Playoff Preview: Hawks vs. Bulls
It couldn’t have worked out any better for the Chicago Bulls, could it have? While Indiana played them well in the first round, it was still the team with the best record in the league up against the only playoff team with a sub-.500 record. Now they’re up against an Atlanta team that would’ve been considered underdogs had they not lost Kirk Hinrich for the series to a hamstring injury. This should be a relatively easy series for the Bulls, right?
Well, that’s what we said about Round 1 and the Pacers.
Atlanta is playing the best ball of their season right now, and they beat an Orlando team in six games that many thought they had no business beating. Depending on how much momentum Atlanta carries into this series, and how good the Bulls end proving they actually are, this could be closer than anyone expects. Or it could be quick and painless. The mystery of it is what makes this series so watchable.
Point Guard: Jeff Teague vs. Derrick Rose
We’re not sure yet what Atlanta will do to make up for the loss of the only real point guard the organization has any faith in, but it’s either going to be extended minutes for Teague or the sliding of Jamal Crawford into the starting lineup. Assuming Larry Drew wants to keep his playoff rotation in tact (and Crawford’s scoring off the bench is a huge part of that), Teague as the new starter seems to be the direction we’re headed, even though he only played a total of 9 minutes in the series against Orlando.
If it is Crawford, you’re looking at quite a bit more offensive production out of that spot, but neither he nor Teague will be much competition for the man C.J. Watson seems to have leaked will be the MVP. Derrick Rose is the best player in this series, meaning no matter how you shake it, he’s getting the better of this matchup. Kirk Hinrich would’ve made it harder on him, but even in that case it would be hard to bet against D-Rose.
Shooting Guard: Joe Johnson vs. Keith Bogans
Keith Bogans does exactly one thing—hit the open three—and Joe Johnson does a little bit of everything, scoring from all over the floor, running defenders around screens and creative havoc on the offensive end of the floor. It shouldn’t be any secret that JJ is going to end up with the upper hand in this matchup. Whether it’s Bogans or Ronnie Brewer (and especially if it’s Kyle Korver) guarding Johnson, he’s going to score a ton of points and play a ton of minutes. He’ll wear out Chicago’s entire shooting guard core all season long.
Small Forward: Josh Smith vs. Luol Deng
In terms of numbers and their importance to their teams, Smith and Deng are pretty evenly matched. Deng is a little more integral offensively for the Bulls than Smith is for Atlanta, but Smith is one of the better defensive players in the entire league. That could spell trouble for Deng and his ability to take some of the scoring load off of Derrick Rose, and ultimately that’s what gives Atlanta a slight edge at the small forward spot. Deng’s no slouch on defense either, so expect both players to see a slight dip in scoring numbers this series, but Smith’s defense is one of the Hawks’ best assets. Both players are important, but Smith slightly more so.
Power Forward: Al Horford vs. Carlos Boozer
Two years ago it would’ve been easy to say that Boozer was the better of these two players, but not anymore. Even if Boozer wasn’t rendered virtually useless on the offensive end of the floor last series, he’d still be dealing with the turf toe he suffered in the final game of the Pacers series. Defensively, he’s atrocious, and that’s going to cause problems for Chicago considering he’s guarding one of the better post scorers in the league. Horford’s 12 ppg in the Magic series weren’t unbelievable, but they were enough to cause headaches for the Magic, which means they’ll cause headaches for Boozer and his sieve defense, too.
It should be noted that there’s a reasonable possibility that this matchup ends up looking more or less even by the time everything’s all said and done, but Boozer’s injury and recent string of poor showings makes it seem as though Horford will end up with at least a slight advantage in this series.
Center: Jason Collins vs. Joakim Noah
When looking at how many matchups in the starting lineups favor Atlanta, it would easy to start making the assumption that they had more talent on their roster. However, when you consider that two of the toughest positions on the floor to fill—point guard and center—create such obvious disadvantages for the Hawks, the picture starts looking a whole lot different.
It’s not that Collins is a bad player, because he’s not. It’s just that he doesn’t play a ton of minutes per game, and neither he nor Zaza Pachulia can match Noah’s energy and effort on either end of the floor. Towards the end of the Indy series, Noah came alive, and now that he’s in the second round of the postseason for the first time in his career it’s hard to imagine him playing any less jacked. As long as he can channel that energy, he’ll handle Atlanta’s centers pretty easily. What could end up being more fun to watch are the instances when Noah and his former college teammate Al Horford end up defending one another.
Bench: Jamal Crawford, Marvin Williams, and Zaza Pachulia vs. Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, and Kurt Thomas.
If giving an advantage to a bench was just a matter of comparing Crawford to any other single Bulls reserve, Atlanta would clearly have an advantage. He led his team in scoring in the first round, dropping 20.5 ppg, and he did it from the bench. There isn’t any other playoff team whose leading scorer is a reserve. Not even close.
So yeah, the Hawks have the single best bench player in this series, but that doesn’t mean the rest of their rotation is better off than Chicago’s Bench Mob. The Bulls’ second unit is easily one of the best in the league. The sheer mass of solid reserves they have compared to Atlanta’s Crawford and Marvin Williams gives Chicago an advantage here.
Coach: Larry Drew vs. Tom Thibodeau
Both Drew and Thibodeau are in the midst of their first NBA playoffs as head coaches, so in terms of experience you wouldn’t think there’d be a big difference. Thibs, however, has been in the coaching business a heck of a lot longer, is only a few years removed from winning a championship as head assistant for the Boston Celtics, and is in serious contention for the Coach of the Year award. Conversely, there were times this season when some weren’t sure whether Drew would keep his job.
Thibodeau’s system—particularly the defensive aspect of it—should prove to be the difference in this series. If his players buckle down and defend the way Thibs has expected them to all season (and postseason) long, the Hawks don’t look too threatening. They’re a jump-shooting team, and that’s the kind of situation where Thibodeau’s coaching can make a big difference.
Overall, it looks like Chicago has got the talent and coaching to win this series, but the way this year’s playoffs have gone you just can’t know how things will actually play out. The Bulls were supposed to handle Indiana easily, too, but that didn’t happen. The Spurs were supposed to win their series, and Denver was supposed to put up more of a fight, and Dwight Howard was supposed to be too much for Atlanta’s bigs. None of that ended up happening, and this series could be equally unpredictable.
For the sake of entertainment, let’s hope so.
Final Prediction: Bulls in 5