to utilize his bench effectively, which bodes well for Bulls fans. A lot is going to come down to the health and effectiveness of Nene.
PREDICTION: Bulls in 6
The Bulls have the talent and the coaching to put Washington away, and I expect them to. However, their utter lack of offense (no players averaging 15 PPG) will make it very difficult to score enough points against Washington’s legit defense. Wall has blossomed into a star point guard and will impose his will as much as possible. If the Wiz can shut down the Bulls and open up the corners, they can win the series. In the end, I think the Bulls’ defense will be too stifling and the offense will chip in enough.