The 66-game regular season, mercifully, is over. The NBA jam-packed 66 games into a space where 50 usually went, and the result was a strange five-month run that had us talking about rested legs and oddball rotations more than we spoke of learning and growing and all that typically mindful stuff that comes to our heads when discussing the NBA. The playoffs start on Saturday, though, and the brains behind Ball Don't Lie are ready to break down the first-round matchups.
We continue with the Philadelphia 76ers and Chicago Bulls.
From your pal, Kelly Dwyer
Hey. It's Kelly. That wasn't fun, was it? The silly lockout, the terrible season, the Dwight Howard. It's OK, though. It's over now. That is a bird chirping in the distance, I made a pretty good sandwich for your lunch and we don't have anything to do when you get home from work but watch a series of basketball games played by players that are rested, well-instructed and mindful of what town they're in.
You're going to feel better now. Your pal insists on it.
Even with Derrick Rose missing 27 of his team's 66 contests, and fighting through myriad injuries in at least half of the games he struggled through, the Chicago Bulls still put together the equivalent of a 63-win season in 2011-12. That, friends and neighbors (even you, Robert), is another to deserve a round of applause. Or, at the very least, a Coach of the Year award for Tom Thibodeau.
Philadelphia's Doug Collins seemed well on his way to Coach of the Year consideration of his own early in the season, but his squad finished the year 25-28 after beginning the campaign by working up 10 wins in 13 tries, and Collins' ways with his young team was questioned; a pointed response to his final months as head coach in Chicago, Detroit and Washington. The measured take is to expect a Sixers team that was flailing down the stretch, useless in their attempts to ascend to the Atlantic Division crown, to continue its disappointing ways against a Bulls team that has put together the NBA's best record two seasons running.
The downer take on the other end is to expect Chicago to struggle with Philly's long arms and fantastic athletes, and for their all-out play to find its match in a postseason where every team consistently brings their best efforts. That this is the beginning of the end after a fantastic, and celebrated, regular season. Now the Bulls have to play the real NBA — Now With Lots of Bulls.
But it's so nice out! And we're here to be your friend. That can't possibly be our take.
[Dan Wetzel: NBA players should want answers for union's controversy]
We think the Sixers, once they've stopped pulling chairs, will get their act together. And though they may not take two or even three games from Chicago (much less the series), they'll play hard and smart, and the Bulls will eke out four close wins in five tries, with a possible blowout win for Philly tossed in there.
And, unlike last year (when the Indiana Pacers used a warming first-round loss to Chicago to catapult to the third seed in this year's playoff bracket), the Bulls will adapt and realize that they make Porsches with seven gears now. That's right, cats and kittens — another gear!
In all, it could save Collins a job. Possibly a career, as he learns to break through the obsession and frustration, and find the other side. The 76ers, tired of being looked at as starless wonders, finally figure out that Collins is there to rail at them not because he dislikes them personally (because you don't dislike them personally, right Doug?) but because he wants to see them succeed on proper, professional terms. That he only took the job because he saw potential in that outfit. And that this was the guy that was re-hired by Michael Jordan to coach him in Washington, over a decade following Collins and M.J.'s fiery ending in Chicago.
Chicago? I cannot recall a team I respect more. On a serious, less-flowery note, I have to marvel at this group's professionalism and drive. For them to treat each of their games -- during a regular season that nobody much cared for -- like their final game of the playoffs? Like this stuff actually mattered?
You might be the one guy that shows up on time to a Miami Heat game. You might be a 76ers fan. You might be from New York. You still have to respect this team, and its dedication to craft.
Bulls in five.
'Deep Thoughts' and Cheap Thoughts with Dan Devine
For every postseason matchup, Ball Don't Lie's resident dummy will offer a topically appropriate entry from the best-selling series of "Deep Thoughts" books written by legendary humorist Jack Handey, plus some of his own original thoughts on the playoff series. The combination will cost you literally nothing; we suggest you use the savings to purchase one of Mr. Handey's life-changing books.
No. 1 Chicago Bulls vs. No. 8 Philadelphia 76ers
"The other day I got out my can opener and was opening a can of worms when I thought, 'What am I doing?!'"
Oh, Evan Turner. You had to go and do it, didn't you? From Dennis Deitch of the Delaware County Daily Times:
Turner made it pretty plain which team he wants the Sixers to see next weekend.
Asked what it would mean to him to play Chicago in the first round, Turner said, "It means we're dodging the tougher team. That's what I think." [...]
"I think we'll be able to compete well against Chicago," Turner said, "and have an opportunity to win the series."
Turner later insisted he meant no disrespect by the remarks; rather, he just thinks the Sixers match up better with the Bulls than with the Heat. He's not necessarily wrong on that score — Miami blitzed the Sixers out of the postseason in five games last year, then swept a four-game regular-season set by a combined 53 points, outperforming the Sixers by 15.7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. On the flip side, the same metrics suggest the margins between the 76ers and Bulls were quite a bit tighter. Philly held Chicago well below its season-average offensive rating, and actually outscored the Bulls over the course of three games despite losing two of them, thanks to a February blowout win.
When you look at the composition of the two teams, you can kind of see what Turner means. These are two strong defensive units -- the Bulls lead the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, while the Sixers rank third -- that play offense at a snail's pace (third-slowest for Chicago, seventh-slowest for Philly). Both teams have gifted lead guards (Derrick Rose and Jrue Holiday), skilled defensive-minded big men (Joakim Noah and Elton Brand), versatile two-way wings (Luol Deng and Andre Iguodala) and dynamic benches (Chicago's "Bench Mob" and the Philly unit led by Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young). Squint at the matchups long enough and you can sort of see where Philadelphia taking down a team not altogether unlike itself would make some sense.
The problem with squinting is, things that seem clear get blurry real fast. (Plus, you look ridiculous, and you're going to hurt your eyes that way.) Open up wider and you can see that Chicago's basically the best version of what Philadelphia could be -- an evolutionary model of the Sixers.
While Philly can get close to approximating the Bulls' long, active, grind-it-out defense, it's just outgunned offensively. Doug Collins' crew is bottom-10 in the league in points per 100 possessions; Tom Thibodeau's group is top five, up from 11th last year. Philly's 15th in field-goal percentage; Chicago's 12th. Philly's eighth in the league in 3-point accuracy; Chicago's third. Even things Chicago doesn't do well (23rd in the league in free-throw attempts this season), it does better than Philly (dead last).
On top of that, the things that Philly likes to do offensively — get its shooters open spot-up opportunities and get out in transition, two play types that account for just under one-third of Sixer possessions, according to MySynergySports.com — are things that Chicago defends well, as the Bulls rank seventh in the league on spot-ups and sixth in transition D. Ditto for isolations — the Sixers produced the league's fifth-most points per possession on isos, but the Bulls are second-best at shutting them down. And the one area the Bulls seem to have some trouble defensively, in shutting down post-up opportunities (giving up the sixth-most points per possession), isn't really one the Sixers are equipped to exploit. Brand's days as a viable primary option through which to run offense are largely over (he's scored 25 points on 23 shots in three games against the Bulls this year) and Philly doesn't really have any other legitimate low-post threat.
Every path you take in search of a route to the second round for the Sixers presents a dead end. You might match up better with Chicago than with Miami, Evan, but you still don't match up that well. Barring a sudden two-week burst of offensive brilliance against the league's best defense, Philly will be a first-round casualty for the second straight season.
PREDICTION: Bulls in five.
Five Predictions for Philadelphia vs. Chicago, From the Sensible Eric Freeman
1. Derrick Rose will return and struggle at times, but he'll have at least one game that reminds us why the Bulls can't come close to winning a championship without him.
2. The Sixers will look overmatched enough throughout the series that Doug Collins will open the 2012-13 campaign as the coach with the hottest seat.
3. In a postgame interview, Joakim Noah will say something outrageous about Spencer Hawes.
4. Hawes will say something negative about the "Chicago political machine."
5. Bulls in four.
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