[Thanks to Alex for today's game preview. Thanks to EVERYONE who did a game preview this season! I think it was another successful year of that.
Happy tax day, Bulls fans!
I don't even know what to expect coming into Wednesday's game against the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference (60-21). Will Atlanta rest a starter or two? Or all five, as they did on Sunday against the Wizards? Atlanta has nothing, save pride, to play for tonight. Chicago, on the other hand, is jockeying for playoff positioning with the Toronto Raptors, and looking to nab 50 wins (and 4 in a row) in this most bipolar of seasons. 50 wins feels much more respectable than 49, as far as contenders are concerned. Should we win tonight, we'd sport the superior record to our Neighbors to the North, and would snag the coveted 3-6 match-up against Jason Kidd's position-less Milwaukee Bucks from the jaws of the Drakes. Should we lose, the Bulls' record would be identical to Toronto's, and due to their status as Atlantic Division champs, they'd own the tiebreaker. We'd have a re-match against the Washington Wizards, who last year handled us pretty easily in an ignominious 5-game, 1st-round defeat.
On Monday, we witnessed the Bulls playing at peak capacity, as they put on a pass-heavy offensive clinic in a 113-86 route of the Brooklyn Nets, while hustling their way into steals and second-chance opportunities. Even Pau Gasol looked spry, running away on a fast break for a sweet dunk off a nice Aaron Brooks feed. Here's the thing -- without the injured Kirk and Noah (who are both out again tonight), the Bulls' big man rotation suddenly clicked, with Taj alternating at power forward when Gasol was in, and center when playing alongside Niko. Taj is finally looking like himself, cutting, boxing guys out and moving well around the basket. Mirotic ran all over the place to find openings around the 3-point line, where he connected on 6 of 11 (6 of 11!) from distance, in addition to drawing some clutch free throws (including one from behind the arc) with typical Niko stealth. I have a lot of thoughts on Mirotic's Rookie of the Year situation (if he doesn't nab that, he should at least be strongly considered for 6th Man), too many to delve into here. So I wrote a separate piece about it. In the four games since "The Return 4.0," Derrick Rose has looked better than he has all season, not forcing too much on offense, scoring efficiently, finding the open man (including a couple clutch looks via outlet passes), AND doing crazy old-school Rose stuff around the basket.
Chicago's ambiguous season has left their immediate playoff future a bit murky, but our ceiling remains pretty high. I don't necessarily agree with what Kenny Smith said last night (go to the 6:00 mark), but I do think he's on to something. I'm certainly not scared of the Milwaukee Bucks, even if they did beat us in our final meeting of the regular season (don't forget, we had a fluky-bad shooting night against them). I'm not scared of this year's Wizards, with Nene and Paul Pierce banged-up and a healthier Bulls squad. I'm not scared of this year's Eastern Conference 1-seed, the Atlanta Hawks, especially with their best player fighting through a shoulder injury. There is only one team in our conference that should pose any real threat if our Bulls get their act together.
PG: Jeff Teague - Teague, the Hawks' All-Star motor, has been playing in tandem with second-year back-up point man Dennis Schroder in killer closing line-ups of late. This does occasionally cause the Hawks problems on defense, but having two lightning quick guards who can handle and cut with real efficacy is a boon for the East's premiere offense. Both players are 6'2", which makes covering the shooting guard, typically a Teague assignment, a bit tough. The 26 year-old Teague is having the best season of his career so far, averaging 18.8 points, 8.3 dimes, 3 boards and a terrific 2 steals, while shooting an excellent 86.2% from the free throw line and an excellent-for-a-guard 46% from the field, to go along with a good 34.5% (exactly in line with the league average) from long range. He's a speedster who can shoot, cut, and pass, and over the season as a whole he's right up there with John Wall as the class of the Eastern Conference point guards. If only the other Teague was this good. All that being said, I'm pretty damn stoked about the Derrick Rose we've seen post-meniscus. The biggest upgrade over Aaron Brooks that Rose provides is on defense (Thibs agrees with me), using his still-great quickness, instincts, size (6'3", 190 lbs.) and strength to disrupt his marks, and hedging as little as possible. If Rose is for real, let's see him prove it tonight against Teague The Elder.
Match-Up Edge: Rose
SG: Kyle Korver - Why couldn't Korver have been this great on the 2010-2012 Bulls teams! We could have used this incarnation of him as a starting 2, damn it (we started KEITH BOGANS and MUMMY RIP HAMILTON instead!). The 34 year-old has gotten better every season, to the point where he's the best catch-and-shoot player in the NBA, a lights-out All-Star sniper who's posting otherworldly percentages of 49.3% from 3, 48.7% from the field, and 89.7% from the free-throw line. He's going to come up just short of averaging the NBA's second 50-50-90 shooting season, a feat accomplished by 1996 Steve Kerr, who only averaged 23.4 minutes a game so everybody somehow discounts the achievement when talking about Korver. Damn it, the guy played every game! Shit should count! Korver, come to think of it, isn't even going to hit the 50-40-90 mark. Although only 6 guys in the history of the NBA have done that, to be fair. Korver is averaging 12.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game, but those numbers don't tell the whole story. Korver's unreal shooting dictates the movement of his opposition's defense, pulling everybody along on a string that opens up scoring opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be there for his teammates. But he's no Jimmy Butler.
Match-Up Edge: Butler
SF: DeMarre Carroll - Carroll, as a tall, rangy wing who can shoot and defend (an athletic 3-and-D guy), is going to command double-digit millions this off-season as an unrestricted free agent. At age 28, he is in the undisputed prime of his NBA career, and he should be in line for a significant contract upgrade from the $2.5 million he's pulling in this season. He's a considerably more available option than restricted free agent wing/forwards like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Draymond Green; or player-option free agents like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (the latter of whom are highly unlikely to leave their current teams, though they may opt out to sign richer one-year deals). There is a dearth of players at his position, with Carroll's skill set in the NBA right now at a premium, and he stands to reap the benefits of this market reality. With the Hawks' ownership situation still up in the air, and a bevvy of rotation guys set to become free agents this summer, it's tough to predict what the Hawks (under acting-GM Mike Budenholzer, with Danny Ferry still in exile) will do. The 6'8", 212-pound forward (who can play the 4 in small-ball lineups) is shooting a typically Hawks-ian 39.6% from deep (it's annoying how well all their guys can shoot) and 49.1% from the field, contributing to averages of 12.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.3 steals. Dunleavy will struggle against Carroll's athleticism, so I wouldn't be surprised to see him assigned to Korver and Butler switched onto Carroll for extended stretches.
Match-Up Edge: Carroll
PF: Paul Millsap - Millsap, an absolute steal in free agency two summers ago ($19 million over 2 years for a 2-time All-Star during that span), will be suiting up tonight after all. The 30 year-old Louisiana Tech alum was also an absolute steal for the Utah Jazz in the 2006 draft, staying on the board deep into the second round until the Jazz nabbed him with the 47th overall pick. Millsap has been the Hawks' best player during the Budenholzer Pace and Space Era, using his mass (245 lbs.) to compensate for his vertical shortcomings (as I noted above, he's only 6'8"). He is probably deserving of an All-NBA appearance this season, but the forward spot is loaded as usual. He's averaging 16.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3 assists, 0.9 blocks, and a whopping 1.8 steals. Millsap, too, is a sharpshooting floor-spacer for Atlanta, notching an above-average 35.8% on his 3-point shooting (taking 3 per contest, too, so it's not a small sample size or anything) and converting 64.1% of his looks around the basket. His mid range game is similarly on-point, as he's knocking down 43% of all his shots from 3-10 feet out and 42.2% from 16 feet to 3-point range.
I think our two-man power forward tandem of Gibson and Mirotic will give Millsap and his back-up Pero Antic all that they can handle. But if we're talking about just Millsap vs. Taj straight up, the call is an easy one. Taj is also apparently going to be playing through a shoulder issue of his own tonight (ugh).
Match-Up Edge: Millsap
C: Al Horford - Horford, healthy again after tackling shoulder issues of his own last season, has had a stellar season. His shooting has been more efficient than ever, and his defense is top-notch as usual. Joakim Noah's 6'10" Florida buddy made his third All-Star team and is a candidate for an All-NBA slot. Even though Millsap has been the fulcrum of Atlanta's post-Josh Smith/Joe Johnson resurgence, Horford has a better shot at All-NBA honors, since there's a lack of quality centers who've played a decent amount of games this season. He has been primarily jumping at center this year, and All-NBA selections still require one center for each of the three teams. This year, Horford is logging the lowest minutes average of his career, only 30.6 minutes a game. His career average is 33.7 minutes. Turns out limiting Horford's minutes a bit has done wonders for his durability: he will have played in 76 games on the year after tonight, having played in only 11 in 2011-12 and 25 in 2013-14.
Horford has posted averages of 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists (pretty good for a big guy, if not Noah-level good; his primary passing opportunities stem from movement around the top of the post and pick-and-roll scenarios), 0.9 steals and 1.3 blocks. His per-36 numbers are perhaps more reflective of the season he's been having: 17.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.5 blocks a night. The averages in points and dimes are up significantly over his career numbers of 15.2 buckets and 2.9 assists per. That being said, Horford, like Millsap, lacks size against a true center like the 7'1" Pau Gasol. Though we all know about Pau's shortcomings as a defender (doesn't keep his hands up, is slow to rotate on help D, is too thin to adequately handle bigs with true size down low), I think Pau's brilliant shooting and his undeniable length will mitigate Horford's contributions. Plus, you know, 1.9 blocks a game.
Match-Up Edge: Gasol
Key Bench Players:
Unfortunately for the Hawks, but fortunately for Los Bulls, the Hawks will be without Sefolosha, their second-best wing defender, for the duration of the regular season and playoffs after that Chris Copeland skirmish. It's hard to see the loss of the Swiss baller being a huge blow, since Sefolosha only played 18.8 minutes a game for the Hawks and was more or less a defensive specialist. Budenholzer's Hawks, though, are rife with shooters, even on their bench.
Antic could play, but Mike Scott (Millsap's main back-up) has joined Thabo on Atlanta's DL. Dennis Schroder (averaging 9.8 points and 4.2 assists in only 19.6 minutes, plus 34.5% from 3), shooting guard Kent Bazemore (averaging 5.2 points, 3 rebounds, and 36.9% from 3 in 17.7 minutes), and spotty off-guard Shelvin Mack (racking up 5.5 points and 2.9 assists in 15.5 minutes), are what remains of their core bench personnel. Schroder is effectively their 6th man, and his improvement over the course of the season has been huge for the Hawks' depth. That being said, our bench is better. Mirotic, the dynamite shooting of Aaron Brooks (who has also played more in control with his minutes reduced), Snell-O-Vision and yes, even E'Twaun Moore provide enough supplemental shooting, defense and ball movement to get the job done.
Match-Up Edge: Bulls
The Bulls' Starting 5: Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Taj Gibson, Pau Gasol.
Overall Performance Outlook:
At the end of the day, if our Chicago Bulls don't go deep into these playoffs, we all know who KC Johnson says will take the hit. We need to show we're for real. As Zack de la Rocha so eloquently spewed, "What better place than here? What better time than now?"
Tip at 7:00 CST/8:00 EST on CSN-TV/ESPN AM-1000