POSTED: Apr 17, 2014 8:50 AM ET
Joakim Noah and John Wall will be relied upon heavily by their teams.
The Chicago Bulls have spent this season overcoming losses. A season-ending injury to Derrick Rose. A 3-13 stumble in November and December. The financially motivated January trade of leading scorer Luol Deng. But despite all of that, the Bulls have been 21-9 since the All-Star break, and have seemingly rediscovered the uncompromising style of play that has defined the franchise under coach Tom Thibodeau.
Conversely, the Washington Wizards have spent this season in acquisition mode. Inking John Wall to a long-term extension over the summer. Making a bold trade for Marcin Gortat to replace the injured Emeka Okafor. Moving for Andre Miller at the trade deadline. These were all moves designed to reinforce the team's growing foundation, with an underlying belief that anything less than a playoff berth this season was unacceptable.
And now after 82 games, the Bulls and Wizards have finished one spot away from each other in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff race, setting up against each other in a first-round series that tips on Sunday night in Chicago (7 ET, TNT). The Bulls excel on defense and struggle on offense. The Wizards are closer to average in both categories. Somewhere, out of all these contrasts, a series winner will emerge.
When we spoke with Wall this summer, he admitted that making a playoff debut this season was one of his goals.
"I'm not even trying to make predictions, but I have to get to the playoffs," Wall said. "This is my fourth year, and the point of being a franchise player or a leader, as a point guard, is you have to be known as a winner. I don't want to be someone who didn't get their team to the playoffs."
Joakim Noah: The Most Intense Player in the NBA
Now they're in, for the first time since 2008. Washington averaged just over 100 points per game this season, largely spurred by Wall's dynamic play. Wall not only was named "dunker of the night" during the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend, he also made his first All-Star Game appearance, where the Eastern Conference coaches selected him as a reserve.
Meanwhile, the Bulls barely have offense in their playbook. Despite a brief post-All-Star flash in which the Bulls became a veritable offensive juggernaut, scoring over 100 points four games in a row -- the first time that has ever happened under Tom Thibodeau -- the Bulls will never be confused with the Doug Moe Nuggets. The Bulls finished the season dead last in the NBA in points per game, averaging just 93.7 points per contest. But they also finished second in the NBA in defensive rating, allowing only 97.8 points per 100 possessions, while showcasing the possible Kia Defensive Player of the Year, Joakim Noah.
What really matters for the Bulls isn't that they score a ton of points -- they just need to score more than you can score against their air-tight defense. So good luck with that, Washington.
1. How did these teams fare against each other in regular season meetings? The Wizards won 2 of 3 against the Bulls this season. They actually first met in October in an exhibition game in Brazil. As far as the games that count, in January the Wizards ended a five-game Chicago win streak, 102-88. Four days later, the Wizards again beat Chicago, 96-93. More recently, two weeks ago the Bulls thumped the Wizards, 96-78, in a game that Nene missed due to injury.
2. Will Washington be able to score against Chicago's D? In those three regular season games against Chicago, the Wizards averaged 92 points per game, well below their season average of 100.4. The good news? The Bulls only averaged 92.3 ppg against Washington. What's interesting is that the Wizards actually shot the ball pretty well against Chicago -- just over 47 percent from the floor. And Wall totaled a tidy 23-for-46 against the Bulls, averaging 20.7 ppg.
3. Who is the most important person making their playoff debut not named John Wall? Even though he's been a head coach now for parts of eight seasons and over 500 games, this is Washington coach Randy Wittman's first trip to the postseason. On the other sideline, Thibodeau has logged 34 playoff games in his three seasons in Chicago. Although his voice usually sounds like he's coached 334 playoff games.
4. Where can the Wizards find points against Chicago's defense? Definitely not in the midrange. As you can see from the aggregate shot chart of their games against Chicago, they were a combined 9-for-35 from 8-to-16 feet. But they shot above the league average from 16 feet and out, from several of the floor areas.
5. We know they can defend, but can Chicago score enough to win? Actually, it may come down to, can they make enough 3-pointers to win? In their three regular season games against the Wizards, the Bulls attempted almost 23 3-pointers per game, more than they averaged against any team other than Oklahoma City. They made 9 per game against Washington this season.
Their low scoring numbers are partly a function of pace -- the Bulls prefer to slow games down and limit possessions. But it's also because of a lack of a real offensive leader. Deng and Rose were their leading scorers, but in their absence the Bulls have used a more balanced approach. Six players average double-figure points per game (and Kirk Hinrich is just behind them at 9.1 ppg). D.J. Augustin leads the Bulls at 14.9 points per game, and is also their best perimeter shooter. Hinrich, Mike Dunleavy and Jimmy Butler also help spread the floor with their outside shooting. Carlos Boozer is one of Chicago's more versatile scorers, though he generally sits in the second and fourth quarters as Thibodeau prefers going with a more defense-oriented lineup.
For Chicago, Noah is as essential on offense as he is on defense. He seems to spend most of his time up around the top of the key, both setting screens and serving as almost a point-center; Noah actually leads the Bulls with 5.4 assists per game. Washington will load the paint and try to keep the Bulls off the free-throw line.
The Wizards will go as far as Wall brings them. The lightning fast point guard missed nearly half of last season with a knee injury, but returned this year to play all 82 games, and not only led Washington in scoring at 19.3 points per game, but he also finished the season second in the NBA in assists per game, averaging 8.8 per game. Wall may have to rely on his much-improved jump shot against Chicago, which does an exceptional job defending the paint, where Noah and Taj Gibson patrol. If Wall can draw double teams, his backcourt mate Bradley Beal will surely be licking his chops. Beal had something of a breakout season in his sophomore campaign, averaging 17.1 point per game and displaying one of the most picturesque jump shots in the NBA.
Nene missed a chunk of the season with a knee injury, but now that he's back, he and Gortat combine to form a formidable interior presence for the Wizards. If that duo can assert themselves offensively, they may require just enough attention from Noah and Gibson to leave some cracks in the defense.
Extra Stuff: Mid-range Assassin
To defend against Washington, the Bulls will do what they always do, which is overload the court on the ball side and then fight and claw for every second of every possession.
John Wall, y'all. He likely will be charged with handling the ball in late game situations, but that doesn't always mean taking all the shots -- Wall can drive and draw defenders, and then look for open teammates. Another viable late-game option for Washington is Andre Miller, the wily veteran who has taken (and made) countless last second shots over his 15-season career.
For Chicago, things aren't as clearly defined. As we mentioned earlier, they run much of their halfcourt offense through Noah, but he's not the ballhandler you want taking care of the ball in late game situations. It's in these situations where Augustin and Hinrich will be asked to initiate offense and create for their teammates.
The last time the Wizards advanced past the first round of the playoffs, back in 2005, they did it by beating the Bulls in the first round, four games to two.
Two players we haven't dwelled upon that are worth watching in this series are Washington's Trevor Ariza and Chicago's Jimmy Butler. Ariza, a slender swingman, averaged 8 rebounds a game in the three games against Chicago. And if someone needs to step forward and bridge the gap between the backcourt and frontcourt, Ariza is the likely candidate, as he seems to like shooting from the wings and corners.
Butler, always a Thibodeau favorite, has taken on an even greater role since Deng's departure. Butler averaged nearly 40 minutes a game in the trio of matches against the Wizards, and that when Thibodeau was allegedly adjusting minutes to account for an 82-game schedule. Butler, Chicago's best wing defender, will likely log even more minutes per game in this series.
What we're basically looking at here is Washington's pretty good offense against Chicago's very good defense. While several Wizards make their postseason debuts, Chicago's been to this dance more than once. Wall could be primed for a breakout series, but Chicago's relentless resistance will be enough for them to survive and advance. Chicago in 6.