The Chicago Bulls enter the postseason as a team in search of a groove. The last time the Bulls truly found their stride was back in December when they beat Memphis, Portland, Washington and Toronto to help string 10 wins over 11 games. This was the healthiest the Bulls appeared to be all season and the high-point in fan optimism.
The Bulls haven't won more than four games in a row since, with the main storylines around the team being familiar: injuries and fatigue. But there's reason to believe the team team could be on the brink of finding a rhythm once again. What better way to get rolling than by starting the playoffs with a series against our neighbors to the north, the Milwaukee Bucks?
This is the main reason I was hoping for the No. 3 seed (and the potential second round matchup with the Cavs that comes with it) rather than having to go through Washington and then Atlanta. The Bulls simply haven't been healthy enough to establish the cohesion you need to win the playoffs. Against the Bucks, Chicago will have a noticeable edge in size, experience and -- dare I say -- talent, which should lend itself to the betterment of the team's long-term chances.
The Bulls enter the playoffs as winners of four in a row. Derrick Rose is back, Nikola Mirotic is more effective than ever and neither Pau Gasol or Jimmy Butler looks run down quite yet. A series with the Bucks won't be a cakewalk -- Milwaukee finished the regular season No. 2 in defensive efficiency -- but it's still a matchup the Bulls should win.
Of course, we thought that the same thing a year ago before D.J. Augustin shot 27 percent from the field and Randy Wittman out-coached Tom Thibodeau. No one is taking anything for granted here. With that in mind, here's four things the Bulls need to do to advance in the NBA playoffs.
1. Establish Pau this series -- because he may be sitting on the bench in the next one
The second Bulls-Bucks game of the season happened to be the most productive night of Pau Gasol's career. The 34-year-old scored 20 points in the first quarter on his way to a career-best 46 points and 18 rebounds. The Bucks threw a variety of defenders at Gasol but none of them could stop him.
Larry Sanders isn't walking through that door. Gasol should have a size and/or skill advantage on whomever Jason Kidd throws at him. With that in mind, it wouldn't be the worst idea to ride Gasol to victory in this opening series.
The playoffs have a way of forcing some hard choices, and it's likely that the Bulls will have to be less reliant on Gasol if they advance. Gasol might think he wants all of the minutes through the postseason right now, but wait until he's trying to box out Tristan Thompson next round. It's going to be a bloodbath.
The point is that going to Gasol a bunch in this opening series will keep his confidence high and might help him better reconcile with the fact that there's better options against Cleveland. Gasol's sensitive ego is one storyline no one has wanted to talk about around the team this season, but it's likely the reason he's been starting alongside Joakim Noah all year and closing games when there's evidence that neither decision is the best way to maximize the efficiency of the team's lineups.
You could say that Pau Gasol is a bit of a sensitive thug in need of a hug. Go to him early and often against Milwaukee, then give most of his minutes to Mirotic against Cleveland. You have to build him up before you can tear him down.
2. Own the offensive glass
The strength of Milwaukee lies in their wealth of talented wings. In Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and even wing-sized point guard Michael Carter-Williams, the Bucks have long athletes capable of switching on defense and fortifying the perimeter as well as any team in the league. The place their vulnerable is on the inside, and that's where the Bulls need to leverage their size advantage for success.
The Bulls finished the regular season at No. 5 in offensive rebounding percentage. The Bucks were No. 24 in defensive rebounding percentage. Even with Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson looking a little off all season, they should still be able to control the glass against Zaza Pachulia, Ersan Ilyasova and John Henson. Pachulia just isn't mobile enough to keep up with Noah and Gibson and Ilyasova and Henson don't have the strength.
Offensive rebounding has always been one of the defining characteristics of Thibodeau's Bulls. Might as well keep going back to the well until it's dry.
3. Don't let the Bucks get run outs
If the Bulls can keep this series in the half court, they should win. Trouble might come if Chicago starts missing a bunch of bad threes and allows Milwaukee to get in transition.
The Bucks were No. 7 in the league in transition points this season, scoring 1.15 points per possession when they were able to get out and run. Giannis, in particular, is the type athletic marvel that thrives when the game is going up and down. He scored 300 points in transition this year, which puts him No. 13 in the league. Middleton was good too, ranking No. 35 in points scored in transition.
Basically, the last thing you want to see is Giannis go the length of the floor in two dribbles and the crowd explode:
So, how do you prevent run outs? Well, don't jack bad threes. Don't have careless turnovers. I'm not naming names here but ... yeah.
4. Adjust to Jason Kidd's adjustments
My friend Jonathan Tjarks believes Jason Kidd might be the best coach in the NBA. He won a series as the lower seeded last season with a Nets group that wasn't nearly this athletic and didn't defend close to as well. Kidd vs. Thibodeau might seem like a wash in favor of Thibs but I'm not really sure if that's the case. If anything, it'll be a good test of Thibs' flexibility.
Jason Kidd loves to adjust. Remember, he played Paul Pierce as a small ball four in Brooklyn when Pierce hadn't done that his entire career. Think back to the beginning of this season when Kidd experimented with Giannis at point guard to get him comfortable pushing the ball in transition. Jason Kidd will have a few tricks up his sleeve, so Thibodeau must counter with his own.
I was at the last Bulls-Bucks game of this season, a 95-91 Bucks win in Milwaukee. In that game, Kidd's game plan was clear: Michael Carter-Williams ran down the left side of the court and posted up Aaron Brooks almost every possession. It worked: Carter-Williams scored 15 points in 14 minutes in the first half, and there was nothing AB could do about it.
Thibs' adjustment? Give more tick to the bigger E'Twaun Moore. Carter-Williams only scored six points in 19 minutes in the second half.
That's the type of back-and-forth a best of seven series brings out from the coaches. Thibodeau has been at the center of the season all year long: both his tactical ability and the the way he paces the team toward the postseason. Out-dueling Kidd would be a good sign for him moving forward, because we know the Cavs will bring their own set of challenges.