Bulls should cruise past Pacers in opening round

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Bulls should cruise past Pacers in opening round

Saturday, April 16, 2011Posted: 10:30 AM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

Its finally time. Time to tell whether, after a 62-win regular season that resulted in the leagues top overall seed in the postseason, the Bulls championship aspirations are reality or a figment of their (and an increasingly growing fan bases) imaginations.

Chicagos first-round series against the Pacers might not seem like much of a test after racking up a 3-1 record during the seasonthe lone loss, an overtime defeat in Indiana with Carlos Boozer out of the lineup, was the Bulls sole Central Division setback of the seasonbut it can be used as a measuring stick for the future.

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Such issues as Joakim Noahs return to form, Boozer and Noahs on-court chemistry, the extent of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeaus playoff rotation, the level to which Derrick Rose raises his game and whether Luol Dengs quietly stellar campaign continues in the postseason are all things to watch.

But perhaps the most pressing item on the agenda, however, is the question of the Bulls playoff experience.

There are key Bulls who have made deep postseason runs, such as veteran Kurt Thomas and the former Utah trio of Boozer, Ronnie Brewer and Kyle Korver, but the only player on the team who has won a championship is seldom-used reserve forward Brian Scalabrine, who will likely be inactive for games.

While Deng has been to the second round and both Rose and Noah played major roles in the Bulls classic first-round series against the Celtics two years agoTaj Gibson has also had a taste of the playoffs from his experience as a rookie starter in last springs first-round series against Clevelandthis Bulls team isnt exactly teeming with grizzled vets, who have been through the battles that forge reputations in this league.

But although the Bulls freely acknowledge they havent proved anything yet, this squad has carried themselves with the end in mind all season. In terms of their preparation, maturitylocker-room issues and off-court drama isnt going on unreported by the media, they simply dont existand ability to bounce back from losses, the Bulls are a throwback to another era, in which basketball was just about the game and nothing else.

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Unfortunately for their first-round opponent, Indiana, the Bulls have also displayed another qualityholding grudgesthat has served them well. From the sting of losing their last matchup to the Pacers to Danny Grangers inflammatory comments (whether or not the Bulls admit to it), not to mention simply being motivated for the playoffs in general, its unlikely the Pacers even come close to testing the Bulls' mettle in the opening round. Heres a closer look at the series:

Point guard: Derrick Rose vs. Darren Collison

Collison is a solid young player, but this is almost unfair. The likely league MVP will overpower his second-year counterpart and while Granger told reporters the Bulls go as Rose goes, the Pacers only win against Chicago during the series was when the All-Star point guard matched his career-high, scoring 42 points. Look for Rose to take his game to another level, not only dominating as a scorer, but consciously involving his teammates to prove Chicago isnt a one-man show.

Shooting guard: Keith Bogans vs. Paul George

Bogans has been much maligned by Bulls fans all seasonand its possible that Roses joking comments about utilizing President Barack Obama as the teams starting shooting guard at Navy Pier Thursday didnt helpbut hes played his role expertly, hitting timely three-pointers and playing tough defense, as well as facilitating ball movement. While almost nobody around the league would take Bogans over the rookie George in the future, the veterans physicality will be important against a bruising Indiana squad. George has been a starter for the Pacers since interim head coach Frank Vogel took over and shows flashes of potential occasionally, but its unlikely he has much of an impact in the series.

Small forward: Luol Deng vs. Danny Granger

Deng, in particular, claimed to not be personally motivated by Grangers comments, but seeing as the two play the same position, its impossible that he wasnt at least slightly affected. The native of the Sudan actually defends Granger well, forcing him to his off hand and luring him into taking difficult, contested jumpers, while putting pressure on Indianas leading scorer on the other end of the floor with his versatility. Expect Deng, the Bulls workhorse, defensive stopper and glue guy, to have a strong series individually.

Power forward: Carlos Boozer vs. Tyler Hansbrough

Hansbrough stepped up his game since former head coach Jim OBriens firinga day after losing to the Bulls at the United Centerand played extremely well in the Pacers March win, in which Boozer didnt suit up. However, while Boozer may not be the most defensively-inclined player, his bulk, rebounding prowess and ability to draw fouls will mitigate some of his second-year counterparts strengths. Also, theres the whole Duke-North Carolina thing (Boozer went to Duke, Hansbrough is a North Carolina graduate), too, so expect Boozers college pride to kick in for some extra motivation.

Center: Joakim Noah vs. Roy Hibbert

This is perhaps the most intriguing positional matchup, as the two young pivots are two of the leagues best at their position, but bring different strengths to the table. Noah, who is still recovering from various ailments, thrives on his high activity level, rebounding, defense and running the floor, while the 7-foot-2 Hibbert uses his size, shooting tough and low-post game to be effective. If the Bulls can successfully play at a fast pace, Noahs agility should give Hibbert problems, but for that to happen, Noah must get back to his dominant ways on the boards.

Bench:

Chicago (Taj Gibson, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Kurt Thomas, Omer Asik) vs. Indiana (Mike Dunleavy, Josh McRoberts, Jeff Foster, Brandon Rush, A.J. Price)

Indiana actually has some solid reserves, especially in the frontcourt, but the Bulls depth and consistency should overwhelm the Pacers. More significant is whether Thibodeau decides to trim his rotation in the playoffsthe rookie Asik could be a victim, as Thomas experience and physical nature should serve the Bulls well in the postseasonbut regardless, its nice to have options. If the Bench Mob can replicate what theyve done all season, the Bulls will have a major edge.

Coach: Tom Thibodeau vs. Frank Vogel

Both coaches are in their first season at the helmVogel got the job in the middle of the campaignbut the differences in experience are huge. Although the Pacers definitely responded better to Vogel than OBrien, Thibodeaus postseason experience after 20 years as an NBA assistant have him leaps and bounds ahead of the virtual novice on the opposing sideline. Its possible that Indiana plays as if they have nothing to lose and challenges the Bulls, but Thibodeaus intensity and extensive preparation wont leave much to chance.

Prediction: Bulls, 4-0

Many observers believe the Pacers could steal a game, but the focus of this Bulls team has been incredible all season and theres no reason to expect that to change now. Rose should take his game to another level, his teammates, as usual, will follow his lead and the squads single-minded mentality will reap benefits. Barring a complete catastrophe in a single game, it should be smooth sailing for Chicago.

Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.

Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

Nikola Mirotic reflects on pump fakes, maddening March, future in Chicago

If there's a more maddening player in the Eastern Conference than Nikola Mirotic, that player's psychologist should be getting paid double considering Bulls fans have been talking to themselves about Mirotic so much over the past three years.

And as they've reached no conclusion on Mirotic, along with many other sage minds, only one thing is for certain: March is his month.

Meaning it's the month where it becomes maddening to watch him play and probably equally as maddening for his teammates who've watched his inconsistencies for the better part of four months or so.

Averaging 16.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in 41 career March games, it's the only full month where Mirotic averages in double figures for his career—meaning there's a lot of inconsistencies to wade through to get to the proverbial pot of gold.

In 2014-15, he emerged as the NBA's best fourth-quarter scorer that month when the Bulls were without both Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. Last season, he came back fresh after an appendectomy took a big chunk of his year.

This year, there's no big macro reason. He's just playing definitively, making quick movements and it's paying off as his two best scoring games took place within a four-day span (28 against both Detroit and Milwaukee).

"Right now, you see I'm shooting without hesitation," Mirotic said to CSNChicago.com. "Just catch and shooting. It's a great feeling."

No word on whether Mirotic hears the fans in the arena or the twitterverse screaming for him to ditch the pump fake that he actually admits it got in his head, but this season has been a roller coaster of the most dramatic kind, as the Bulls are still vying for playoff positioning with eight games remaining in the regular season.

"Sometimes, especially when I'm reading you guys (media), Niko pump fake, pump fake," Mirotic said with a smile. "Okay, no more pump fakes, just fire that ball. I'm laughing because you guys are (right)…that's true. You guys want me to shoot. It doesn't look good when you pump fake every time you have a wide-open shot."

Being penciled in as a training camp starter due to the need for floor spacing, Taj Gibson quickly outplayed Mirotic for the power forward spot. Then Mirotic's up and down, down and up, season began.

Kind of like his pump fake that often drew more defensive attention for it's predictability than effectiveness, stability has been hard to find for a player many have been waiting on since the day he was drafted in 2011.

"I know the defenses are ready for my pump fake so now just like, shoot the ball," Mirotic said. "I've been spending a lot of hours working on my shot before practice, after practice, trying to catch the feeling."

Better late than never or too late?

That's the question surrounding Mirotic and he knows it, being aware of his status as a restricted free-agent-to-be, along with his trade value a month ago being so low, the Bulls could only get a future second-round pick for him from teams.

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With the Bulls having so many questions going into the future, who knows if they want to go through the up-and-down, down-and-up cycle with a talented player yet again, with a big-time financial commitment.

In a sense, Mirotic knows he's left plenty on the table as far as his play through the years and seems to be content with playing with a sense of freedom as the season concludes, whether he's back with the Bulls or not for next year and beyond.

"I just wanna leave a good impression for the Bulls," Mirotic said. "Whatever decision they make. It's been a pleasure. A lot of people dream to be here, I was one of those guys when I was in Europe. I was really like, I wanna go there and play for the Bulls. The history they have. For me, it's a dream come true. Whatever decision they make, I make, whatever. I don't know. The years here have been great. I know it's been up and down. It's been a pleasure and I just wanna finish right."

Jimmy Butler, Bulls prep for stretch run with realistic eye on the postseason

Jimmy Butler, Bulls prep for stretch run with realistic eye on the postseason

The Bulls are focused on their own basketball these days, and in winning two of three they may have righted a ship that was headed toward another playoff miss.

But with just eight games remaining in the regular season they're also aware of where they stand in a closely knit Eastern Conference. As 

Entering Tuesday night the Bulls sit one-half game behind the Miami Heat for the No. 8 seed in the conference, while just 3.5 games separate the fifth-seeded Hawks and tenth-seeded Hornets.

With the Bulls in the middle of so much movement that's bound to change a half dozen times between now and April 12, Fred Hoiberg and his team admit they're paying attention to what the rest of the league is doing.

"You almost have to this time of the year with all the outlets, being able to watch every game with (NBA) League Pass," Hoiberg said at Tuesday's practice. "You do keep an eye on what other teams are doing. But at the same time we talk every day about how it's up to us. We've got to go out and play with purpose, play with energy every time we step on the floor, and give ourslves a chance to win."

The Bulls have done just that lately. 

An ugly skid in which they lost eight of 10 in March saw them fall out of the East playoff race, but crucial wins over the Pistons and Bucks - albeit with an ugly home loss to Philadelphia - have the Bulls back in solid playoff positioning.

Though they trail the Heat for that No. 8 spot, the Bulls hold the tiebreaker over Miami (2-1 season series advantage) and have a far easier remaining schedule down the stretch. In fact, the Bulls' remaining opponents have a combined win percentage of .390, the easiest remaining path in the East. It's different in Miami, where Erik Spoelstra's group has the third most difficult remaining stretch in the East.

Throw in injuries to Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside and it's looking likely that the Bulls will catch Dwyane Wade's old team by season's end. The Bulls' only two games against teams with winning records are the Cavaliers (8-10 since February began) and the Atlanta Hawks (losers of seven in a row).

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After that the Bulls get bottom feeders in New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Orlando and Brooklyn twice. Then again, the Bulls have had issues against some of those teams, as they tout a 7-4 record against those squads (with losses to New York twice, Philadelphia and Orlando).

With Wade out of the lineup the rest of the year the backcourt tandem of Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo has picked up the slack. Rondo is looking more like the player who signed a two-year, $30 million deal this past offseason, averaging 12.4 points on 51 percent shooting and 7.4 assists in 31.1 minutes since being moved back to the starting lineup on March 13.

"I just try to look at what we're doing and control what we can control," Rajon Rondo said. "We're not playing other teams that we're racing against so we got 8 left and we want to take advantage of all eight.

"I would love to get back to the playoffs. That's the goal. That was the goal when I came here was to make the playoffs, nothing else. So we got a little bit more work to do.

Jimmy Butler claimed he hasn't been focused on what other teams around the Bulls are doing, but knows that making the playoffs has added value. Though the Bulls would likely be the No. 8 and seed and face either the Celtics or Cavaliers, with so many young players on the roster that experience can pay dividends down the line.

"You get to see how important every possession is, the way you've got to lock in, the challenge of playing the same team the possibility of seven times, it just shows the mental growth that you're gonna have to withstand and hold through a seven-game series," Butler said. "It's a lot harder than the regular season, I'll tell you that much."