Saturday, April 16, 2011Posted: 10:30 AM
By Aggrey Sam
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.
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.