Despite falling to Portland, the Bulls clinched a postseason berth Friday night by virtue of New York's loss to Phoenix later in the evening.
However, with 10 games remaining in the regular season, playoff matchups in the muddled Eastern Conference are still up in the air. Currently a game behind Toronto, the Bulls' stated goal is seizing third place in the East.
But Brooklyn is only a game and a half behind the Bulls, with Washington the same distance behind the Nets, and since seventh-place Charlotte lurks two-and-a-half games behind the Wizards, it renders any strategic positioning moot, as even a brief swoon, coupled by a rival's winning streak, could result in a first-round matchup with one of the top two teams in the conference. Speaking of Indiana and Miami, the Pacers presently maintain a precarious two-game lead over the Heat, while on the other end of the spectrum, the Hawks have a two-game lead over the Knicks in the race for eighth.
Getting back to the Bulls, the desire for home-court advantage is a given, but though the players and coaches won't ever declare a preference for an opening-round series, taking on the inexperienced Wizards, even with their explosive young backcourt of All-Star point guard John Wall and second-year sharpshooter Bradley Beal, is privately considered a more ideal matchup than a veteran Brooklyn team, which has found its rhythm in the second half of the season behind first-year head coach Jason Kidd after a rough start to the campaign. These aren't the Nets of last season, which the injury-riddled Bulls defeated in a memorable seven games, as the addition of future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett — who is expected to be fresher for the postseason after missing time due to injuries — have given the club some needed toughness. Despite the absence of sidelined All-Star center Brook Lopez, Brooklyn's blend of proven shot-makers, an improved defensive presence and a small-ball, dual-point guard attack that's hard to guard has earned the respect of the league.
Still, the Bulls would likely be favored against the Nets, and while Tom Thibodeau would cringe at this look-ahead approach, his team's best-case scenario for the second round would be facing Indiana. The Pacers still have time to sort out the chemistry and offensive issues they've been experiencing, but based on playing a similar style, the Bulls would be better served by this matchup than playing the Heat, despite their track record of regular-season success against Miami, which has been dealing with its own struggles as of late.