The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie to offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
Washington’s financial and future salary-cap fixture isn’t exactly a Knicks-styled nightmare, but it did give up just about all its assets to cash in on the absolute top potential of this current lot. It’s made the playoffs – all right! well earned! – but this was a squad built to move into the first or possibly second round of the playoffs and little else. The team has benefitted, for once, from relatively good health, with the possible exception of big man Nene, who has returned to the rotation and factors to be a huge part of the team’s playoff run.
The Randy Wittman-led squad sustained the defensive work last year’s lottery bangers turned in during the second half of the season, the group covers angles well and talks to each other, and despite some individual holes the group as a moving outfit is to be feared on that end. The offense remains comparatively lacking, but John Wall is a gorgeous speedster in the open court, flying off defensive rebound caroms and hand-offs, Trevor Ariza turned in a throwback year, and Marcin Gortat has been exactly as advertised as a pick-and-dive big man. Not bad for a center who didn’t even get to share a training camp with his new teammates.
Gortat became a Wizard at the expense of a first-round pick, a last-ditch move by longtime general manager Ernie Grunfeld in an attempt to finally make the playoffs on John Wall’s back. Washington fitfully dotted over and below the .500 mark for the better part of the pre-All-Star run, but they enter the postseason having won 44 games – a few ticks above what was reasonably hoped for even after the deal for Gortat.
There are cracks, befitting your typical Eastern squad. For a group full of athletes, led by a young backcourt featuring Wall and second-year guard Bradley Beal, Washington rarely gets to the free-throw line. Wall is the league’s absolute best in spotting shooters in the corner for a 3-point shot, a devastatingly efficient look at the hoop, but the Wittman-inspired offense still relies far too much on middling mid-range 2-point jumpers.
The team is right where it hoped to be, for better or (future) worse. The same can’t be said about the Bulls, even if the team also comes straight out of central casting.
A solid offseason and undefeated exhibition season led many to rightfully conclude Chicago would return to the ranks of championship contenders entering 2013-14. A healthy and springy Derrick Rose was understandably unsure and visually a step slow to start the season, though. The team also was used to Joakim Noah initiating possessions from the high post, and Noah himself needed most of October and November to return to game shape following a groin injury. The result was a disastrous start to the year, even with Rose on board.
Rose went down with a meniscus tear just 11 games into Chicago’s season, and with Noah still on the mend, the group struggled to a 12-18 start. Luol Deng was traded for no 2014 on-court compensation just after New Year, and the team looked like a lottery loser just two months after hearing championship whispers. Coach Tom Thibodeau then moved a healthier Noah to the elbow on offense, the team set to clicking on both sides of the ball, and Chicago ended up winning 34 of 50 games following the Deng trade.
They talk, they sweat, they move the ball offensively and they don’t give up. Everything you expected in October, just without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng on board.
That isn’t to say the regular season was a waste for both teams. Both fan bases enjoyed the highest of highs when following either squad. Rather, this is just to credit two helplessly flawed but professional and, at times, inspiring rosters, two that should do their cities proud this spring. This series won’t be pretty. These are two defenses that will make sure of that much, but these games should be close, and the actually will be wonderfully brutal at times.
You can count on such things from these two teams.
Prediction: Bulls in 6.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
Can Nene give the Wizards' frontcourt the heft and versatility to pull the upset?
The Wizards enter this series as underdogs, but while the 18-point beating they suffered at Verizon Center two weeks back is freshest in our minds, Washington actually took two out of three from Chicago this season. There were several common threads in the Wizards' wins. John Wall was awesome, averaging 21 points, nine assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. Martell Webster cashed in on the rare 3-point looks that Chicago's arc-choking defense allowed, going 6 for 9 from deep in the two meetings. And then there was Nene, Washington's hulking, often injured and, as a result, often overlooked power forward, getting brutal and banging bodies with the Bulls' bigs.
Washington's defense operates at an entirely different level when Nene's on the floor. Last year, the Wizards gave up nearly four more points per 100 possessions without the big Brazilian than with him, and shut down opposing offenses at a level surpassed by only the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies with Nene in the middle. The difference has been even more pronounced this season, with the Wizards allowing 104.4 points per 100 possessions (which would've ranked 16th among 30 NBA teams over the course of the full season, between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers) when Nene sits, and just 99.2 points-per-100 (which would again be good for third, behind only the Pacers and Bulls) when he plays.
Opponents have taken a smaller share of their overall shots in the paint with Nene there than when he sits, which makes sense, because hurtling into a 6-foot-11, 260-pound bull isn't especially appetizing. They've made a lower percentage of the ones they do take, too, which stands to reason, since this particular bull -- while never a huge shot-blocking force -- is nimble enough to be able to track trespassing guards, contest their tries and push them into more difficult shots.
With Nene on the court during their two losses to the Wizards, the Bulls took more midrange jumpers than they did shots in the paint. For a team like Chicago that struggles so mightily to score -- they were one of just four teams to average less than one point per possession this year, and only the lottery-bound Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers had more punchless offenses -- and relies so heavily on creating opportunities through precise interior passing and the high-post orchestration of Joakim Noah, walling off the paint can make the process of trying to score enough to win excruciating.
Wizards opponents have also taken fewer 3-pointers, and made them less frequently, with Nene in the mix than out of it, owing in part to his gifts as a pick-and-roll defender. As Bullets Forever's Mike Prada notes, Nene's bulk-belying footwork and ability to guide and redirect ball-handlers coming around screens helps keep the structural integrity of the Wizards' defense intact, allowing wing defenders like Webster and Trevor Ariza to stay a step closer to their marks on the perimeter without having to double-team or make hurried rotations to prevent easy baskets, which is precisely when kickouts for open 3-point shots tend to happen.
Chicago's far from a great pick-and-roll team, ranking 17th in the league this season in points scored per possession on plays finished by ball-handlers in the screen game and dead last on those finished by the roll man, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data. But they'll run a lot of high screens when resurgent reclamation project point guard D.J. Augustin's in the game, and he's proven pretty adept at scoring off these actions, ranking 15th among NBA players in points scored per possession after taking a screen and shooting nearly 49 percent from 3 on such plays. If Nene can help stall those actions out and give his guards the opportunity to recover to contest shots or cut off passing lanes, another important source of offense for Chicago could fall by the wayside.
The worry, though, as always, is that Nene's not healthy enough to stay on the floor long enough for the Wizards to enjoy the full benefit of his services. He's been on a minutes restriction, playing a grand total of 83 minutes since missing nearly two months with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and after logging 24 minutes in a win over the Miami Heat on Monday night, Nene said he was "surprised" by the increase in his workload following two outings of less than 20 minutes.
"I'm looking good, but I hope we stick with the minimum we've been talking (about)," Nene said, according to J. Michael of Comcast SportsNet Washington. "If I push myself too much, I can pay the price."
That's going to be an awfully tough line for Wizards coach Randy Wittman to walk, because all the other things that Washington does well -- the pace-pushing dribble-penetration of Wall, the scintillating two-man game between Wall and center Marcin Gortat, the lights-out perimeter shooting fed by Wall's ability to bend defenses and fire pinpoint passes into shooters' kitchens -- are things that the Bulls' remarkable defense tend to snuff out really, really well. If Washington can't fight fire with fire -- or, since we're talking about dampening effects, "water with water," I guess -- then the whole team might wind up paying the price.
Prediction: Bulls in 6.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
Judging a series’ entertainment value is obviously a matter of taste — anyone who reads this section of our previews without accounting for my personal biases is missing the point. Nevertheless, I do my best to gesture towards some kind of hypothetical average viewer, a person who abides by the majority’s understanding of what constitutes a good playoff series. For instance, I didn’t make the entire Dallas-San Antonio bit about Monta Ellis, and he’s my favorite player in that series by a wide margin. It’s just that, for most people, he’s not the center of the matchup’s meaning.
Wizards point guard John Wall is not necessarily the overwhelmingly key figure of this series, but to me he’s the player most worth matching. That’s largely because I’ve been enamored of Wall since his earliest days as a top high school prospect, when he looked like a revolutionary player capable of turning the point guard position into an unholy hybrid of the classic floor leader model and something akin to LeBron James’s all-court mastery. Wall didn’t play to that level in his first three seasons in Washington, but he has been a franchise player since signing a questionable max-level deal over the summer. He was a deserving All-Star, and his potential mastery of Chicago’s point guards figures to be the Wizards’ best chance of controlling this series. More than that, though, Wall has a chance to announce himself on a national stage and begin to insert himself into the NBA’s elite. This series could be the start of something big.
Yet he is not the only major player in this series. In fact, the main points of interest may be found not in any one player, but the extent to which each team develops its identity. After a lengthy period of malaise, the Wizards are now a bona fide playoff team with a young core that should only get better. Making the postseason was a meaningful accomplishment in itself, but a strong performance vs. the Bulls could having them to considering great expectations heading into 2014-15.
The Bulls are in a much less familiar situation, because it’s unclear what the team will even look like entering next season. For the second year in a row, Tom Thibodeau has been unable to rely on former MVP Derrick Rose. Last season, the Bulls covered for their star’s absence with a lineup assembled from discarded scraps and held together by bits of string and weak adhesive. This season, the Bulls have turned that quick fix into a rallying cry. Led by Joakim Noah, they resemble a post-apocalyptic band of roving marauders just looking to survive. Chances are next season will be very different, both because Rose could be healthy and due to potential shakeups this offseason. In other words, their laudable sense of desperation could actually be a final stand for this hardscrabble outfit.
It may not be the prettiest series, but it has more storylines than most.
Rating: 6 out of 10 Awkward Sideline Interviews with President Obama
Prediction: Bulls in 6.