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Bulls facing playoffs preview in next two weeks

With the injuries to Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, the Bulls have been shaky against the competition they’ll have to master to be a NBA Finals team, writes Sam Smith. That’s why in some respects, these next two weeks for the Bulls and the Eastern Conference is a preview of perhaps what is to come for the playoffs.
Going into Sunday’s game with the 76ers, Derrick Rose and the Bulls were 6-5 against the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference with 14 games to come against those teams counting Sunday’s game against the 76ers.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

Now we really get to find out how serious the Bulls are as contenders.

Not to suggest they aren’t after going to the Eastern Conference finals last season and then adding Pistons All-Star Richard Hamilton, who is now back playing and mostly recovered from season long leg injuries.

But with the injuries to Derrick Rose and Luol Deng—and even though both were All-Stars—the Bulls have been shaky against the competition they’ll have to master to be a Finals team. Miami is universally regarded as the heavy favorite in the East, even as the Bulls have had a slightly better record much of the season. And now many of the TV experts are saying the Knicks with the addition of point guards Jeremy Lin and Baron Davis are a more likely conference finals opponent for Miami than the Bulls.

So in some respects these next two weeks for the Bulls and the Eastern Conference is a preview of perhaps what is to come for the playoffs.

Going into Sunday’s game with the 76ers, the Bulls were 6-5 against the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference with 14 games to come against those teams counting Sunday’s game against the 76ers. The priority, though, is these two weeks starting with Sunday with nine games in 14 days and six against the top Eastern playoff teams.

April 12 and 19, TNT Thursday games, will present perhaps the tiebreaker for Eastern supremacy with home and home games with the Bulls and Miami. But these next two weeks set it up, including three sets of back to backs with Indiana Monday, Orlando this Thursday and the 76ers again March 17 all on the second of back to backs. Plus, the Bulls host New York March 12 and Miami March 14 in the first games for the Knicks and Heat in Chicago this season.

Here’s a look at where those teams are now:

Miami, March 14: They’ve been the best offensive team in the league this season, if LeBron James won’t allow them to get past the mystery of who is taking the last shot. It came up again last week with James passing to Udonis Haslem against a soft double team for a potential game winner. Most coaches who have to face Miami are loath to question James and ESPN hires many of James’ friends, so they generally support him. Though the commentary on TNT and NBA-TV is more critical. It’s generally regarded around the NBA James doesn’t want to shoot last second free throws, which both he and Rose missed in the Heat’s Jan. 29 win in Miami. Whether that’s the reason James continues to pass up these shots no one is quite sure. Still, that obscures how mostly dominant Miami has been with James adding post play to his game. Shane Battier has been an additional perimeter weapon with a healthier Mike Miller, which leaves the Heat vulnerable mostly to the Bulls size. Miami is an average rebounding team and poor on the offensive boards. Teams say you zone them or you hit the boards to keep them from running out. But they’ve solved it and been impressive in transition. It’s why from a Bulls standpoint they perhaps should have been using Omer Asik more this season as he was proving troublesome to Miami until hurt in last season’s conference finals.

New York, March 12: It’s a different team than the one the Bulls saw—and barely defeated—Feb. 2 in New York when Amar’e Stoudemire had his best game of the season. Frankly, if Stoudemire plays like that against the Bulls the Knicks will be tough to beat. If you look at the starting lineup matchups now they’d be even with a Knicks frontcourt of Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. And the Knicks have built a competitive bench that rivals the Bulls’, certainly with offense. One reason the Knicks can be so difficult is Eastern teams aren’t accustomed to scoring as much. It’s why when Mike D’Antoni coached the Suns they had an overwhelmingly dominating record against Eastern teams. The relentless scoring and deep shooting, though this Knicks team is not good on threes, wears down the slower paced Eastern teams trying to keep up. With Lin they run an effective pick and roll or pick and pop that is very tough to guard. Now they are eighth with an opening round matchup with the Bulls if standings don’t change. But they could still win the Atlantic. You want to make them play defense, which is a Bulls’ edge. But you’d also prefer Boston to open the playoffs if you are the Bulls or Heat.

Indiana, Monday: They are the “You better not forget about us” team for the Bulls after that rough first round playoff series last season. The Pacers won the only game between the teams Jan. 25, after which there was some talk about Pacers’ players celebrating too much. Derrick Rose said he’d remember. This has become the cause of the season in Indiana with coach Frank Vogel and All Star center Roy Hibbert saying, in effect, “Bring it on,” that the Bulls are arrogant whiners. It’s been a regular subject on Pacers’ broadcasts aiming at the game. The Pacers also have a starting lineup to match the Bulls’ as long armed Paul George generally ends up defending Rose. And Tyler Hansbrough, a deserved backup, generally is a 20/10 guy against the Bulls. Getting into the Pacers bench gives the Bulls an edge, but the Pacers really want this one as the Bulls return after playing the rough 76ers Sunday night.

Orlando, Thursday: The Bulls get the TNT national circus exactly a week before the trading deadline day, known this season as Dwight Howard’s exodus. The Magic has gone along surprisingly well despite Howard’s personal team shopping spree, though the Bulls haven’t had much problem with them since the worst loss of the Tom Thibodeau era to Orlando in early December of 2010. The Bulls with two legitimate centers generally play Howard straight up and stay with the shooters, which limits Orlando’s three point attack. The latest guess is the Magic hang onto Howard as they try to make another deal now as they seem like the Cavs when they went for Antawn Jamison to appease LeBron. Then see if you can do something in the playoffs. If that fails deal with his many moods after the season.

76ers again, March 17: They’re tough and relentless and hope to have Spencer Hawes back by then after having to start Lavoy Allen at center Sunday and the Bulls still needing Derrick Rose to bail them out down the stretch. They’re holding onto the Atlantic Division lead ahead of the Celtics and Knicks, but could fall into a first round matchup with a top team if they slip. And that, too, is a tough opening round opponent as the Bulls Sunday got an unusually poor effort from the 76ers’ top scorer. Lou Williams. They’re versatile and defend and less fun to play than watch.

The Eastern Conference playoffs seem pretty much set with Boston looking most like No. 8 in the long run. At least to me. The Bulls get them once more as well as the Hawks, against whom the Bulls are 2-1. Though the Bulls stole an early season game with an unlikely late comeback. The Hawks could get Al Horford back and Josh Smith is having a renaissance season. It seems likely they’ll deal Kirk Hinrich, who hasn’t fit in with coach Larry Drew. So they could have a bit different look.

But the big one that hasn’t been much talked about—probably because it seems so unlikely—is their place in the race for Howard. They are a dark horse, for sure, but given that Howard is from Atlanta they remain in the background as a possible player in the last minute Howard talks. Howard has supposedly talked to the Magic about landing Josh Smith, whom he’s supposedly wanted to play with, though that doesn’t seem possible given the Magic roster. I will add I wanted to move in with my friend Stevie when I was five but my mommy said no. Atlanta could offer Horford and Joe Johnson and take back Hedo Turkoglu, and it doesn’t seem like the Magic can get a much better package. I assume the Magic would want to throw in Jameer Nelson and take back Jeff Teague. But Howard with Smith and Teague would be an intriguing threesome. Plus, Hawks ownership has been public about not getting credit for being a serious player. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is what they have in mind. Still, Howard would have to make a long term commitment and he hardly seems in mental shape these days to make a long term apartment rental.

NBA news and notes

-- New York media is calling the Knicks the most dangerous .500 team since the football Giants were 7-7 in December. Of course, it also was considering “Lin” a new religion. Until perhaps last week when D’Antoni said the second unit in practice was winning the scrimmages, which produced theories that Lin would now be benched. Now that would be a really good story if he were cut again. How can anyone not want to play there? … Though Boston reportedly has tried to get a high level point guard like Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook for Rajon Rondo, that’s not likely. Rondo’s not regarded anywhere near that talent level, though it was a pretty remarkable triple double in Sunday’s win over the Knicks. Maybe he’s trying to up his own trade value. Plus, Deron Williams is said to have little interest even though Boston in theory could add him and Dwight Howard as free agents after the season with all the cap room they’d have. They are said more likely to join up in Dallas if the Mavs can dump Shawn Marion’s contract. What breaking up the team to Danny Ainge might mean is moving Brandon Bass before the deadline to have room for two major free agents. That’s the route I’d take. There are going to be a lot of free agent point guards available this summer, like Ray Felton, Andre Miller, Steve Nash and perhaps Ramon Sessions, all in the top 20 in assists. What about taking a shot at the Bucks’ Brandon Jennings, a productive point guard, another player and the Bucks’ No. 1 for Rondo? Perhaps the Bucks become interested for next season with Andrew Bogut back. Figure Boston talk to increase the next two weeks.

-- I liked the comments of Boston coach Doc Rivers talking about Gerald Green, who was one of the classic AAU failures as a straight-to-the-NBA player and 2007 dunk contest winner. We hadn’t seen much of him since the candle on his career seemed extinguished after that blowing-out-candle-dunk in the 2008 contest. Green is with the Nets now and may have figured it out as Rivers seemed to be describing him: “He’s just more mature. Avery (Johnson) was telling me how much he watches film now. Sometimes when you’re young, you think, ‘Why do I have to study Kobe Bryant? I’m better than him.’ He never said that, but that’s how they think. And Kobe is sitting there watching him on film. That’s the difference. The stars understand that it takes more work than just showing up to play, and that’s been their dirty little secret.” Green was MVP in the recent D-League All Star game. It’s New York, sort of, so it could be Greensanity. … From Sunday’s ABC games we learned Jeremy Lin can’t box out and Kobe Bryant dealt with Dwyane Wade’s All-Star hard foul the best way, making Wade play defense, which isn’t his specialty as Wade likes to cheat in the passing lanes. So there was 18 Bryant first quarter points. Now, you have to agree that was Jordan like. … Though averaging an impressive 22.5 per game in his four games back, Brook Lopez is at 3.8 rebounds. Career high? Just kidding. Sounds like someone wants out of New Jersey badly. Too bad he was walking out on crutches again, this time with a sprained ankle. … I don’t get these Twitter complaints from players, like DeMar DeRozan saying a recent fourth quarter benching was “bull….” Not necessarily because of that, but the word is DeRozan isn’t as untouchable as once believed. … Their kingdom—well, maybe not—for a closer? The 76ers coming into Sunday were 2-10 in games decided by seven or fewer as with their leading scorer coming off the bench they lack a finisher to be an elite team. They’ve lost four by four or fewer. … Austin Daye, not playing at all with the Pistons, might be an intriguing gamble for someone. Though it most seemed a mistake to bring back Tayshaun Prince for four years, though you’d think perhaps he’s being showcased. … Stan Van Gundy in his refreshingly unique way (perhaps except to Dwight Howard) to Ryan Anderson: "The reason you don't defensive rebound is because you can't score on a defensive rebound."

-- Are all these coaches and players who say LeBron James makes the “right play” in these end game situations then saying Michael Jordan just about always made the wrong play? Sure, Jordan threw to John Paxson and Steve Kerr for Finals’ winners, but he didn’t do that often in his career. That’s how he became Michael Jordan. So was he a dumb player, fellas? ... It seems Marcus Camby and Ray Felton are getting most of the blame for the Trail Blazers issues with a bit thrown in for Gerald Wallace. With Camby and Felton unrestricted free agents, you won’t get much for them, though they could be on the move for chemistry reasons. Or at least to point blame so someone can save their job. … Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Miami reporters “if the right basketball people” voted all-defense, Joel Anthony would be in consideration. The coaches vote for that award. … You had to love Wizards interim coach Randy Wittman yelling “guard somebody” as his team retreated--almost--on defense against the Bucks. In being benched along with Nick Young, JaVale McGee told the Washington Post he wasn’t getting the message, “But I’m sure I’ll figure it out sooner or later.” This would be the gratuitous Wizards don’t get it item of the week.

-- Lamar Odom, who really is a decent guy, made the necessary apologies Saturday upon his return from his personal absence during which even coach Rick Carlisle said Odom would have to regain the trust of the team for his behavior. It’s all been mysterious with perhaps some family illness (or not). But the strong suspicion around the Mavs was Odom was turning the season, at least with the pressure of his wife, Khloe Kardashian, and her producers into a series for their reality show. Odom even volunteered to play in the D-League before returning, though the team apparently figured out that may have been another ploy to add depth to the story of Odom’s suffering and return and quashed that and had Odom back with the team Saturday. With the reality show/Kardashian connection, Odom is going to quickly run out of options as most teams don’t want that sort of distraction with Kardashian a regular society/media figure now in Dallas. It could mean a premature end to Odom’s career. Too bad. Khloe, by the way, told the Today Show it broke her heart to know Lamar was jealous of her sister having a second child. Will Khloe conceive? Will Lamar cheer up? Tune in next time for Mavs in Disarray. Khloe, by the way, told Conan she doesn’t mind if Lamar goes to strip clubs. Wow! What a woman! … With the Mavs finally getting some production from Roddy Beaubois, there’s been some thought they could add him to get a team to take Marion’s deal toward free agency this summer….You wonder with Portland’s issues whether you can get Jamal Crawford out of there as they could be open to draft picks as there’s talk they’ll want to unload contracts and begin retooling around LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum. This can’t be the way Kurt Thomas wanted to finish up. … The Clippers were 15-7 when Chauncey Billups started. It’s proving too big a hurdle to overcome with the Lakers taking over the division lead. Hey, the Lakers may be L.A.’s team. … You had to love the reports the Magic was interested in acquiring Monta Ellis. Heck, if they’re going after guys they can’t get for what they have why not Kevin Durant? The Warriors with their anxious new ownership actually were one team considering trading for Howard just as a rental for the rest of the season. … It’s been an interesting mutual admiration society of late for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who obviously have had enough of the can’t play together stuff. At the All-Star media session, Durant named Westbrook as the best in game dunker (no, not Blake Griffin) and Westbrook picked Durant as the league’s best clutch player. When Durant scored 50 last week, he said Westbrook was the key with his overtime play. Though they are apparently not calling one another yet to find out what they’ll be wearing to the game.

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