Well, the Bulls did it. They're in the playoffs, which seemed a virtual impossibility just a few weeks ago. They showed a remarkable amount of resiliency and gumption in pulling off a comeback from near-oblivion, which is why I don't think they will be satisfied with merely making the postseason. And so here are seven things I'd like to see in their best-of-seven first round series with the Cleveland Cavaliers:
1. Joakim Noah staying out of foul trouble
If I were the Cavs, I would hammer the ball into Shaquille O'Neal in the early going in hopes of picking up fouls on Noah and getting him out of the game. Because as we saw during the Bulls' 10-game losing streak when Noah was sidelined with his plantar fasciitis recurrence, that would have a devastating effect on Chicago's ability to compete.
The Bulls are completely reliant on Noah's defense, rebounding, and energy. Plus, his game on the offensive end has become increasingly valuable, with crisp interior passing and an improving outside shot and post game. The upshot is, they need Noah out there for as many minutes as possible; if he's limited by foul trouble, the Bulls long odds become nonexistent.
2. Derrick Rose taking over in crunch time
I'm still not sure what to make of Rose as the Bulls' end-of-game alpha dog. Sometimes he seems like he's ready to seize that role, and others -- like the recent loss to the Nets -- he seems to shrink from the moment. I am very curious to see how he does in this series. I don't anticipate him being able to go shot-for-shot with LeBron James -- whose sheer force of will should prove to be the biggest difference in this series -- but I'm hoping he at least shows he wants to try.
In last year's first-round epic with the Celtics, Rose deferred to Ben Gordon in the big moments. Was that because of Gordon stepping up, or because Rose stepped aside? This series will be a real litmus test of exactly where Rose is as a player: Can he carry a franchise, or is he better suited to being the league's best second banana?
3. A shortened rotation that includes James Johnson
Johnson deserves to play for a few reasons:
A. He is possibly the only player on the Bulls -- and certainly the only one on their bench -- with the size/strength/quickness combo to at least be a minor distraction for LeBron when he's defending him.
B. He played very well in the 92-85 loss to the Cavs -- 16 points on 11 shots, 8 rebounds, 2 steals and a block with a best-among-starters minus-1 in 36 minutes -- when Rose, Noah, and Luol Deng were all sidelined with injuries.
C. The reps he (and fellow rookie Taj Gibson) get in the playoffs now could be invaluable in the future. The Bulls have virtually no chance at winning the series; so why play someone like Hakim Warrick -- who's not a part of their plans going forward -- at the expense of Johnson, who is?
4. Jannero Pargo glued to the bench
It wouldn't be one of my list posts without an item referencing Pargo's enduring crappiness and Del Negro's steadfast refusal to keep him from the court. And yet, in a triumph of the human spirit, I continue to dream of a Pargo-free world.
5. A Game 5
While I certainly don't think the Bulls will win the series, I do believe they can at least win a game. Everyone -- I'm speaking nationally here -- is looking at them as nothing more than sacrificial lambs; all seven of the TrueHoop Network's legitimate contributors are predicting Cavs in 4. But I'm hoping for just a bit more. As good as Cleveland is, I'm guessing the Bulls will show plenty of fight, and given that they are actually pretty formidable themselves when healthy, should be able to steal a game at some point.
6. A Game 6
Alright, so I'm greedy.
7. A Game
7 Luol Deng
In the Bulls final three games -- all must wins in the playoff push -- Deng appeared to be lost when he wasn't completely disinterested. Despite playing 35 minutes per contest, he averaged just 10.7 points on 40% shooting. In 104 total minutes, he did not block a shot and had just two steals. Call me crazy, but I generally want to see a bit more production from The Six Million Dollar (Per Half-Season) Man.
I don't expect Deng to recapture the magic he showed in the Bulls shocking first-round sweep of the defending champion Miami Heat in 2007 -- for whatever reason, he's no longer the player that averaged 26.3 points on 57.9% shooting in that series. But he needs to be a player. The Bulls infinitesimal chances of shocking the world hinge on Deng being an engaged and productive #3 behind Rose and Noah.
Series prediction: Cavs in 5.5
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