April 13, 2011

Can any team challenge the Bulls in the playoffs?

Since about mid-January, when Chicago started to truly wreak havoc on the rest of the NBA, there’s been a sneaking suspicion among Bulls fans that this year might just have been too good to be true.
Maybe with his close ties to the Boston Celtics, Tom Thibodeau is actually working undercover to sabotage the Bulls’ playoff hopes.
Perhaps it’s all just been a dream, and Ron Mercer and Greg Anthony will reemerge in the Bulls’ backcourt one morning.
Or maybe the stars really are starting to align for this young Bulls team.
In the Eastern Conference, their two strongest opponents are still struggling to find an identity heading into the playoffs, which is hardly ever a good thing in April.
The Miami Heat, while flashy and undeniably explosive, have looked like they’re playing with three guys in most games this season, a flaw that’s proven particularly fatal against the team-oriented Bulls. Miami is great on the perimeter, but beyond that, they struggle with a painfully large amount of uncovered floor on defense.
Expect the Heat to roll past their first round opponent, but to struggle against Boston or Orlando, both of who take pride in careful floor spacing.
As most NBA analysts have reasoned since last summer, if the Heat can add a strong post-presence and a bit of shooting, this team will be one-seed material for the next half-decade.
With the Boston Celtics, it’s much more difficult to say. And by difficult, I mean old.
The Celtics are just 14-12 since trading Kendrick Perkins and 9-11 in their last 20 games (as of April 13). They’ve played this sort of late-season possum before, and have either gotten really good by now or are beginning to panic.
I just find it hard to believe that Ray Allen will be held to seven points (3-11 from the field) in the playoffs, as he was against Chicago on April 7.
In the West, there are probably just two championship contenders, both of which having been there recently.
First, the regular-season wins leader in the San Antonio Spurs (61-20). You have to respect the longevity and success of Gregg Popovich—one of the five best coaches of the last 20 years, as far as I’m concerned. But the struggles of the Spurs seem to run adjacent to the Celtics­—do they have enough ammo off the bench? If so, expect Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker to dazzle in the playoffs.
The other challenger from the Western Conference is, of course, the Lakers, but like always, there’s drama in downtown Los Angeles.
After winning 17 of 18 games, the Lakers (up until last night when they defeated the Spurs’ bench as Ginobili, Parker and Duncan all sat) had lost five in a row for their longest such streak of the season. Of the last 12 NBA champions, only the 2004 Detroit Pistons have lost more than that consecutively (six games).
Then came the Lakers’ loss of Andrew Bynum against the Spurs Tuesday night (hyperextended right knee). No disrespect to Joe Smith and Theo Ratliff, but Pau Gasol is going to have an awfully difficult time down low without the presence of Bynum.
If Kobe Bryant has taught us anything over the years, however, it’s that he should never, ever be disregarded. And while this is likely Phil Jackson’s last year on the bench, I have to think he’ll to do everything in his power to ride into the sunset with one last ring.
The Lakers are the two-time defending champions for a reason.
That all goes back to this Bulls team, who as of mid-April, have begun to look like an organization riding destiny. They’ve beaten every team in the NBA this season, while Tom Thibodeau, in his stern but painfully consistent manner, has had an answer for everything. Each defensive misstep (although rare) seems to have an easy solution.
The Finals? Don’t ask. He’s worried about the Bulls’ first round matchup with the Indiana Pacers.
When it’s all said and done, the Bulls will have the Most Valuable Player, likely the Coach of the Year, and arguably the Executive of the Year after Gar Foreman and John Paxson picked up Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and Kurt Thomas in the aftermath of the LeBron James saga (not to mention Carlos Boozer).
Chicago is, as commentator Stacey King has emphatically described point guard Derrick Rose time and time again, “too big, too strong, too fast, too good.”

Matt McKinney
Matt McKinney is a senior majoring in creative writing and minoring in journalism. His experience with journalism ranges from a year as co-sports editor for TKS to an internship with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he used his Spanish language skills to report a front-page story on changes to federal immigration policy. He has also written for The Galesburg Register-Mail and Knox’s Office of Communications. Matt is the recipient of the 2012 Knox College Kimble Prize for Feature Journalism and two awards from the Illinois College Press Association, including a first place award for sports game coverage. He is currently interning virtually with The Tampa Bay Times and will pursue his master's next year at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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