Bulls Close to Facing Orlando in Playoffs


Apr 14

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Hey, mom. It looks like we get to go to Disneyworld. Maybe we can bring back a first round playoff series win.

It’s probably the Bulls best chance for a shocker as they owe a bit of thanks to the Boston Celtics, who defeated the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday 100-98.

That put the Bulls, 41-40, a full game ahead of the 76ers for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. That means the Bulls finish the regular season sixth in the East—I know no one had that—if they defeat the Toronto Raptors at home Wednesday or if the 76ers lose to the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

That makes the odds in the favor of the Bulls, who are 14-1 at home since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, the Cavs, though they have clinched the No. 1 playoff seed in the NBA, are at home and going for a tie in the alltime season home record of 40-1. It figures they’d like the record and will want to finish strong at home.

So it looks pretty good for the Bulls to open the playoffs this weekend in Orlando, and I think that’s the best chance for the Bulls to pull an upset.

We all figured it wouldn’t happen against the Cavaliers, and the Bulls took care of avoiding them with Monday’s win in Detroit.

I’ve been thinking all along the Bulls might have a shot at the Celtics—remember 2006 and the sweep of the defending champion Heat?—because of the continued absence of Kevin Garnett.

The Celtics say Garnett will be ready to open the playoffs after playing in five games since the All-Star break and missing the last eight. There’s no doubt with playing so little for two months that Garnett will be nowhere near in playing condition. The rumors have been his knee pain won’t go away and he’ll need surgery after the season. And the Celtics aren’t the same team as last season without James Posey and P.J. Brown.

But it is a prideful, professional team. They are 14-7 without Garnett since February, and have won seven of the last eight without him. Although the Bulls beat Boston at home last month 127-121 without Garnett, the Celtics have two bigtime perimeter stars in Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to offset the Bulls’ strength. And it’s difficult to see the Bulls catching Boston by surprise in the first round as Garnett figures to give it his best shot from the beginning of the playoffs as long as he can hold out.

As for the Magic, I think they are vulnerable.

They had been talking for months about trying to avoid the Pistons in the first round after being knocked out by Detroit the last three times the Magic has been in the playoffs.

But perhaps more importantly for the Bulls, no top team has been playing poorer going into the playoffs than Orlando. It’s gotten so bad that the acerbic coach Stan Van Gundy apparently tried some reverse psychology on his team after they lost back to back to the Knicks and Nets last weekend.

Van Gundy benched his starters against the Bucks Monday, which became a loss. But it was one the team could explain away as deciding to rest for the playoffs. After blasting his team after the New York and New Jersey losses, Van Gundy took a softer tact in talking about what a great season they’ve had with 58 wins.

They sound fragile, and their health seems little better. Hedo Turkoglu suffered a sprained ankle against the Nets and had to be helped off. He said he’ll be ready for the playoffs. Rashard Lewis has complained of tendinitis and is shooting 41.3 percent in April and nine of 33 on threes his last four games.

With the season ending injury to Jameer Nelson, the Magic held together trading for Rafer Alston. But in Alston, a career 38 percent shooter, and rookie Courtney Lee at shooting guard, Orlando may have the weakest backcourt in the NBA.

While backcourt is a major strength of the Bulls and the Bulls would have a huge potential advantage to begin to offset the Magic’s advantage with All-Star center Dwight Howard.

The Bulls have a bit better chance to deal with Howard since the acquisition of Brad Miller.

Since the trades for Miller, John Salmons and Tim Thomas, the teams have split two games. The Bulls won in Chicago 120-102 Feb. 24, which set off a classic rant from Van Gundy.

“I was disappointed and disgusted with what I saw tonight,” Van Gundy said that night. “It generally happens in the NBA that when you have that great of a disparity in energy on the court between teams, it’s no surprise there is that great of a disparity on the scoreboard as well. There is no question who had the energy. There is no doubt who came ready to play tonight. I thought there were two minutes in the third quarter when we played better than them. The other 46 minutes, they outplayed us. Our defense was horrible. They were very good at both ends and controlling the tempo. Our guys just didn’t try. It starts at the defensive end, we had chances to step in and didn’t so there were no stops. On the offensive end, we did a good job throwing it to them. I thought all five guys and our starting lineup brought nothing to the game. I didn’t think that any of them brought near 100 percent. They got us off to a bad start to begin the game and then again at the start of the third quarter. It bothers me because these guys talk about being a contending team. We’re just kidding ourselves. I watch Boston and see them putting forth a much greater effort the whole game. Tonight the ball was going to the basket and we didn’t step in front of it. We’re not tough enough and our mentality is to do it at the offensive end.”

Last month, the Magic paid the Bulls back with a 107-79 destruction in Orlando. But that came right after the Bulls thrilling double overtime loss to Dwyane Wade’s heroics and the Miami Heat. The Bulls had nothing left after that heartbreaker, which was one of the great games of the NBA season. In that game, Derrick Rose played 55 minutes, Salmons played 54 and Ben Gordon 50. Miller off the bench played 46 with just seven Bulls playing.

The teams met twice earlier in the season, and though Orlando won both, the Magic seemed hardly unbeatable.

Orlando did handle the Bulls pretty well New Year’s Eve in Chicago, 113-94, in a game coach Vinny Del Negro benched the starters for long stretches and Rose and Ben Gordon were a combined 11 for 30 as the Magic led by as many as 33.

The Magic led by 17 in a game in Orlando the first week of the season. But the Bulls closed as Orlando has a tendency to give up leads because of its penchant to shoot a lot of three pointers. Orlando averaged 27.5 threes per game against the Bulls and never attempted fewer than 26 in any of the four games. As a result, they tend to go away from or ignore their best weapon, Howard.

Both are different teams since then. The Bulls are without Luol Deng, but added Salmons, Miller and Tim Thomas, and have seen much improved play from Joakim Noah. The loss of Nelson was a major blow for Orlando, and their backcourt seems to be stretched thin. They are wheezing to the close with five losses in their last eight games. Much has been expected of the team this season with talk of a rebirth of the Shaq years when Orlando went to the Finals. So there’s a lot of pressure on an inexperienced team to succeed.

A loss at home in one of the first two games could find a panicked Orlando team coming to Chicago, where the Bulls have been almost unbeatable for two months.

No one expects much of the Bulls in a season there was talk two months ago of both the general manager and coach being gone. The conditions seem right for an upset. Though there’s still a game to be won or one to be lost by the 76ers before the Bulls find out if there’s any magic left in their season.

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