If you've been paying attention, I've gone in hard on the Nets this season, calling them frauds and generally disrespecting many aspects of their roster. But that doesn't mean the Nets are awful and destined to lose their first-round series against the Bulls, because the Bulls themselves are pretty average in addition to being banged up. And when it comes down to it, the Nets arguably have the two best players in this series in Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, who could make the Bulls' stint in the playoffs a short one.
Williams has taken a bunch of crap in recent years, whether it was for being a coach killer, being out of shape or just playing terribly. Much of the criticism can certainly be justified, although to be fair, the Nets' star point guard had been battling myriad injuries that made him look much more ordinary compared to when he was one of the NBA's top point guards in Utah.
The bad news for the Bulls is that Williams looks as healthy as ever, something they saw on full display when the two teams met a few weeks ago in Brooklyn. Williams put up 30 points and 10 assists on 9-of-16 shooting in that game, which the Bulls did squeak out 92-90 despite being short-handed. The U of I product took over at times in the fourth quarter, although it should be noted that Jimmy Butler did do a fine job on him in the final minute.
Games like that have been a common occurrence for Williams the past two months. Since the All-Star break, Williams is averaging 22.9 points and 8.0 assists on 48.1 percent shooting and 42.0 percent from three. If we narrow it down to the month of April, the averages are 24.6 points and 8.4 assists on 52.4 percent shooting and 40.8 from three. His performance is a big reason why the Nets went 6-2 in the eight games he played this month.
As for Lopez, he has been one of the best (if not best) offensive centers in the league this year, posting an average of 19.4 points on 52.1 percent shooting. He has been especially good in four games against the Bulls, averaging 22.0 points on 52.9 percent shooting. The Nets' big man did of course pee down his leg at the end of the last game, but not everybody's perfect.
Lopez has his problems on the glass, which are somewhat mitigated because of the presence of Reggie Evans, who gobbles up almost everything in his sight. The problem with having to play Evans of course is the fact that he's a complete zero on the offensive end, which is huge for the Bulls in this series considering his counterpart is Carlos Boozer.
But even with Evans (and Gerald Wallace) providing next to nothing on offense, the Williams/Lopez duo with some Joe Johnson sprinkled in may be enough to beat this Bulls team, especially with it looking more and more likely that Joakim Noah will have very little positive impact on this series.
Not having Noah could be a killer against Lopez, who torched Nazr Mohammed in the early goings of the last meeting. Mohammed did get the better of Lopez in the end, but can the Bulls count on that for long stretches in a seven-game series? While it's true that Lopez has had success against Noah as well this season, I'd obviously feel a lot better having Jo out there rather than Nazr.
Where the Bulls will also miss healthy Noah is his ability to effectively guard pick-and-roll. The great Zach Lowe of Grantland went into great detail on the Bulls' normally elite pick-and-roll defense back in February, discussing how Tom Thibodeau WANTS one of the two guys in the pick-and-roll to end up shooting the ball at the end of it. When the defense is run to perfection, it results in a low-percentage shot.
But with Noah and Taj Gibson hobbled the past month, we've seen this plan of attack fail a bit more often than usual. Noah and Gibson are able to cover so much ground when defending pick-and-roll, with the ability to aggressively show on the ball-handler and then recover to the screener. The same can't be said for Mohammed and Boozer, which has led to far too many open looks of late. Stacey King has made it a point to show how Mohammed and Boozer are often too low when showing on the screen, which allows the ball-handler to dribble into wide open shots at the elbow or sometimes even closer. Yes, the Bulls want the ball-handler to be taking jumpers, but they don't want them to be dribbling into wide open shots. It's a reason why the Bulls are "only" 10th in pick-and-roll defense, per Synergy.
This could be really problematic against Williams and Lopez, who theoretically should be a dynamic pick-and-roll duo. I was surprised to see that the Nets are ranked just 26th in the league in pick-and-roll offense according to Synergy, with Williams being at just 0.76 points per play and Lopez a bit better at 1.05 points per play (still just average though). However, with Williams picking up his play the past few months and the likely absence of Noah for at least a portion of the series, one would have to imagine that the Nets would look to attack the Bulls in pick-and-roll quite a bit.
Some good news for the Bulls is that Gibson is feeling much better and may have his minutes restriction lifted for the series. If that's the case, I would hope to see plenty of Gibson/Boozer frontcourts rather than having to rely on Mohammed TOO much. Mohammed should still be an asset in shorter bursts against Lopez because of his height, but hopefully we won't have to see him out there for longer periods of time.
The Noah injury could wind up being a fatal blow to the Bulls' hopes in this series, as Williams and Lopez have the ability to really exploit the Bulls' defense without him. It's up to Thibs and the rest of the team to figure out a way to slow Williams and Lopez, although the best we may have to hope for is that those two get theirs while the rest of the Nets do very little. That's how the Bulls were able to win that last matchup on April 4, and it may have to happen that way again if the Bulls are to win this series.