Previous ArticlesBulls to open postseason Sunday versus Wizards
Bulls ready to clean up Washington to open playoffs
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 17
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If the Bulls could have dreamed up the pairings for the NBA playoffs starting this weekend, it likely would have come out something like it has with the Bulls opening at home Sunday against the Washington Wizards.
The Bulls with Wednesday’s regular season ending 91-86 overtime loss to the Charlotte Bobcats fell to the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference in a bracket with first round opponent Washington and the Indiana Pacers playing the Atlanta Hawks. Should the Bulls win round one, they would avoid the defending champion Miami Heat in the second round as they are in opposite brackets.
“I think we put ourselves in a pretty good position,” said Joakim Noah, who had 14 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in the loss that left the Bulls with a 48-34 record for the season. D.J. Augustin led the Bulls with 17 points.
Though you always have to be wary of the old warning of being careful what you wish for because it may not turn out how you think. Or it could be more than you can handle.
Which is why the Bulls over the next few days are going to be hearing plenty from coach Tom Thibodeau. Though this is not a group of players who has come to accept that anything will be easy.
If it’s in theory the preferred matchup for the Bulls and avoiding a Brooklyn Nets team which actually seemed to be losing on purpose the last two games, it’s also an opening round series against a Wizards’ team that was 2-1 against the Bulls in the regular season and have troublesome and physical Nene back from injury.
“The Wizards are a tough team, tough, tough team,” said Taj Gibson. “They gave us so many problems in the regular season; great shooters. They got some great bigs in Nene and (Marcin) Gortat. John Wall is playing some phenomenal basketball. Bradley Beal is playing great basketball, too. Their bench is loaded up. It’s going to be tough.”
The Bulls should be the favorites, however, in the series that begins in the United Center 6 p.m. Sunday and televised on CSN and TNT. Game 2 will be at the United Center at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Game 3 will be 7 p.m. Friday in Washington and Game 4 noon Sunday in Washington.
The Bulls have the big edge in experience with the Wizards in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. This season actually was the first time in John Wall’s career his Wizards team went over .500 as they finished 44-38, their best record since 2005 when they defeated the Bulls in an exciting first round playoff series. Kirk Hinirch, who played for the Wizards in Wall’s rookie season, is the only Bulls player left from that 2005 playoff team. Assistant coach Adrian Griffin also played for the Bulls on that playoff team that lost to the Wizards after winning the first two games at home.
The Wizards again like when they had Gilbert Arenas in 2005 feature an athletic, high scoring backcourt in Wall and Beal and veteran big men in Nene and Gortat. Still, the Bulls, particularly in the last game between the teams April 5, were able to smother the Wizards in Washington with an overwhelming defensive effort playing the rotation the Bulls have become comfortable with in posting the best record in the Eastern Conference since Jan. 1.
The Bulls did lose twice to the Wizards since then. But that was back in January just after the Luol Deng trade and before coach Tom Thibodeau had fully implemented the current rotation with D.J. Augustin.
“The speed of John Wall,” noted Thibodeau when asked about the Wizards. “They have quality bigs up front; Beal’s a terrific player. They are tough. You look at their conference record and they are a good road team. You want to be as healthy as you can be. You have to play well, you have to prepare and get yourself ready for what’s coming. Study, prepare, get your edge, get your game and let’s go.”
That’s what’s ahead for the Bulls. All the predictions and confidence and favorites and supposed to bes don’t matter much unless you make the plays and hit the shots and make the stops. Thibodeau will be sending that message for the next several days until Sunday evening. The Wizards will know you supposedly were relieved to get them. They’ll be ready.
It turned out the Bobcats were ready as well in a wild closing day to the NBA regular season in which five of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams, including the Bulls, still didn’t know their opponent when the evening’s games began. It appeared the Nets were trying to lose in starting a lineup of all backups, though supposedly less to avoid the Bulls than get into the bracket with the Miami Heat. The Nets swept the Heat all four games this season and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are said to be hungering for a chance to beat them. But they’ll have to get past Toronto.
The Raptors ended up losing to the Knicks, but they retained the No. 3 seed because the Bulls lost in overtime.
Had the Bulls defeated the Bobcats, the Bulls would have moved to No. 3 and opened against Brooklyn with Miami a potential second round opponent. Charlotte in losing fell to seventh and opens against Miami, which is 15-0 against Charlotte since LeBron James signed with Miami.
And it appeared the Bulls would get the victory after opening a 21-16 lead in the first quarter and the Bobcats missing 21 of their first 29 shots and still with 21 points midway through the second quarter. But led by Kemba Walker with 22 points and Al Jefferson with 10 points and 18 rebounds (the Bulls of concern were outrebounded for the third time in the last five games), Charlotte made 11 straight shots to close the second quarter in speeding the pace and leading 43-39 at halftime.
With Jimmy Butler attacking the basket and good shooting from Hinrich, the Bulls took a 60-59 lead going into the fourth quarter. The Bulls also had to move Butler onto Walker, who was beating Augustin, a potential issue going into the Washington series. Augustin led the Bulls in scoring in the fourth quarter and Noah was diving full out for loose balls as the Bulls weren’t taking any games off.
Noah, Dunleavy and Butler all played more than 42 minutes as Thibodeau said, especially with the almost four-day break coming, it was important to extend the players.
“D.J. missed a game (with the birth of his son), so I think it was important for him to get minutes,” said Thibodeau. “Once you start resting guys, sometimes they get out of rhythm. Our team is well-rested. We’ve been concerned with rest for awhile and we’ve given our guys a lot of days off. I think we’re in great shape.”
But with owner Michael Jordan leaping to his feet at the end of the Bobcats bench, Walker missed a potential game winner to go into overtime. The Bobcats dominated the overtime as the Bulls missed their first eight field goal attempts and the Bobcats eased away with the win. So the Bulls were fourth in the East, and it didn’t seem to matter to them as they were ready to go back to work.
But first Noah had a State of the Bulls address.
As reporters entered the locker room, Noah said he had something to first.
“I just want to say before you guys start asking any questions I appreciate my teammates,” said Noah, who wore a smile of relief and satisfaction of the first step in the job well done.
Noah said it was the toughest season he’d ever been through because of the emotional loss of Derrick Rose to the season ending injury, the trade of best friend Luol Deng and the concern that the team may not have been as concerned with winning. But Noah also saw the key addition of Augustin and the advancement of Gibson, the growth of Butler and his own maturation into an MVP-level player and even a better conference record than Miami in winning eight of their last 10.
Gibson ended up playing all 82 games along with Mike Dunleavy, the only players to do so. It was the healthiest finish the team has had in years with the same starting five since just after the All-Star break. Rose officially led the team in scoring at 15.9, though he played just 10 games. Deng was leading at 19 per game until he was traded in early January.
Augustin ended up leading the rest in scoring at 14.9 after signing as a free agent Dec. 13. The Bulls had six players average in double figures with Hinrich at 9.1 and in double figures since the All-Star break. Noah led the team in both rebounds and assists, his assist totals ranking in the all-time top 10 for an NBA center in one season. Butler was among the league leaders in steals at 1.9 per game after five Wednesday, Augustin was among the league leaders in free throw and three-point shooting and Carlos Boozer quietly was second in scoring and rebounding.
“A hard season,” Noah reiterated. “We worked our asses off. Even though it ended on a sad note losing to the Charlotte Bobcats, we feel like overall we gave it everything we had; there’s no regrets in that. Like my boy Dunleavy just told me, our boy Mike Dunleavy, he said this is the fruit of our labor. Now we will have fun in the playoffs. I agree with him on that.
“Overall, I think we fought hard,” said Noah. “There are absolutely no regrets in this season. I feel like we competed every night; we gave it everything we had. I’m not going to lie. This is the hardest season I think I’ve ever been a part of physically and mentally. But I feel overall really proud of everybody, all the work everybody put in. You could tell after every practice everybody was shooting after practice; everybody putting in extra work to get their games in order; Now the playoffs is the icing in the cake. As competitors, that’s what you want; you want to play in the playoffs. I’m really proud to be part of this team; seriously, I’ve never been around a group of guys that work so hard.
“They’ve got a very tough front court in Nene and Gortat, so we have to be ready for that,” said Noah. “They have a great backcourt as well with Wall, Beal. They have a lot of talent. They’re definitely a tough matchup. It’s not going to be easy. Every game’s going to be a tough batttle. But I think we’re a team that’s battle tested. We know what it takes. Like I said, this is exciting; you never know what’s going to happen in the playoffs. I just can’t wait to compete.”
It’s finally time.