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After a long regular season full of snaps and strains, travails and terrors and 715,973 canned arena demands that “ev-ry-bo-dy clap yo hands,” the NBA’s postseason is set to tip off this weekend. With that in place, the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each first-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
Which team do you think will win the series, and in how many games? Vote here to let us know what you think.
Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
(As you'll note, we are working under the continued assumption that Derrick Rose will not be an active member of the Chicago Bulls during the 2012-13 season.)
It isn’t just that Joakim Noah is Chicago’s best player, and it isn’t just that a team’s best player is typically a team’s most important player. It’s that Joakim Noah’s importance to the Chicago Bulls' attack on both ends of the court truly does rank within one of those typically annoying intangible counts, as his work often can’t be picked up by the coldness of a box score or even the stark realizations that are on/off court statistics. Noah’s ability to hedge on pick-and-roll plays and initiate the offense on the other end drives Chicago at its best.
Since late January, Noah hasn’t been at his best, suffered from a persistent case of plantar fasciitis that was exacerbated by, let’s get real here, Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau overplaying Noah early in the team’s season in spite of his injury history. Even when Noah has played, such as his turn during February’s All-Star Game or his needless and destructive return against the Detroit Pistons a week and a half ago, something was clearly off. One of the game’s great runners was obviously working with a pained gait, and as a result of all this, Noah heads into the postseason having played just 28 minutes (not counting that Detroit debacle) in about a month’s time, racking up six points, six rebounds and four fouls along the way, while possibly dealing with a minutes restriction for his postseason play. He may even sit out the first round, which could be the only round Chicago gets.
Well done, Chicago. Way to ignore what was obvious even back in the fall, back when it was expected that Rose would return this season.
Barring some ridiculous secret addition, Rose won’t be playing in Chicago’s first-round series against Brooklyn, and the combination of the Nets’ home court advantage and Deron Williams’ brilliant work in March and April could prove too tough for these tougher-than-leather Bulls to withstand. Williams parlayed modest statistics against Chicago during the regular season, but he’s averaged almost 23 points per game while making nearly half his shots and more than 40 percent of his 3-pointers in March and April.
If those percentages continue, Williams will have his way against a Bulls defense that counts on Noah to cover perimeter players off of the screen-and-roll while keeping enough distance to deny an interior pass. If Joakim is a step slow or off the court entirely, despite Kirk Hinrich’s fine work as a defender, Williams could dominate.
Did Chicago take three of four from Brooklyn earlier this year? Sure, and though Noah didn’t play in a Bulls win over the Nets earlier this month, it was a close game that (like the other Chicago victories over Brooklyn) could have gone either way. Without Noah hounding, Williams went off for 30 points and 10 assists in that loss, and it’s easy to see this series going along those lines. Close victories for both sides, superstar play winning out.
Which is exactly what the Nets were after, of course, finally receiving DW’s superstar turn some 25 months after trading for the guy and splurging on an $83 million roster with which to surround him. The Nets don’t look like world-beaters, interim coach P.J. Carlesimo might not return to the assistant ranks following the season if the team can find a more famous name to lean on, Gerald Wallace appears to have hit a wall with his career, and the bench (as we saw on display in the season's final week) is as intriguing as it is untested. The knock on the Nets throughout the season was that they only seemed to down lottery teams while struggling against squads perched in the playoff bracket (save for their fantastic back-and-forth with the New York Knicks earlier this season), but impressive late-season road wins against the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers may have this team on the right path.
They’ve fooled us before, these Nets, and those Bullies keep finding new ways to surprise us with their resolve. Ligament strains, plantar fasciitis, Hinrich’s everything and Carlos Boozer’s anything mixed with a healthy dose of Nate Robinson Disease has us, as usual, completely off-guard when it comes to the Chicago Bulls’ playoff fortunes.
We just think, sadly, that they might be one guard away.
PREDICTION: Nets in 7.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements — a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. — that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos" comes from the song "Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
Brooklyn Nets: Gerald Wallace’s continued wrangling with his funk.
The veteran swingman recently told reporters that his “confidence is totally gone” after two months of awful shooting, declining explosiveness around the rim and decreasing floor time. Actually, two months is kind of misleading, considering Wallace has been a pretty significant disappointment all season — nine points and 5.5 rebounds per 36 minutes on sub-40 percent shooting isn’t exactly what the Nets had in mind when they inked Wallace to a four-year, $40 million contract last offseason. But he’s been especially awful since the All-Star break, and he knows it, and he’s been talking about it, which his teammates seem to think is only feeding it.
And he doesn’t seem to be snapping out of it. As Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News noted, Wallace seemed perfectly content to let end-of-the-bench players like Tornike Shengelia take his shots and his minutes during a pair of season-ending tune-up games intended to see if Wallace was healthy and ready to go after sustaining a left heel contusion during a win over the Boston Celtics, to which head coach P.J. Carlesimo responded by saying that he’d continue to play Wallace big minutes, that he believes his 30-year-old small forward will snap out of it and that he continues to expect Wallace to get back into the swing of things.
Realistically, he doesn’t have to do that for the Nets to win games. They’ve played their best offensive ball of the season, led by All-Star-caliber work from center Brook Lopez and a resurgent (and finally healthy) Deron Williams, during Wallace’s struggles, and haven’t skipped a beat without him reliably contributing. But they do need him to be able to get himself energized and equal to the challenge of guarding the likes of Bulls forward Luol Deng and wing Jimmy Butler, because those guys are going to be on the floor a lot in this series, Joe Johnson will have to be spelled so that he can actually, y’know, score, and the Nets roster isn’t exactly filled with perimeter stoppers beyond Wallace.
Crisis of confidence or no, this is where Wallace will have to earn his money — by making a pair of Eveready performers who never seem to tire earn theirs, and by refusing to let his busted mechanics and absent faith get in the way of bodying up Chicago’s wings on the catch. And hey, who knows — maybe if he forces a turnover or two, gets himself a runout basket or two and sees the ball actually go through the hoop for a change, that crisis will cease to seem so massive. Stranger things have happened; Wallace was responsible for a couple of them once upon a time, back when he was the kind of hell-bent-for-leather heat-seeker who inspired and earned the name “Crash.”
Brooklyn’s good enough to beat a thin Chicago team without that guy, but they’d sure love it if he came to visit at Barclays Center this weekend.
Chicago Bulls: Well ... I mean ... y’know.
But since I don’t expect that to happen, let’s go with:
The health of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.
Both Noah (who’d missed 12 of 13 games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot) and Gibson (who’d missed nearly a month with an MCL sprain before coming back and re-aggravating the injury, costing him another seven games) suited up for the Bulls’ final two games of the season, playing limited minutes to get re-acclimated to game action heading into the playoffs. And while coach Tom Thibodeau seemed pleased with what he’d seen out of his All-Star center and key reserve power forward (“I thought both guys were very active”), he and Bulls fans are hoping that Noah and Gibson will be able to contribute more than the 14 and 21 minutes, respectively, they played in the tune-up games when they square off against the Nets and glass-eating power forward Reggie Evans in a series that figures to be a war on the boards.
Thanks to the play of Noah, Gibson and Carlos Boozer, the Bulls have been one of the league’s top rebounding teams since Thibodeau arrived in Chicago, but the Nets’ addition of Evans has helped vault them into the ranks of the elite, too. Since Dec. 31, 2012, when newly named interim head coach Carlesimo inserted Evans into the Nets’ starting lineup, Brooklyn has grabbed 31.7 percent of available offensive rebounds, tops in the NBA; Chicago ranks sixth at 29.5 percent.
The Nets have also risen to ninth in defensive rebounding percentage (Chicago ranks 14th) and trail only the Indiana Pacers for the highest share of overall caroms taken (Chicago ranks ninth). The Bulls are more active on put-backs, ranking fifth in the league in second-chance points scored per game to Brooklyn’s ninth, but the Nets’ Evans-led superiority on the defensive glass means they allow fewer second-chance points than Chicago does. And while the instant-offense put-backs help boost a Bulls offense that’s been one of the league’s least potent all year — Chicago finished the regular season 24th in points scored per possession, just ahead of the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers (which kind of makes sense, since all three spent most/all of the season without their offensive centerpiece) — the extra possessions Evans adds are actually likely to be more beneficial if he doesn’t just put them back up, considering how the Nets’ half-court offense has been humming since the All-Star break led by Lopez and Williams.
Chicago can still bang with Brooklyn even if Noah and Gibson aren’t ready to go full-blast — a gang-rebounding effort led by Boozer (18 rebounds), Jimmy Butler (10) and Nazr Mohammed (9) helped the Bulls win the battle of the boards in a game Nate Robinson won with a floater two weeks ago — but reintegrating two key frontcourt pieces would help tip the four-five matchup in Chicago’s favor.
Adding Noah’s half-court playmaking ability would be huge for a Bulls offense in need of all the help it can get. Adding Gibson’s defense off the bench would help neutralize the effectiveness of second-unit Nets center Andray Blatche. And maybe, just maybe, adding two reliable veteran bigs to the rotation would lead Thibodeau to reduce the number of minutes that stalwarts Boozer and Deng play, leaving them a bit fresher for the duration of the series. (Not that I’d ever bet on Thibs cutting minutes, though. Unless we’re betting your money.)
Yes, Noah and Gibson coming back as reasonable facsimiles of their healthy selves would solve (or at least help address) a couple of potential Bulls problems. If they’re dragging around the court, though — or, worse, if Noah’s not able to go at all — Chicago will likely have a hard time matching the energy, effort and productivity of the Nets’ frontcourt.
PREDICTION: Nets in 7.
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Deron Williams: Several years ago, it was not considered entirely laughable to say that Williams was a better point guard than Chris Paul. Since Deron’s trade from the Utah Jazz to the Nets, his reputation has dipped from that of a shoo-in All-Star to the kind of player people consider a star only because we know him to be better than he happens to be playing at this particular moment.
Williams recaptured some of his old form in the final months of this season, regaining the ability to dunk in games and generally looking like the dynamic leader who constituted an effective offense whenever he stepped on the court. But there’s a big difference between playing to that level and convincing people that a return to form has occurred. There’s no better place to make such a statement than in the playoffs, particularly against the Bulls’ vaunted defense. If Williams regularly looks like the best player on the floor, he can probably assume he’ll be busy during All-Star Weekend for the foreseeable future.
Brook Lopez: When Shaq pettily decreed that Brook Lopez was a superior player to Dwight Howard, he saddled the Nets center with indirect expectations. The best thing we can say about Lopez’s season is that he turned a fairly ridiculous statement into something that could at least be entertained as an argument. In a league that seems to prize the offensive-minded center less with every passing season, Lopez is a throwback, yet one nimble enough to avoid being labeled as one-dimensional.
Lopez was good enough this year to be mentioned as one of the NBA’s top scoring centers for a long time, but that statement features enough qualifiers to pass as a backhanded compliment. For Lopez to be discussed as an elite big man, regardless of position or style, he’ll need to dominate several of the games in this series. With Joakim Noah at less than full strength, he has a decent chance to accomplish that feat.
Nate Robinson: For me, the most confusing development of the NBA season was Robinson’s emergence as one of the few Bulls capable of keeping the offense afloat in the absence of Derrick Rose. It’s not that Robinson has never registered as a talented player; he’s just always seemed like the opposite of a floor leader capable of shouldering a consistent scoring burden for a no-nonsense coach unwilling to entertain the idea of missing out on the postseason. For at least one season, Robinson proved us wrong.
Nate is a free agent this summer, and it’s likely that his regular-season play will earn him the multi-season deal that seemed like a pipe dream just a year ago. Yet it’s hard for ex-naysayers like me to believe that Robinson is a changed man — there’s always the chance that he’ll return to old habits any day now. It’s unfair, but I expect him to turn the ball over and yell indiscriminately about candy whenever he plays his next game. Playoff success would render that belief even sillier than it is. Any player’s success is tenuous, but it’s poor form to expect him to falter. Hopefully Robinson will convince us that we’re wrong to doubt him.
Derrick Rose: There have been plenty of opportunities this season for NBA observers to snipe at Rose’s refusal to return to the court unless he’s fully comfortable. Outside of the odd criticism from the perpetually angry, most discussion has given Rose the benefit of the doubt, which is probably correct given the danger of coming back from a major injury too early. Nevertheless, given the usual standard, it’s telling that Rose has been shielded from most negative commentary. It’s a mark of just how highly he’s viewed by people around the league.
However, it’s also true that Rose hasn’t missed any games that really matter — the Bulls managed a respectable seed without him and hold a solid chance of cutting down the Nets. Yet, if they get steamrolled — particularly if they’re unable to score with any sort of consistency — it wouldn’t be terribly shocking for people to ask exactly what the loss of Rose did to the Bulls this season. With him, they’re considered one of the NBA’s few contenders; as we learned last May, playing without him can make the Bulls look like a postseason also-ran. Whether it’s unfair or not, a disappointing outcome could get more people to ask questions about Rose’s rehab decisions. It’d be wrong to let all analysis rest on this outcome, but the postseason results have a tendency to overshadow all else.
PREDICTION: Nets in 5.
More first-round previews from Ball Don’t Lie: