The odds are actually in the Bulls' favor when they match up with the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. The Bulls grabbed the fourth seed after losing out on the No. 3 spot to the Toronto Raptors, while the Wizards squared away the fifth seed in the East.
Chicago is in the postseason for a sixth straight year and for the second time without point guard Derrick Rose because of lingering knee issues. The Bulls got by without Rose in the first round last season, using a full seven-game series to dispose of the Brooklyn Nets, but the eventual two-time NBA champion Miami Heat bounced the Bulls in five games in the East semifinals.
Now the Bulls are taking on a young and inexperienced Wizards team that won two of three meetings against them in the regular season. The Wizards have to play the first two games in the Windy City, where they are just 5-15 in the last 20 games.
Game 1 of this series is set for Sunday night at the United Center.
Bulls reserve forward and sometimes starter Taj Gibson isn't taking the Wizards lightly.
"The Wizards are a tough team, tough, tough team," said 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."
Chicago won an Eastern Conference-best 36 games (36-16) since Jan. 1 and won seven in a row before closing out the season with two losses in three tries. It finished tops in the NBA in opponents' scoring (93.7 ppg) and shooting percentage (43.2). The Bulls have ranked no lower than third in opponents' scoring in head coach Tom Thibodeau's four seasons at the helm.
Thibodeau talked about the upcoming series with the Wizards.
"It's the playoffs," Thibodeau said. "It's how well you know your opponent, how well you're playing, being as sharp as possible, and knowing most often these games come down to one or two possessions."
While the Bulls have playoff cache, having been to the dance nine times in the last 10 years, Washington is wet behind the ears when it comes to recent postseason appearances. It has returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08, when it lost in six games to a young LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Wizards are facing the Bulls for the third time in the postseason, as they were swept 3-0 back in the first round of the 1997 playoffs and won a best-of- seven series 4-2 in 2005.
"I feel like we like our chances against anybody if we play the right way," said Wizards guard Wall, who averaged 20.7 points, 8.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds in three games versus the Bulls this season. "We just have to go out there and play the way we know how to play, and play the defense we're capable of playing. We're here and we're focused and will try to leave a statement and see where it takes us."
Wall said the team focused on rest and film study for the Bulls and expects different coverages from the Bulls than in the regular season. Wall said one of the goals was making the playoffs and now wants to see how far it goes. He averaged 18.5 points and 9.3 assists in 30 games after the All-Star break.
Washington took advantage of a weaker Eastern Conference to reach the playoffs and went 19-11 after the break. The Wizards closed the regular season with four straight wins and eight in the last 11 games.
Both the Bulls and Wizards played well against teams from the East, as Chicago had a 35-17 mark and Washington posted a 33-19 record. The Bulls were 27-14 at home and the Wizards were 22-19 both at home and on the road.
BACKCOURT: Like many NBA players this spring, Wall will make his postseason debut and led the Wizards with 19.3 points, 8.8 assists and 1.8 steals. His 8.8 assists were an Eastern Conference-best, but he also led the East with 3.6 turnovers. Now is not the time for Wall to lose possession, otherwise the series will be over before the Wizards know it. An improved jump shot and a supporting cast has enabled Wall to become a better player and the All-Star said he slowed down his game. Game 1 might be quick at first, but Wall should adjust. Beal, meanwhile, joined the Wizards a few years after Wall and posted 17.1 points this season -- second on the team. The young backcourt duo of Wall and Beal holds the advantage in this matchup.
Bulls guards Kirk Hinrich was thrust under the spotlight in last year's playoffs as Rose's replacement and posted just 9.1 points and 3.9 assists this season. Hinrich is a student of the game and a cerebral player. He isn't as athletic as his counterparts, but can still get everyone involved. Guard Jimmy Butler is a fan favorite and scored 13.1 ppg with a team-best 1.9 steals. Butler's not a scorer like Carmelo Anthony. but averaged 13.6 points in his last five games of the regular season. It will be an interesting defensive matchup for Butler against Washington's guards.
FRONTCOURT: Wizards center Marcin Gortat said during the season the NBA should let players duke it out if a scuffle ensues. While that will never happen under NBA rules, Gortat will find himself in a fight with Bulls fiery and tempestuous center Joakim Noah. The Gortat-Noah matchup is the most intriguing in this series. Gortat, who led the team with 37 double-doubles, really improved his game this season and especially down the stretch, and finished with 13.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. His presence down low will make a difference for the Wizards. Wizards forwards Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker compliment what head coach Randy Wittman likes to do inside. Ariza was third on the team with 14.4 ppg and is a threat from 3-point range, making 40.7 percent beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, Noah carries the emotional spirit of the Bulls and has played in 43 career playoff games. He averaged 12.6 points and led the Bulls with 11.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. Noah played an integral part for Chicago's top defense, but also averaged a career-high 5.4 assists. For a big man to distribute the ball at such a productive rate can go a long way. Noah led the Bulls with 431 total assists. Sam Lacey averaged 5.7 apg back in 1979-80. Noah likes to get into the heads of opposing players and can back it up as evidenced by his four triple-doubles and 26 games of at least 10 points, 10 boards and five assists. Carlos Boozer (13.7 points, 8.3 rebounds) and Mike Dunleavy (11.3 points, 4.2 rebounds) match up well with Ariza and Booker.
BENCH: Wizards power forward Nene should be at full strength for this series to bang bodies with Noah, Boozer and anyone else the Bulls roll out. Nene played just 53 games because of injury and made the most of his time by averaging 14.2 points and 5.5 rebounds. The Wizards went 30-23 with Nene in the lineup and can give the Bulls trouble inside with Gortat and Ariza draining balls from outside. The Wizards averaged 100.7 points and 42.4 rebounds per game with Nene on the floor, so it makes a difference. Drew Gooden, Andre Miller and Martell Webster will come off the bench, while Webster gave a steady effort with 9.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 78 games. Webster's much like Ariza: a big man who can shoot from outside.
Bulls guard D.J. Augustin is good enough to start, but serves as a valuable asset off the bench for Chicago. Augustin has limited playoff experience (23 games) and has led the Bulls in scoring off the bench on several occasions. Augustin averaged 14.9 points this season. Gibson is the other valued piece to the Chicago bench and is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Gibson had 13.0 points and 6.8 rebounds, and both he and Dunleavy played all 82 games. Gibson is a solid defender, too, and will defend any player on the floor.
COACHING: For the real estate world, it's all about location, location, location. For the Bulls under Thibodeau, it's about defense, defense, defense. Thibodeau is a no-nonsense coach who teaches hard work and determination, and his players bought in immediately. Dating back to 2003-04, Thibodeau's teams have ranked first or second in opponents' field goal percentage nine out of the 11 seasons and inside the top 10 each time. He owns a career record of 205-107 in four years and is hoping this one will pay off. Thibodeau has the players and heart to make a deep run and probably will because the Bulls match up well with anybody in the East, especially Miami and Central rival Indiana.
Wittman guided a young and promising Wizards team to the postseason, and this may be the last stop. If that's the case, Wittman should have nothing to be ashamed of for this past season and what's in store for the future. His guard play was exceptional and it complimented bigs Gortat and Ariza. Wittman can only rely on Wall and Beal so much.
PREDICTION: Throw out all regular season results because they're pointless in the playoffs. Yes, the Wizards did win season series from the Bulls by a 2-1 count, but this is the playoffs. It's win or go home. Washington may squeeze out a win at home in this series and that's it. The Wizards will be in store for a culture shock in the first two games at the Madhouse on Madison, and that will be enough for Chicago to move on to the second round. Noah will put the Bulls on his back for this playoff run and it starts by eliminating the young and inexperienced Wizards.
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