After a third season of 50 wins in five years, the Chicago Bulls are trying to make it back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2011.
When completely healthy, it’s the deepest team we’ve seen since Tom Thibodeau got to Chicago.
Following the recent returns of Taj Gibson and Derrick Rose, the Bulls appear intact when it matters for the first time in forever. After an up and down season that included rumors about Thibodeau’s job, the playoffs are a welcome sight – and thus the Bulls’ potential opponent(s) have been all anyone’s talked about lately.
Down the stretch, it became clear the Bulls would either be the Eastern Conference’s 3rd or 4th seed. Respectively, that meant a first round matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks or the Washington Wizards.
More importantly, it meant being on Cleveland’s side of the bracket (3rd seed) or on Atlanta’s (4th seed). Most fans were clamoring for the latter, so the dream of a Bulls-Cavaliers matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals would stay alive.
Ever since LeBron James and Miami beat the Bulls in the ECF four years ago, it’s all we’ve ever wanted. Three times LeBron has met the Bulls in the playoffs, and three times he’s advanced in five games. Cleveland or Miami, there’s little doubt that the Bulls’ biggest rival is whichever team he’s on.
So, obviously, you’d want to put off that matchup as long as possible right?
The notion of avoiding Cleveland longer, plus the fact that a Bulls-Cavs ECF would be TV gold, has clouded judgment around these parts.
“Get by the Wizards and we can beat Atlanta. At that point, with two wins under our belt, anything can happen against Cleveland in the E.C. Finals.”
Sounds nice. Except for the fact that the Wizards took the Bulls’ lunch money last season. Yes, Thibodeau’s team is a lot better now – Rose is healthy, Pau Gasol is here, Jimmy Butler is a grown ass man – but you could say the same about Washington.
Their two best players, John Wall and Bradley Beal, are still developing at 24 and 21 and they both killed the Bulls in last season’s playoffs. Paul Pierce replaced Trevor Ariza. Marcin Gortat and public enemy No. 2 (behind LeBron) Nene give the Wiz a massive frontcourt.
Point being, the Bulls don’t match up very well with the Wizards. I’d still take the Bulls in six or seven, but it wouldn’t be easy.
Thankfully, the Bulls get the young Milwaukee Bucks. They’re going to be really good in two years, but I’d be surprised if they hung around longer than five games.
Rather than Gibson, Gasol, Noah and Mirotic taking turns on Gortat and Nene – they’ll be terrorizing Zaza Pachulia, John Henson, and Ersan Ilyasova. Instead of facing All-Star John Wall, Rose gets the very beatable Michael Carter-Williams.
And in turn, the Bulls should be well-rested for their looming second-round series with the Cavaliers, instead of playing Atlanta after a dogfight against Washington.
Cleveland should also be well-rested, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love likely fresh off their first career playoff victories against the overachieving Celtics. That fact is important because it appears the Bulls will be Irving and Love’s first legitimate playoff test.
Picture these two hypothetical scenarios.
1) The Bulls survive Washington, upset Atlanta, then try to beat red-hot Cleveland in the ECF.
2) The Bulls cruise vs. Milwaukee, pounce on Cleveland, then play Atlanta with all the momentum in the world.
Anyone who wanted the Bulls to play Washington first-round said so thinking it gives them their best chance to make the NBA Finals, but that’s not the case.
Atlanta is a damn good team either way, but the Bulls’ best chance to beat them would be coming off an upset of Cleveland. And the Bulls’ best chance to beat Cleveland would be after taking care of Milwaukee – when Irving/Love haven’t gotten multiple series under their belt.
Like we just learned from the NCAA Tournament, matchups are more important than seeding come postseason time. Sometimes the right path is all a talented team needs to reach their potential.
For the Bulls – probably Thibodeau’s best team yet – that’s exactly what they got. Healthy and Cleveland looming, this is the Bulls’ best opportunity to finally avenge 2011.
Considering the franchise could easily move on from their head coach with an early exit, there’s no better time to make a deep run.