The Chicago Bulls have had a rough couple of seasons, both physically and mentally. This year, Derrick Rose (finally) made #TheReturn, but just for a few months before he suffered yet another season-ending injury. Some analysts criticized the Bulls for not tanking the season to preserve the health that remains on the team and because, well, they had no shot at the championship, right? Well, the Bulls proved us wrong again, finishing the season as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. And with the East as weak as it has been this season, they could make it deeper than most expect them to go.
On the other hand, the Washington Wizards are a young, spirited squad who have proven to have a powerful offensive game. With the talents of John Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt, I wouldn't count the Wizards out of any Eastern Conference Championship discussions. Their inexperience may rattle them at first, but their resilience could prevail.
Let's break this close matchup down.
Chicago Bulls (4)
Championship Odds: 3.0%
Washington Wizards (5)
Championship Odds: 1.3%
Regular Season Series - Wizards 2, Bulls 1
The teams faced off three times this year (twice in Washington), with each team taking a blowout win and the Wizards winning a close one by three points. Although the Wizards took the regular season series, it's unlikely the regular season matchups will be a good predictor for the playoffs. Both of Washington’s wins were in January, when the Bulls were shuffling their pieces after trading their All-Star player Luol Deng at the start of the month. Chicago was still under .500 then, but since the All-Star break, the Bulls have had a record of 21-9. In their most recent game in April, the Bulls dominated the Wizards by 18 points in Washington.
During the two games in January, four of the Wizards five starters scored in double figures. John Wall led the way with 23 points in the first game, and Nene Hilario scored 19 in the second. One of Chicago’s challenges will be defending Washington’s backcourt: Wall and Bradley Beal. In each of the three regular season games, Wall and Beal have combined to score over 30 points and 10 assists, and Chicago has shown no answer. In the first two games that Chicago lost, Joakim Noah scored in the single digits, and in the game the Bulls won, he scored 21. If the Wizards can contain Noah, they have a shot in stealing this series.
How the Bulls Can Win
Chicago needs to score points. It’s no secret that their biggest issue this season (or the past couple seasons for that matter) has been scoring. Their offense ranks 28th in the league and two of their leading scorers are D.J. Augustin and Taj Gibson, both bench players. In order for Chicago to win, they must find a consistent way to score points. In the regular season finale, the Bulls went to overtime with the Charlotte Bobcats. Chicago didn’t score in the final 2:27 seconds of the fourth quarter, and didn’t score a field goal until there were 30 seconds left in the extra period. It was like watching a freshman squad trying to score against the varsity team.
The Bulls have thrived in 2014 in spite of their offensive troubles because their defense ranks among the best in the league. The Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler defensive duo can frustrate teams like the Miami Heat, so Washington’s backcourt will need to adjust. The Bulls will also have a leg-up inside, with the forces of Noah, Carlos Boozer and Gibson. As long as the Bulls keep Noah out of foul trouble and minimize the impact of Marcin Gortat and Hilario, they should win the frontcourt matchup.
Bulls Player to Watch - D.J. Augustin
The Bulls know what they can expect offensively from most of their roster. Noah averages a double-double (12.6 points per game and 11.3 rebounds per game), and Boozer averages 13.7 points per game, but what they lack is a player who can make an impact driving to the basket and shooting from the outside. In an ideal world, that player would be Derrick Rose. But Chicago isn’t so lucky. Last year, Nate Robinson was the edge they needed to get past the Nets in the first round. This year, they need D.J. Augustin to step up. In the three games against the Wizards this season, Augustin scored 16, 7 and 25, respectively. Those 25 points were scored during Chicago’s only win. If Augustin can put pressure on Washington’s defense, it will open up more opportunities for Noah and Boozer inside.
How the Wizards Can Win
In order for the Wizards to take this series, they need to lock down their defense and take advantage of the Bulls’ ability to fall into long scoring droughts. The Wizards have plenty of scoring on their team, with Beal, Wall, Trevor Ariza, Hilario, Gortat and reserve Martell Webster all proving to be consistent on the offense. If they can widen the lead when the Bulls can’t score, the Wizards can be lethal. Washington should also consider going inside more. The Bulls are anything but a deep team, so getting Noah, Boozer or Gibson in foul trouble will really put Chicago in a tough spot.
Wizards Player to Watch - Marcin Gortat
Gortat is going to be the x-factor for the Wizards. Noah will dominate the frontcourt, but if Gortat can contain him and not let Noah get away with 20-20 each game, the Wizards will be in a good position to win. With Hilario recently returning from an injury, Gortat has extra pressure on his shoulders. He averages 13.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, but where Noah beats him is 5.4 assists versus Gortat’s 1.7. In addition, because the Bulls’ offense is so poor, they benefit greatly on offensive rebounds. If Gortat can limit the number of offensive rebounds Chicago gets, he can exacerbate Chicago’s scoring difficulties.
At the end of the day, Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau is the best player on the court. He knows what the Bulls need to do defensively to contain the Wizards and you can be sure that Thibodeau's frustration after the loss to the Bobcats in the season finale has his team motivated to start the postseason strong. The Bulls have had scoring issues for a few seasons now and they know how to handle it. They have experience on their team and while the Wizards have proven to be a well-rounded, energetic team, they are young and inexperienced on the playoff court. Noah has shown that he can carry the Bulls on his back through pure, unadulterated will.
According to our algorithms: Bulls in 7
My final prediction: Bulls in 6